This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal on August 4, 2016.
Forget speed. The Baltimore Orioles will score their runs when they’re good and ready.
Baltimore may just be the slowest MLB team in 50 years. So far this season, the O’s have legged out only three triples. Two active players, Denard Span and Yasiel Puig—and many more who are no longer active—have hit three triples in a single game. In the entire history of Major League Baseball, there has never been a team with fewer than 10 triples, according to Baseball-Reference.com, save for a handful of Union Association teams in 1884 that played fewer than 30 games.
The Orioles aren’t much better at swiping bases. Through 104 games, they have only 13 stolen bases, which puts them on pace for just 20 over 162 games. No team has had so few since the 1972 Detroit Tigers, who only played a 154-game season.
Yet Baltimore still leads the American League East, which says a lot about how the game has changed. Consider the speedy St. Louis Cardinals of 1985: They hit just 87 home runs as a team, but stole an incredible 314 bases on the way to the World Series. The league average that year was 119.1 steals per team; 30 years later, that figure is down 28% to just 83.5 per ball club.
The stolen base has lost its luster largely due to the rise of advanced statistics. The numbers indicate that unless you have a base runner who is successful roughly three-quarters of the time, the risk of forfeiting a valuable out is too costly.
Yet even that change in baseball strategy cannot fully explain Baltimore’s deliberate plodding around the bases this season. The average team has stolen more than four times as many bases as the O’s, a ratio unmatched by any team since the 1970s. Baltimore is also the only team that’s failed to have swiped third base at all.
The opportunities are certainly there, as the Orioles have the 10th-most plate appearances with at least one runner on base and the next base open. However, they’ve only been successful on 59% of their steal attempts this season. The 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates (58%) are the only team to have finished a season with a lower percentage in the past decade.
The key to Baltimore’s success: The Orioles lead all of baseball in home runs for the third time in four years. Perhaps they’ve simply become accustomed to taking their time around the bases.