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How to Win: Stolen Bases

Each week on How to Win, we'll be taking an in-depth look at a single category from the standard 5x5 league format. We'll feature draft and season strategies, league leaders, category sleepers, potential busts, and much more. This week, we center on stolen bases. Last year I drafted Jacoby Ellsbury in the first round, because I was sure getting that one great thief would be enough to win. It...um...wasn't.

Quick Overview
When many of us started playing fantasy, it was in the middle of a power heyday, stolen bases and the thieves who stole them were a rare and hot commodity. Things have changed, though, and the best advice I can give is not to go too crazy over steals for one simple reason: bad players can steal bases. Fringe major leaguers can give a lot of value in this category, which means that even fantasy leagues that snap up anyone with even a little power frequently have some emergency base-stealers waiting on the waiver wire.

2012's top 24
1. Mike Trout OF                     49
2. Rajai Davis OF                    46
3. Everth Cabrera SS               44
4. Michael Bourn OF              42
5. Ben Revere OF                     40
5. Jose Reyes SS                       40
6. Coco Crisp OF                      39
6. Shane Victorino OF           39
9. Juan Pierre OF                    37
9. Carlos Gomez OF                37 
11. Alcides Escobar SS           35
12. Jose Altuve 2B                   33
13. Dee Gordon SS                   32 
14. Jason Kipnis 2B                 31
14. B.J. Upton OF                     31
14. Desmond Jennings OF    31
17. Ryan Braun OF                 30
17. Norichika Aoki OF          30
17. Jimmy Rollins SS             30
17. Drew Stubbs OF               30
17. Jarrod Dyson OF             30
17. Emilio Bonifacio OF       30
23. Angel Pagan OF              29
23. Ichiro Suzuki OF             29
24. Jordan Schafer OF         27

Worth noting: Carlos Gonzalez and Andrew McCutchen  are counted as 5-category stars, but missed the cut with 20 steals each. Justin Upton slumped to just 18, while the injured Jacoby Ellsbury managed just 14 and Matt Kemp stole just 9.

When I first made this list, it went all the way down to players with just 21 steals. Then I realized I had limited my player pool to all those qualified for the batting title. Big mistake. It's important to remember that some of the most productive base stealers might be part timers like Davis and Pierre, or otherwise low-impact hitters like Cabrera and Schafer. In a way, this makes those few players who produce at the plate and on the basepaths more valuable (but we all knew that) and less valuable--because those steals really can be replaced.

Just to add a little historical context, here are the last three years' top thieves. Not a lot of power at the top of that list....

2010-2012's top 12
1. Michael Bourn OF        155 
2. Juan Pierre OF              132
3. Rajai Davis OF             130
4. Coco Crisp OF               120
5. Ichiro Suzuki OF          111
6. Jose Reyes SS                109
6. B.J. Upton OF               109
8. Drew Stubbs OF           100
9. Angel Pagan OF            98
9. Brett Gardner OF      98
11. Shane Victorino           92
12. Elvis Andrus SS        90 

Good Players Who Also Steal
Getting a steals-only burner isn't the only way to rack up points in this category. Here are some players who won't show up on the lists above but add steals anyway: Paul Goldschmidt (18), Chase Headley (17), Yoenis Cespedes (16), Adam Jones (16), Eric Hosmer (16), David Wright (15), Aaron Hill (14), Edwin Encarnacion (13), Brett Lawrie (13), Kyle Seager (13), Yadier Molina (12), Austin Jackson (12), Chase Utley (11), Josh Reddick (11), Curtis Granderson (10). None of these guys really count as "power-speed threats," but all would we worth drafting even if their steals totaled zero. Instead, they just help you out.

Plus Ones
So many speedy players are only speedy players, that a player who's a threat to steal a base and do even one other thing has a lot of extra value. Here are some quality thieves you can count on reasonably hope for a good average (if not much else) from: Revere, Pierre, Altuve, Aoki, Ichiro, Alejandro De Aza, Jon Jay, Martin Prado, Denard Span.

If batting average isn't your thing, maybe you'll like these guys, who score a few runs to go with their steals (and, again, not much else): Andrus, Dustin Ackley, Victorino, Gomez, Escobar, Crisp, Cameron Maybin, Will Venable. Add anyone who starts leading off to this list too, whatever they did last year.  

Cheap Steals
Here are some players you shouldn't have to reach too far to get, but they'll add those steals nonetheless. All have an ADP of 100 or more and stole at least 20 bases last year -- and should again. De Aza, Aoki, Revere, Victorino, Crisp, Maybin, Pierre, Aybar, Michael Saunders, Stubbs, Cabrera. All these guys could provide useful value, but my favorite has to be Cabrera, with his 44 steals and his 239.30 ADP. If all the shortstops who can actually hit are gone, Cabrera makes a great alternative to guys like Andrus and Gordon.

Potential Busts
The easiest way for a base stealer to bust is to get pulled from the lineup or sent down to the minors. The next easiest, though, is to get caught a few too many times and convince their team take the green light off. Here are some guys we expect to get steals out of...but that maybe their manager should shut down: Starlin Castro, McCutchen, Wright, Andrus, Jackson, Ian Kinsler, and Justin Upton. Castro and McCutchen worry me especially, because they're getting caught a ton on the bases and they're both getting drafted very early. Someone taking McCutchen in the first round won't be thrilled if he turns into a four-category player next year. 

A Few Last Words
There are a lot of ways to win in stolen bases, but I think the best thing to do is to mix and match the strategies available. If you can get a power-speed guy in the first couple rounds, go for it. Drafting several good players who happen to steal bases can pad your totals without forcing you to use early picks on high-quantity base stealers. Nabbing a couple plus-ones toward the end of the draft is a great way to fill out your MI slot or your fourth or fifth OF. The most important thing you can do, though, is keep an eye on the waiver wire, because you can find a lot more steals there than homers. 




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