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The need for speed: Orioles' rebuild prioritizes quickness and its potential offensive impact

Jonathan Villar came to the Orioles last month from a Milwaukee Brewers team that relied on base running. Milwaukee is on pace to lead the National League in stolen bases for the third straight year, a stretch that included a 2016 season when Villar led the majors in steals with 62 steals.

The acquisition of Villar, who was part of the trade that sent second baseman Jonathan Schoop to the Brewers, as well as the grooming of Cedric Mullins to be the Orioles’ center fielder of the future — and even the smaller acquisition of outfielder John Andreoli — are part of the Orioles’ new emphasis on fueling the offense by getting faster on the field.

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The Orioles haven’t been known for stealing bases, instead building a batting order based on power. The Orioles ranked last in the majors in stolen bases every season from 2014 to 2017. Lastyear, their 32 stolen bases were last by 21 steals. Entering Saturday, the Orioles’ 48 steals this season ranked 26th of the 30 major league clubs.

One of the Orioles’ biggest problems during this lost season has been their inconsistent offense. The Orioles’ 3.85 runs per game this season, entering Saturday, ranked fourth last in the majors, and one prevailing reason for that number is the number of base runners the club stranded. Just 26 percent of Orioles base runners scored through 128 games, which is the lowest percentage in baseball.

Having said that, high stolen base totals don’t necessarily correlate with wins. Last season’s top four teams in steals — the Los Angeles Angles, Brewers, Cincinnati Reds and Texas Rangers — all missed the postseason. However, the next five teams on the list — the Washington Nationals, Boston Red Sox, Arizona Diamondbacks, Houston Astros and Minnesota Twins — were playoff teams.

As the Orioles look to rebuild with a new core group, they’ve invested in getting more speed on the bases, hoping that can lead to better run production. This month, after trading away several stars before the nonwaiver trade deadline, they’ve stolen more bases. Over their first 21 games of August, the Orioles’ 10 steals were middle of the pack, tying for 17th in the majors.

To see the new look in action, one only needs to watch the top of the order, where Mullins and Villar, who have been hitting first and second in the lineup in recent days, provide speed options the Orioles have lacked in the recent past.

“They see we’ve got a lot of speed right here,” Villar said. “We’re finishing this season with preparation for next year. We’ve got a center fielder [Mullins] who can run a lot. I need to help him; he can steal a lot. We have some guys who can run. [Shortstop] Tim [Beckham], he can run, too. The [coaches] told me, ‘Next year, we’re going to prepare for more steals in more situations.’ That’s good, too, because everyone here can run.”

The Orioles have reached for stolen-base threats in the past — David Lough, Joey Rickard and Craig Gentry are examples over the past six years — but it never led to much production. Since 2011, just two Orioles players — Nate McLouth in 2013 (30 steals) and Manny Machado (20 in 2015) — have finished with at least 20 steals in a season.

“I’ve said many times that professional athletes in every sport, mistakes are made when the game speeds up,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “What are they going to do when the game speeds up — whether it’s a pitcher with a deflection, a catcher had to throw a ball in a hurry. … People talk all the time about you can’t steal first base. Well sometimes you can, with a bunt or putting pressure on a defense. ... So anytime you can get a team to operate out of their comfort zone or the tempo of the game, more errors are made.

“There’s a lot of things like that, so to be able to apply that pressure, we’d love to be able to do that, but there’s a lot more to it. We all know there’s a lot more to it. Otherwise, you’d go down to the track and field. I know a lot of guys who could really run but couldn’t steal a base. I know guys who weren’t that fast, but always seemed to run the bases well.”

In a game where there are now nearly as many strikeouts as hits, there’s not only an added emphasis on getting runners on base but finding ways to move them along the base paths, whether that’s through steals, hit-and-run plays, taking the extra base or beating out grounders.

“The fact that I do have the speed to put pressure on the other team, just try to make something happen, get the rally started, whatever the case may be, I’ll do that,” Mullins said. “There are a few balls that I have hit that just because they were choppers and I was able to beat them out, we were able to put together some decent innings. It’s those little things again that can create the big innings for us.”

While the Orioles still rank toward the bottom of the majors in stolen bases this season, Showalter is proud of their 77.4 percent success rate, which was seventh best in the majors and fifth in the American League entering Saturday.

“The [teams] that if you look on there and someone is at 50 or 60 percent, that’s just not good math, giving away outs up here instead of making people grind out 27 outs,” Showalter said. “We call it productive outs. We’ve done a little better job of it lately. It’s something that you’re trying to get guys to understand what a productive out is, that’s something that’s kind of has been a challenge to get people to embrace in the major leagues in today’s game because it doesn’t always have a return other than the team winning.”

As much as speed can be a weapon, both Mullins and Villar know there’s a limit.

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“We might have a guy who is a banger who can put a ball in the gap and score me from first. That’s what we’re going to do,” Mullins said.

Said Villar: “I know the situation, like when [Mark] Trumbo is hitting, with a runner at second base, I don’t need to steal third base because on a base hit I can score. For that situation, they tell me, ‘OK, whatever you want. … You’ve got a little more [experience]. You know when to run.’ ”

Villar is a player who likes to run, and he can push the envelope. He swiped four bases in his first 20 games with the Orioles, including three since Aug. 18, but he’s also been picked off twice in the past week.

For now, the Orioles appear committed to batting Mullins and Villar first and second, respectively, and see what pressure they can put on opposing teams. The Orioles haven’t had a bona-fide leadoff man since Brian Roberts, and now they have two who fit the profile. Neither is afraid to bunt in any situation, and they’ve already shown they can feed off each other.

The duo showed that Friday. After Mullins led off the game with a single up the middle, Villar followed by dropping a bunt to put two runners on immediately, and the Orioles took an early 2-0 lead on Chris Davis’ double.

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In 2016, when Villar led the NL in steals with Milwaukee, he batted leadoff and saw the impact being a base-stealing threat had on the game, and it benefited the players hitting behind him because they saw more fastballs.

“With no one on base or someone who doesn’t run, the pitcher has the opportunity to throw whatever he wants,” Villar said. “They’re not scared to throw a pitch into the [dirt] because there’s not a guy running. So when you’ve got a speed guy on first base, the pitcher has to throw more fastballs. That catcher doesn’t want anyone to steal. So what do you think the catcher’s going to do? Throw fastballs. That gives you an opportunity to change the game because somebody hitting behind me, he has a chance to see better pitches, get a double, I can score, things like that.”

Villar hopes he can bring that to the Orioles.

“When you have a lot of speed on one team, the game is different because the pitcher never has control to home plate,” Villar said. “If that guy’s running, he doesn’t want him on second base in scoring position. … The defenders up the middle have to play close to second base instead of playing [straight up]. There’s a lot of ways you can change the game.”

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