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Have Injuries Affected the Need for Speed in the NL?

Several early-season injuries may have significantly changed the stolen base landscape in NL-only fantasy leagues.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

I know that many serious fantasy players like to base their team construction on hitting fairly precise numerical thresholds for each scoring category. I’ve tried this before, but in general feel that it combines so many layers of guessing that I usually feel more comfortable keeping an eye on my team in a draft or auction and going with my gut to keep my team balanced. I know I need speed on my team, but it’s difficult to guess exactly how much. If two teams overdraft stolen bases, and a few teams are left woefully short, the league’s overall standings in the category will look much different than they would if every owner created a team where they were all shooting to finish, say, third in the stolen base category. At the end of the season, the same number of steals might put me third in the former scenario, but seventh or eighth in the latter.

Also, even the most well thought-out projections are vulnerable to many factors, the most damaging of which is player injury. I’m realizing that this may never be more true than what’s happened to speed in the National League to start the 2016 season. If I had managed to come up with a number that I thought would represent total NL steals in 2016, it would have been slashed drastically two weeks into the season. And as I sit down and evaluate my NL-only teams at this point, it’s occurred to me that I may not need as many steals as I’d thought I would. Hopefully crunching some numbers now will help me make some roster decisions that will pay off in September.

Looking at some consensus expert pre-season projections, there were six NL players projected to steal at least 30 bases in 2016: Billy Hamilton (58), Dee Gordon (53), A.J. Pollock (35), Charlie Blackmon (35), Ben Revere (34), and Starling Marte (30).   But, less than three weeks into the season, much has changed. Pollock will most likely not steal a base this year, Hamilton often looks like he doesn’t belong on a major league baseball team, and Blackmon and Revere each look to miss a bare minimum of a month to the DL, with tricky injuries that tend to linger.  Add in fellow NL speedster Ender Inciarte’s current DL stint and however you came up with your projections, that’s a heck of a lot fewer stolen bases in the NL this year than anyone would have guessed.

Is there anyone to pick up the slack? And will the healthy guys fulfill their projections? Most teams have played 15-17 games, so the season is about 10% complete. While the sample size may be much too small to count on, it can still be interesting to check early trends to see if we think they are worth buying in to. (Plus, it’s super easy to do the math at this point!)

Billy Hamilton (2 SB): Even if he’s not a fixture at the top of the Reds lineup, no reason he can’t go on a SB tear… though his baserunning skills still don’t seem to be catching up to his natural speed, and that whole "getting on base" thing continues to be a problem. He’s also out of the lineup again today with a bad thumb. 58 is sounding a bit optimistic, to say the least.

Dee Gordon (5 SB): 53 seems just about right.

Starling Marte: (5 SB): Could well be the second-best source of NL steals behind Gordon between now and the end of the year.

Guys on (a very early) pace for 30 – will any of them get close?

Bryce Harper (3 SB): Double-digit stolen bases might make those of us who drafted Paul Goldschmidt over him for that very reason feel extra dumb, but I don’t think anyone sees him getting near 30.

Gerardo Parra (3 SB): A popular sleeper this year. The fact that he’s gotten off to a good start on the basepaths makes me even more interested in him from here on out.

Tony Wolters (3 SB): Uh, no.

Chris Owings (3 SB after 2 on Thursday): Even in the deepest of leagues I normally hate rostering guys who might hurt you more than they help you, but he was dropped in one of my NL-only leagues last week and now I’m kind of wishing I’d put in a waiver claim. Stole 16 last year while hitting .227, and this year the Diamondbacks are clearly beyond happy with what he’s doing in center field. If he hits at all this year, and he’s certainly looking better at the plate so far, he could provide some value.

Josh Harrison (4 SB): Won’t get the 40 he’s on pace for, but looks like he’s likely to hit or outperform his projection of 17… could be a surprisingly nice source of speed.

Melvin Upton Jr. (5 SB): I was planning to write about his hot start, but Quinn Canelias beat me to it earlier this week with a great article. Quinn suggested that a 15-30 season seems doable, and I would agree. He’ll probably face some ugly BA/OBP regression, but I think his numbers will surprise this year and would love to add him to any NL-only team for the speed alone.

So, that’s everyone who was either projected to steal 30, or is on pace to. Sure, there could be some guys who are not on either of these lists that end up with 30 steals, but there may well not be. If you feel like you’re going to end up near the bottom of the stolen base category because you don’t have one of the top speed guys, you might be in better shape than you think. And even if your team is painfully light on steals, it might be easier than usual to do something about it. This year, adding a player who can put up 15-20 SBs while helping in other categories as well, could suddenly be extra valuable -- 15 may be the new 25 when it comes to a difference-maker in steals.

I am going to start looking over the roster makeup of other teams in my leagues when it comes to stolen bases.  Where it looks sensible, I will start actively targeting players that fall into the 15+ SB category in trades. I’m not normally excited about buying low on relatively unproven players off to bad starts, but the potential dearth of stolen bases in the NL this year has made me more inclined to gamble on a guy like Kolten Wong, or even Cesar Hernandez. I may even make an offer for Ben Revere or Ender Inciarte… if a frustrated owner wants to sell low enough, the speed they provide once healthy could definitely be worth the wait.