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Inside the Orioles’ new efforts to unlock Cedric Mullins and their speedy youngsters on the bases

Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins make their way between fields during practice at the Ed Smith Stadium complex February 18, 2020.
Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins make their way between fields during practice at the Ed Smith Stadium complex February 18, 2020. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

SARASOTA, FLA. — On the first day of workouts for position players, the Orioles filed one-by-one in front of a set of high-speed cameras to record slow-motion video of their breaks off a base. There’s new work during batting practice designed to better simulate in-game situations, and they’re already learning how to better study opponent’s tendencies to give themselves an edge on the base paths.

Everywhere you look at Orioles camp, the efforts to improve an area the 2019 team wanted to be aggressive and productive — but too often ran into outs and hurt themselves — are evident.

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They still have their fair share of mashers, but as a wave of speedy young players looks to establish itself in the big leagues, the Orioles see a way to start influencing the game more in an old-fashioned way.

Baltimore Orioles prospects Grayson Rodriguez and Blaine Knight bought travel trailers to live in while on the road.

“I think it all starts with the skip, with [manager Brandon] Hyde,” said new first base coach Anthony Sanders said, who’s spearheading a lot of the base running work this year.

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“Last year in spring training, things went really well here,” Sanders said. “They pushed the envelope and were really aggressive on the bases and put pressure on the defense, and that’s all I know right there — causing havoc on the base paths. To have his blessing on that makes my job easier. But the instincts, and some of the stuff we’re trying to focus on, some game-awareness stuff, we’re just trying to educate these guys with all the information that’s out there now and to simplify it for them.”

The 2019 Orioles featured Jonathan Villar and his 40 stolen bases, but as a team they ranked fourth in the majors with 58 outs on the bases — not including pickoffs or caught stealings — though their 18 pickoffs were third-most. Their 74% stolen base rate was right near the league average, though without Villar’s contributions, that drops to 67.8%.

Still, there was speed on the team. According to MLB’s Statcast data from baseballsavant.com, shortstop Richie Martin was 21st out of 600 major leaguers with at least five representative runs with an average sprint speed of 29.5 feet per second. Cedric Mullins and Austin Hays were also in the top 100. And the Orioles are trying to get them all running.

Nowhere has that been more evident early in spring than with Mullins. He’s always been a speed threat in the minors, but he isn’t passing up an opportunity to run as he looks to rebuild his reputation in the organization’s eyes after a nightmare 2019 that began in the majors and ended at Double-A Bowie.

Mullins reached base in each of his first four spring games, on two singles and two walks. He stole second after each of the first three instances, and advanced easily on a wild pitch in the fourth in Tuesday’s split-squad loss at the Boston Red Sox.

“I just want Cedric to be aggressive," Hyde said. "I want him to come out of his shell. I want him to play with confidence and so far he’s done that.”

There might be any number of ways that Mullins and the rest of the speedy Orioles get an edge this spring, but both Mullins and Sanders believe the early success is built on what will be the foundation of whatever benefit comes next: communication.

“They’ve helped me develop a thought process when I’m on the bases,” Mullins said. “How can I get to second base? How can I advance 90 feet, in any sense, whether that be a delayed steal, a stolen base, reading the ball in the dirt? Them continuously putting that in my head throughout the game helps me be aware of what’s going on.”

Sanders said: “I’m waiting for the first baseman to get over there and tell on me for talking to him, telling him what’s going on. The communication has been good. The kids are here to learn, and everyone is here to get better.”

That in-game preparation is building on what’s been weeks of work that the base runners are trying to build on. The first-day filming under the cameras, which yielded slow-motion video of their every motion as they go from standing to sprinting, set that tone early. Sanders also noted how much openness and collaboration there is between the coaching staff and the team’s new strength and conditioning staff, an area he’s often seen walled off in baseball, that’s helping unlock better speed in the players.

Ryan McKenna, who stole 25 bases in 36 tries at Double-A Bowie last year, said he “wouldn’t say it was the top priority for us in development” previously.

“We’d have some extra time to go out early and they’d be like, ‘Hey, we want you to figure out what your lead is for you,’ whether it’s a three-steps and a shuffle-shuffle, or two steps and a shuffle-shuffle,” McKenna said. “That was kind of a consistent in my development. Now, it’s really trying to learn the other players on each team that you can gain an advantage for yourself to gain that 90 feet. I think it just kind of dives into a little more detail and depth right now, which is awesome.”

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On the field, there’s constant emphasis as well. During a live batting practice session before games began, Mullins and Martin were simulating their base-stealing breaks with the pitcher’s timing as others were in the batter’s box. Hays said the typical base running sessions during daily on-field batting practice are geared to work that creates ”a little more realistic look than going out there, taking two shuffles, and jogging to second base.”

“We’ve implemented, after batting practice, certain rounds where each person that’s up gets one swing and we’ll do base running from first, second, and third,” Hays said. “And we’ll just do one-on-one reads with one guy at second and one guy hitting. That way, you’re just recognizing flight off the bat, seeing how far those balls are going. The situation depends if it’s one outs or no outs if you’re hanging or tagging, just little things like that.”

Both Hays and McKenna cited the presence of Orioles Hall of Famer Brian Roberts as a guest instructor as a positive this spring as well. Roberts stole 285 bases in his major league career, including a league-leading 50 in an All-Star 2007 season. Roberts shared some of the little tells and tricks he used to steal bases prolifically at the major league level, Hays said.

McKenna said he’s been “like a sponge” around Roberts, and Sanders noted that he’s found a group that’s eager to improve on something they’ve done well throughout their careers and help it manifest in the big leagues.

“Ultimately, it’s just building confidence out there on the base paths with the information they have or technique or the work they’ve put in behind the scenes,” Sanders said. “That translates out on the field.”

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The Orioles ran more in 2019 than in years past, with their 84 stolen bases the team’s most since 2007. In the interim, especially when the team found success in the middle of last decade, power-hitting propelled the team to the playoffs. In 2016, the team’s last playoff season, they stole 19 bases.

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In that span, baseball became a game dictated by power: hitters trying to utilize it, and pitchers trying to prevent that. That, combined with the data-driven notion that base runners are too valuable to be risked on a stolen base, has led to a decline in steals across the majors.

The next generation of Orioles won’t be lacking in sluggers if their top hitting prospects continue on the path they’re on. But that doesn’t mean an organization whose guiding beacon is analytics won’t be running.

“I think that’s one lost art, just the instincts of these guys,” Sanders said. “There are still guys in baseball that can still run. With the numbers and data that tells us what times we should go and should not go, there’s instinct. There’s other stuff that’s still right there in front of us if we just watch the game the right way. It’s something I’m trying to keep implementing in the game, and keep pushing the envelope, and try to take advantage of the times that we can.”

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