BOSTON — Jorge Mateo has the proof on his right index finger, the lacerations inadvertently left by the metal spikes on Red Sox third baseman Rafael Dever’s cleat. Those cuts came as the Orioles shortstop slid into third base for his fourth steal in his first two games.
Mateo can’t stop running. Then again, neither can Cedric Mullins or the rest of the Orioles’ baserunners. Mullins has three steals and Adam Frazier, Austin Hays and Ryan McKenna each have one. As a team, they’ve yet to be caught by the Red Sox.
All that running has left its mark both on Mateo’s finger and the Major League Baseball record book. Through the Orioles’ first two games of the season, they set a major league record with 10 steals.
Is that a sustainable pace?
“We’ll break some records if we steal five a game,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “We have team speed, and when the opportunity is there, we’re going to be aggressive.”
Mateo and Mullins are the main catalysts, after leading the American League last season with 35 steals each. Those numbers are expected to increase this year given the changes on the basepaths, the reduction in the number of pick-off moves and the addition of the pitch clock.
It’s a small sample size, but three factors have played a role in Baltimore’s fast start on the bases. The distance between first and second and second and third has been reduced 4 ½ inches because of the larger bases, and pitchers can disengage freely just twice with a runner on base (a third pick-off attempt must be successful, otherwise the runner is granted the next base automatically).
“Gotten some good jumps so far, picked good counts so far where it’s breaking balls that were down,” Hays said. “We’ve just picked our spots really well. I think over half of the stolen bases are from the two MLB stolen base leaders last year, so that’s probably the biggest part of it. We’ve got two of the biggest base-stealing threats in baseball that are contributing pretty much all of those bags.”
Mateo said so far, the pitch clock hasn’t aided him as much as the reduced space between first and second.
But when the timer is ticking down, “you can see the pitcher might rush a little bit, so you can read him and base yourself off of that,” Mateo said through team interpreter Brandon Quinones.
Through two games, Baltimore has scored 18 runs. The stolen bases have helped create some of that offense, but the high on-base percentage for Mateo — he’s reached base on four of his 10 plate appearances — gives him increased opportunities.
That’s the biggest challenge for Mateo. Last year, Mateo stole 35 bases but reached base at a .267 clip. To maximize his baserunning potential, Mateo’s work at the plate must improve.
“I tell him all the time, when he’s on base, it’s a game changer,” outfielder Anthony Santander said. “A single he can turn a double. A double he can turn a triple. He always got that ability to take the extra bag. That’s huge for the team.”
Mateo said he has a green light to run every time he gets on base, and he credits the work with first base coach Anthony Sanders for his impressive jumps.
His target this year is to steal between 50 and 60 bags, but “if honestly, I can do more, I’ll do more.” Ramón Urías put his expectations for Mullins and Mateo even higher: “I think they’re going to steal 60 to 80 bases. It’ll be crazy.”
Baltimore’s current pace of five per game isn’t realistically manageable. But it does display the speed on the bases the Orioles have at their disposal, and when they get running, there’s little an opponent can do to stop them.
“It just creates more scoring opportunities without giving away too much,” Frazier said. “We have the speed as a weapon, and half the team’s got it, so might as well use it.”