November 29, 2016
Fantasy Categorical Breakdowns
The Landscape: Stolen Bases
While home run totals have experienced a meteoric rise over the past two seasons, stolen bases have followed an inverse trend, especially during the last five years. Here’s an oversimplification: After major-league teams swiped just 2,505 bases in 2015, the lowest single-season total since 1974, they managed just 2,537 thefts league-wide in 2016.
Stolen bases and caught stealing per game (2002-2016)
Over the last 15 years, stolen base success rate has never fallen below 70 percent. It’s clear that major-league front offices and managers are better from a tactical standpoint at successfully deploying their speedsters than at any point in baseball history. It could be the result of access to improved scouting reports, catcher and pitcher video breakdowns, better statistical data, or a combination of those factors. Teams are certainly smarter about when they steal nowadays. So why aren’t they running more, and why do stolen base totals continue to decline?
My Baseball Prospectus colleague Rob Mains has written about this exact topic extensively over the last few months. The main conclusions he drew from studying the data were, “First, baserunners definitely appear to be more cautious. They’re picking their spots for steals carefully, resulting in higher success rates but a lot fewer attempts. And once they’re on base, their approach toward taking an extra base is also very conservative. There are good reasons for this: a desire to avoid baserunning injuries and the math of run expectancy in a high-homer environment.”
Mains also found that more extra-base hits and fewer singles (yes, base-hits) were contributing to the stolen base downturn, simply by reducing the sheer number of opportunities for runners to take second base. Without question, speed has a become less a prominent aspect of the major-league game than it was during the halcyon days of the 1980’s, when Vince Coleman, Ricky Henderson and Tim Raines were wrecking havoc on the basepaths. Yet, steals continue to matter a great deal in traditional fantasy leagues.
Juxtaposed by a league-wide increase in power, the fantasy impact of stolen base totals receding becomes most striking when examining the gap between elite speedsters and the rest of the talent pool. The overall lack of speed in the game has made players capable of reaching the 20 and 30-steal benchmarks essential cornerstones of a modern fantasy roster.
Players with 20 or 30-plus stolen bases in a single-season (2002-2016)
The veritable pantheon of stolen base kings, capable of swiping 30-plus bases in a single season on sheer talent and swagger alone, has remained concentrated within a small cluster of elite talent over the last decade-plus. Only 14 position players reached the lofty 30-steal plateau last year.
Players with 30-plus stolen bases (2016)
It’s worth noting that only five fearless sprinters crossed the 40-steal threshold last season. In 2015, only three hitters (Charlie Blackmon, Hamilton and Gordon) managed 40 steals, the lowest single-season total since 1994.
Had he not languished in Triple-A purgatory for 83 games, Turner certainly would have joined that exclusive club as well. The same logic applies for Gordon, who racked up 122 stolen bases in 293 games the previous two years combined. However, he was sidelined for dramatically different reasons, serving an 80-game suspension after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
Meanwhile, the data shows the crop of 20-steal performers deteriorating considerably over the last five years. With steals becoming increasingly scarce towards the bottom of the talent pool, it only further insulates the value of a fantasy profile built primarily on speed. According to Baseball Prospectus’ in-house valuations expert, Mike Gianella, the value of a single steal in a 15-team mixed league has fluctuated between 25 and 30 cents since he began tracking them for BP in 2013.
Stolen base valuations, 15-team mixed-league (2013-2016)
Unlike home runs, where their value has depreciated as totals inflate towards the bottom of the major-league talent pool, the value of steals has remained relatively unchanged in recent years. Given the current landscape, stolen base specialists are becoming incredibly safe investments for fantasy owners, virtually guaranteed to return their draft day acquisition cost. A perfect example of this phenomenon is Billy Hamilton.
The biggest problem Hamilton faces is one of perception. Yes, he’s not a good hitter. I will concede that point right now. You’re watching me do it. Now, whether it’s fair or not, he’s viewed by the vast majority of mainstream fantasy owners as a colossal disappointment every single year. Someone who consistently fails to live up to the considerable pre-season hype. Despite missing significant chunks of time due to injury, and hitting for a pedestrian .260 average with 69 runs scored (nice), three home runs and 17 RBI in 460 plate appearances, he finished as the 15th-most valuable fantasy outfielder on the ESPN Player Rater last season.
It’s a bit unsettling that Hamilton, whose raw statistical profile looks about as appetizing as something Guy Fieri would whip up on a celebrity edition of Chopped, finished as a more valuable fantasy asset in rotisserie leagues than sluggers like Carlos Gonzalez, George Springer and Bryce Harper. Yet, this is where we are.