Stolen Bases

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.'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. 

Andrelton Simmons: The Surprise Shortstop

Everyone knew the Braves were going to go young at shortstop this season. Alex Gonzalez was allowed to walk as a free agent and although Jack Wilson was retained as veteran insurance, Atlanta was going to turn the most important position on the diamond over to a kid. Up until a few weeks ago, it was all but guaranteed that the job would go to 22-year-old Tyler Pastornicky. Instead, he's struggled badly in Spring Training - .220/.230/.237 in 59 at-bats - and is "obviously pressing" according to at least one observer. March stats don't mean much, but when you're a young kid trying to win a job, it helps to make a good impression.

While Pastornicky has been busy squeezing sap out of the bat, 22-year-old Andrelton Simmons has wowed the Braves coaching staff with his stellar glovework. He's barely outhitting Pastornicky ironically enough, putting together a .186/.271/.233 batting line in 43 exhibition at-bats. It hasn't mattered though, as there remains a strong sentiment around the team that Simmons should break camp as the starting shortstop despite never playing above High Class-A ball. He was a second round pick in 2010 and hit .311/.351/.408 during his pro debut with their Carolina League affiliate last season.

Baseball America ranked Simmons as the team's fourth best prospect earlier this offseason, saying he's an "aggressive hitter" who "knows the strike zone but doesn't walk much" in the subscriber-only scouting report. "He has bat speed and can turn on fastballs, but he won't have more than gap power," they added. "An average runner, he needs to improve his reads and jumps after getting thrown out 18 times in 44 basestealing attempts." Much like Freddy Galvis of the Phillies, Simmons doesn't have a typical fantasy profile but he can be a useful piece under the right circumstances.

Simmons has two things really going for him. One, he can steal bases. He swiped 26 bags last year and 18 (in 62 games) the year before. His reads need work as the Baseball America write-up said, meaning his stolen base total won't be much help if you're in a league that counts net steals (SB minus CS). Secondly, Simmons makes a ton of contact. He struck out in just 7.5% of his plate appearances in High-A last year, a ridiculously low percentage that's well below the league average even when considering his age relative to competition. The ability to make contact (or, inversely, not make contact) translates well across minor league levels and into the big leagues, and good things tend to happen when the ball is in play. Some BABIP love could have his batting average up around .280-.290, which is valuable when combined with 20+ steals.

The ZiPS projection system is quite a fan of Simmons. They estimate his current talent level at .274/.309/.348 with 21 steals given regular playing time, putting him on par with fellow middle infielders like Alcides Escobar (.270 AVG and 25 SB), Cliff Pennington (.252 and 23), and Jemile Weeks (.262 and 21). Again, not fantasy stars but rather useful pieces to fill out a roster or help you cope during an injury. Simmons doesn't even have the job yet and frankly is an inferior fantasy option to Pastornicky, who has produced at the higher levels and has a much longer track record, but he offers some sleeper potential for late-round batting average and stolen bases, particularly in deep mixed leagues or NL-only setups.

Utley's Injury Opens The Door For Freddy Galvis

Middle infielders are prone to sharp declines, particularly second baseman after years of turning the blind double play pivot at the bag. Roberto Alomar and countless others fell off a cliff without warning, and now injuries are taking a toll on Chase Utley. The 33-year-old missed 43 games with a thumb issue in 2010 and 45 games with a knee issue in 2011, and chances are he'll open this season on the DL with knee problems as well. Here's what GM Ruben Amaro Jr. told Jim Salisbury of CSNPhiladelphia. com...

“He hasn’t been felling all that great,” Amaro said. “He hasn’t gotten to the point where he feels confident enough to get on the field without making it worse.”
“I would think it’s doubtful that [Utley] would be prepared to play second base for us opening day,” Amaro said. “We’re trying to hit it with a couple of different things to get him over the hump."

Assuming Utley has to start the season on the shelf, 22-year-old Freddy Galvis is almost certain to open 2012 as the club's everyday second baseman. Utility man Michael Martinez recently broke a bone in his foot as well, giving Galvis a little more security. The Phillies are reportedly looking for some infield depth, but the job appears to be his for now.

Baseball America ranked Galvis as Philadelphia's sixth best prospect in their 2012 Prospect Handbook, but unfortunately for fantasy owners, it wasn't because of his offense. "Galvis is arguably the best defensive shortstop in the minors," wrote the publication. "He has plus range despite fringy pure speed, and he also has excellent hands, an above-average arm and incredible instincts ... A switch-hitter who sprays the line drives, Galvis makes consistent contact but will never hit for much power."

Defense and injuries will keep Galvis in the lineup, but he does have something to offer fantasy owners: stolen bases. He stolen 23 bags in 137 games split between Double- and Triple-A last season, a year after swiping 15 in 138 Double-A games. The Phillies didn't emphasize the running game as much last year after losing first base coach and baserunning guru Davey Lopes to the Dodgers, but with Utley and Ryan Howard hurt to start the season, speed figures to become a bigger part of their offense. Batting eighth ahead of the pitcher will boost Galvis' on-base percentage just a bit (via intentional walks), which should then boost his stolen base total.

Dan Syzmborski's ZiPS projection system expects a .261 average with 19 steals out of Galvis given regular playing time, putting him in a class with guys like Jemile Weeks (.267 and 21), Dexter Fowler (.264 and 18), and Lorenzo Cain (.259 and 17). Not a star player, but a decent fantasy option to fill out your roster in case of injury or in a particularly deep mixed league/NL-only setup. Galvis figures to pick up both second base and shortstop eligibility, and the extra bit of flexibility is appreciated. Utley's injury is going to hurt the Phillies and fantasy owners alike, but Galvis is a useful piece that could contribute more than expected with just a little BABIP love.

Bad Basestealing

Today let's take a look at some players with poor stolen base success rates in 2010 and at least ten attempts.  They could be speed sleepers for 2011 if they improve their approach.

  • Gordon Beckham - 10 attempts, 40% success rate.  He didn't attempt to steal much in the minors, but he only played 59 games there.  Beckham had a lousy rate in '09 as well, but did make 11 attempts in 103 games.  15 attempts and a 75% success rate would give you an 11-steal player.
  • Adam Jones - 14 attempts, 50%.  It'd be nice to see him try a little more, but clearly he's capable of double digits.
  • Corey Hart - 13 attempts, 54%.  Perhaps Hart fancies himself a power hitter now, as his attempt number was his lowest in a full season.  Are his 20/20 days behind him?
  • Starlin Castro - 18 attempts, 56%.  That's 18 attempts in 125 games.  I have to think he can steal 20 next year.
  • Matt Kemp - 34 attempts, 56%.  Maybe Kemp wanted another 20 or 30 steal season too much.  I think he'll jump back to 30 swipes next year.
  • Brandon Phillips - 28 attempts, 57%.  Still a threat to steal 20.
  • A few others with lousy success rates: Colby Rasmus, Alexei Ramirez, David Wright, Mark Reynolds, Matt Holliday, Jason Heyward, and Kelly Johnson.  Typically unless the player has a history of stealing below a 70% success rate, I assume he'll get back to around 75%.

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Running More

I have to admit that our little plate appearances per steal attempt stat is flawed, because it doesn't account for changes in a player's OBP or times on first base.

Baseball HQ uses a stat they call SBO, or Stolen Base Opportunity %.  That is calculated as (SB+CS)/(singles + BB).  That's a good one to look at too.

Anyway, here are the players who are running more this year, for one reason or another.

NAME PA/Att 08 PA/Att 07 Diff
Lance Berkman 20.1 66.8 -46.7
Delmon Young 20.5 52.4 -31.9
David DeJesus 21.7 50.2 -28.5
Matt Holliday 23.8 47.5 -23.8
Mark Ellis 26.6 49.4 -22.8
Ray Durham 27.0 44.0 -17.0
Alex Rios 17.5 33.9 -16.3
Randy Winn 21.8 36.3 -14.5
Chase Utley 47.2 61.3 -14.1
Troy Tulowitzki 38.7 52.5 -13.8
Kelly Johnson 30.0 43.4 -13.4
Tony Pena 37.0 48.7 -11.7
Melvin Mora 33.7 43.9 -10.3
Hunter Pence 22.4 30.3 -7.8
Matt Kemp 14.2 20.7 -6.6
B.J. Upton 11.9 18.3 -6.3
Shannon Stewart 38.8 45.0 -6.3
Joey Gathright 9.1 15.4 -6.2
Ichiro Suzuki 10.3 16.4 -6.1
Ryan Theriot 12.9 18.7 -5.8
Ian Kinsler 17.1 22.6 -5.5
Rafael Furcal 15.4 20.7 -5.3

That Berkman has attempted 11 swipes in just 221 PAs is a surprising and welcome development.  It's also nice to see disappointing hitters like Rios and Young running more to partially make up for it.

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Not Running

I looked at all players who attempted 15 or more steals in 2007.  Then I compared their plate appearances per attempt (lower is better) to see who has stopped running in '08.  Here are the offenders:

NAME PA/Att 08 PA/Att 07 Diff
Mark Teahen 98.5 33.8 64.7
Alfredo Amezaga 70.5 22.4 48.1
Michael Young 79.3 43.3 36.1
Gary Sheffield 54.3 22.0 32.4
Ryan Braun 55.0 24.6 30.4
Akinori Iwamura 57.8 28.0 29.8
Alfonso Soriano 54.3 24.7 29.7
Gary Matthews Jr. 55.5 26.3 29.2
Melky Cabrera 63.0 34.0 29.0
Chris Young 46.4 18.9 27.5
Carlos Lee 71.3 46.5 24.9
Alex Gordon 53.0 33.4 19.6
Carlos Guillen 48.0 30.0 18.0
Derek Jeter 48.5 31.0 17.5
Alex Rodriguez 42.3 25.3 17.0
Eric Byrnes 28.6 12.3 16.3
Curtis Granderson 41.3 25.0 16.3
Bobby Abreu 34.7 21.2 13.5
Nate McLouth 28.8 16.6 12.1
Felipe Lopez 27.0 20.3 6.7
Johnny Damon 25.6 20.2 5.5
Russell Martin 26.0 20.7 5.3
Torii Hunter 29.3 24.1 5.2

Why is this happening?  Some players have stopped running due to injury, like Soriano.  (By the way, I think it's time to demote him from second-round status).  But then you've got a guy like Chris Young.  He used to attempt a steal every 19 plate appearances, this year it's every 46.  Can't blame his OBP, it's much improved this year.

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Hanley's Stock Falls Slightly

This may not matter this year.  But new Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez wants to see Hanley Ramirez exchange steals for homers in the long term.

Regarding whether Ramirez would steal 50 again, Gonzalez said, "We'll see."  I have Ramirez swiping 44, but given Gonzalez's philosophy it wouldn't be a shock to see him swipe less than 40.

This probably doesn't change your draft strategy, but if you were on the fence over Reyes vs. Hanley vs. Wright maybe it helps you decide.

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More On Chris Duffy

I last wrote about Chris Duffy on February 12th, mentioning that he could steal 30 bags if he gets 550 ABs.  After reading the praise heaped on him in this article, my confidence in his ability and playing time has improved.

Jim Tracy loves the guy.  It really looks like a foregone conclusion that the center field/leadoff job is Duffy's to lose.  This is his age 26 season, and he's spent plenty of time in the minors.  Despite his blazing speed, Duffy stole only 17 bases in 308 Triple A at-bats last year.  He's not quite  a high percentage basestealer, and he didn't do much in 39 games for the Pirates.

At this point Duffy looks like a .280-.290 hitter who would have a hard time not stealing 20 bases in a full season.  But it seems that he's expected to be aggressive and utilize his speed, so 30 is entirely possible.  Regardless, Duffy has little value to mixed leaguers except perhaps as a short-term injury replacement.   NL-only folks should view him top 25 outfielder worthy of a double digit bid.  In the best case scenario, Duffy becomes Randy Winn in a few years. 

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