All Orioles manager Buck Showalter had to do was watch the Kansas City Royals' comeback win over the Oakland Athletics in the American League wild-card game last week to see how dangerous his team's AL Championship Series opponent can be on the base paths.
The Royals erased a four-run, sixth-inning deficit by running circles around the Athletics, stealing a postseason-record seven bases in the game on their way to a 9-8 win in 12 innings. They've been successful on 12 of 13 stolen-base attempts in the postseason heading into the ALCS.
Despite ranking last in the major leagues in home runs and ninth in the AL in runs scored, the Royals' 153 stolen bases in the regular season led the major leagues, and they had an 81 percent success rate. The Orioles haven't faced the Royals since May, but in seven regular-season matchups, Kansas City was a perfect 5-for-5 in stolen bases.
"It's kind of what they do, and they're very good at it," Showalter said. "What do they say, speed doesn't go into a slump?"
The Royals' speed makes the Orioles' attempt to stop the running game key in the series.
The Orioles have been without starting catcher Matt Wieters — who has been third in the AL in each of the previous three seasons in throwing out runners — for most of the year. But Wieters' replacements, especially rookie Caleb Joseph, have been good at stopping opposing teams' running games.
The Kansas City base runners fly at a different pace, though. They had three players with at least 28 stolen bases in the regular season: Jarrod Dyson (36), Alcides Escobar (31) and Lorenzo Cain (28). Add in Nori Aoki's 17 steals and Alex Gordon's 12, and the Royals have five players with a double-digit total. And in the postseason, the Royals added speedster Terrance Gore, who began the year at High-A Wilmington and was successful on 47 of 54 steal attempts in the minor leagues this season.
"We can't sit back and wait for a three-run homer or a two-run homer," Royals manager Ned Yost told reporters before the AL Division Series, which the Royals won in three games over the Los Angeles Angels. "We've got to make stuff happen. We have to be aggressive on the base paths, and we have to try to take advantage of every situation to get into scoring position. When you do that, that's upsetting to the defense. It's upsetting to the pitchers. Now it's a distraction to the pitcher, and now he's trying to focus on the base runner. Even though they're four runs down, they still know they have to keep an eye on us, right?"
Showalter always talks about how the game is broken down into 90-foot increments. In his system, fast pitcher delivery times to the plate are critical, as is catchers who can keep opposing base runners honest. It's a focal point in spring training and a teaching priority in the minor league system.
"I think it is going to help us a lot," Orioles right-hander Bud Norris said. "Both our catchers behind the plate can throw guys out. All of our times [to the plate] are under 1.3 [seconds], so we can control the running game. That's playing all sides of the game. You can't just worry about one side of the game, striking everybody out. You've got to control the running game too."
As a team, the Orioles allowed 84 steals in the regular season, which is the fourth fewest in the AL, and their 27.6 throw-out percentage is sixth in the AL, slightly above the league average.
Joseph threw out 23 of 57 possible basestealers, an AL-leading 40.4 percent throw-out rate. Nick Hundley, who was acquired after the season-ending injury to Wieters, threw out just five of 27 baserunners (19 percent) in his time with the Orioles, but he has thrown out 27 percent in his major league career.
Hundley has seen more time recently behind the plate — and he likely will start Game 1 of the ALCS if right-hander Chris Tillman pitches — while Joseph is in the midst of an 0-for-33 slump, including the postseason, and has just three hits in his last 46 at-bats.
"They both had their periods," Showalter said before Game 3 of the ALDS. "I think they understand that we're not just lip service about where their priorities are. You're going to take four at-bats a game and you're going to make 100 and 200 decisions behind the plate. The math is real easy on that, how do you impact the game more?"
But facing Kansas City — with a trip to the World Series on the line — Showalter said the most important factor will be keeping the Royals' speedsters off the bases.
"It's something that I'll think about," Showalter said about who he will start behind the plate. "But guys like Gore and Dyson, they get on first base, there are a lot of really good throwing catchers, but it doesn't really matter. The focus still has to be on keeping people off the bases as always. You've got to be careful robbing Peter to pay Paul.
"The really plus basestealers [will steal]. You're trying to —the guys who shouldn't steal — try to prevent them from stealing. The guys who are really good, nobody's really come up for a defense for that."