For much of last season, Orioles teammates Jorge Mateo and Cedric Mullins wrestled for the American League stolen base crown. Back and forth they went until, on Oct. 3, Mateo swiped his 35th bag to secure the title.

This year, Athletics center fielder Esteury Ruiz leads the league in stolen bases with 43. It’s July 14.

Major League Baseball’s rule changes have moved the ground beneath players’ feet. The game has seen more action on the basepaths, less dead time between pitches and more aesthetically pleasing baseball than in recent seasons.

The Orioles might not be directly benefiting from the new rules, but the team’s on-field renaissance coincides with the sport’s advancements. With 54 wins at the All-Star break, Baltimore is averaging 20,949 fans per game, on pace to draw its largest average crowd since 2017. As O’s fans return to Camden Yards in droves, they’re being treated to a swifter and more entertaining game.

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Disengagement rules — which limit how often a pitcher can attempt to pick off a runner — and larger bases have emboldened baserunners to take off with abandon. According to Baseball Reference, there have been 1,957 stolen bases — 0.72 per team per game — which is on pace to be the league’s highest total since 1997.

Despite rostering both Mateo and Mullins, the 2022 Orioles finished outside the top 10 in stolen bases. They’re on track to do so again this year, as their total of 63 ranks 16th in baseball. Whether by coincidence or by design, Baltimore seemed incentivized to add speed during this week’s MLB draft, selecting fleet-footed outfielders Enrique Bradfield Jr. and Mac Horvath with its first two picks.

By instituting a timer between pitches, MLB hoped to speed up a game that hadn’t averaged under 3 hours since 2015. So far, the results have been dramatic. The average game this season has played out in 2 hours and 40 minutes, the shortest the league has seen since 1984. The quicker pace has come at the expense of slow-moving pitchers and batters, who are penalized with automatic ball or strike calls if they don’t comply.

Orioles games have averaged a brisk 2 hours and 46 minutes. Meanwhile, perhaps by nature of having a group of young hitters that had become accustomed to the pitch timer in the minor leagues, they have registered just four automatic strikes, tied for the second fewest in baseball, per FanGraphs.

Baseball also implemented shift restrictions as a way to counteract the trend of massive overshifts facing left-handed hitters. The Orioles have placed an emphasis on rangy infield defenders who can play multiple positions.

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As for the Orioles, switch hitter Adley Rutschman appears to have benefited the most from this change, but lefty Adam Frazier, who excels at spreading the ball to all fields, has lost six hits due to the shift limits. Strong defensive infielders such as Mateo, Gunnar Henderson, Ramón Urías and Jordan Westburg have allowed manager Brandon Hyde to experiment with new configurations with confidence.

It’s hard to see the impact of MLB’s new rules as anything but positive through the first half of the season. But perhaps we should wait until the playoffs, when a team’s championship odds could hinge on the countdown of a little yellow clock next to the batter’s eye — a scenario the MLB Players Association is hoping to avoid.

The Orioles are just hoping they’ll be one of those playoff teams.

paul.mancano@thebaltimorebanner.com

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