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MLB Trends: More Power, Less Speed

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Heath discusses burgeoning power and dwindling speed, and what that means for fantasy baseball in 2018.

Texas Rangers v New York Mets
Joey Gallo was one of only five players to reach the 40-homer plateau in 2017.
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

To date I have discussed last year’s 20/20 players and embarked on my annual Mitch Moreland truther circuit. I have also talked a little baseball on the Double Switch podcast, but the truth is my fantasy baseball research has been limited thus far.

That means what you see here is a beginning. What follows is a “macro” approach to the 2018 fantasy baseball season, at least for now. If there is a surplus of one thing (home runs) and a scarcity of another (stolen bases) shouldn’t we target the scarce thing aggressively in 2018? To find out, we should explore the numbers.

What caught my eye initially were strikeout rates over the last decade. Here are the strikeout percentages for all MLB hitters in every year since 2008, courtesy of Fangraphs:

MLB Strikeouts since 2008

Year K%
Year K%
2017 21.60%
2016 21.10%
2015 20.40%
2014 20.40%
2013 19.90%
2012 19.80%
2011 18.60%
2010 18.50%
2009 18.00%
2008 17.50%

Fancy, eh? It only takes two columns to illustrate the sorry state of MLB strikeout rates. 2008 was a record year for strikeouts, and a new record has been set or tied every single year since then. In short, MLB hitters are literally striking out more than ever, and striking out more every year. This “all-or-nothing” approach is evident when you marry strikeout numbers against recent power numbers.

So here you go, folks. These are the long ball numbers:

Best Five Seasons for Home Runs

Year HR ISO
Year HR ISO
2017 6,105 0.171
2000 5,693 0.167
2016 5,610 0.162
1999 5,528 0.163
2001 5,458 0.163

The power numbers from 1999-2001 seem to mess up the recent power surge hypothesis, until you consider that the steroid era was in full-swing during that time. Leaguewide PED testing began in 2003, so the three years represented that aren’t 2016 or 2017 are easy to explain.

The leaguewide .171 ISO in 2017 was an MLB record, as were last year’s 6,105 home runs. The .162 ISO of 2016 was not a record, but it was consistent with steroid era levels. In layman’s terms, hitters displayed as much power during 2016 as they did during the steroid era, and they showed more power in 2017 than in any year of the steroid era.

2017 was a group effort, as only five players reached the coveted 40-homer plateau (Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, J.D. Martinez, Khris Davis, and Joey Gallo). In 2016, eight players reached this mark. From 1999 to 2001 there were 13, 16, and 12 players who reached this mark. So while there are more home runs currently being hit, they are less concentrated. This means two things to me.

First, Giancarlo Stanton (59 homers in 2017) is a Round 1 pick as a Yankee. If he can bash 59 home runs playing half his time in hitter-unfriendly Miami, his Bronx encore will be ethereal. I realize this runs counter to my “home runs aren’t worth as much” idea, but if there are far less 40-homer guys now and I can get a guy who can crush 60 (or 70) I will pay up for him. Just like I did last year.

If you draft Giancarlo Stanton you do so because of the advantage he gives you over the rest. It is the same reason you draft Rob Gronkowski in fantasy football. Stanton, with his history of nagging injuries, even has a similar air of injury risk in that regard (albeit on a much lesser level).

Secondly, if there are more home runs being hit than ever before, doesn’t it make sense to solidify other categories prior to fretting over home runs? I am not suggesting the punting of power entirely, but I do think finding power later in drafts and on waivers will be easier than finding other categories on waivers. Which makes an early round pick of an elite starting pitcher or elite speed threat a lot less worrisome.

Here is a commodity that is becoming more scarce:

Leaguewide Stolen Bases since 2000

Year SB
Year SB
2017 2527
2016 2537
2015 2505
2014 2764
2013 2693
2012 3229
2011 3279
2010 2959
2009 2970
2008 2799
2007 2918
2006 2767
2005 2565
2004 2589
2003 2573
2002 2750
2001 3103
2000 2924

And here are the number of guys in each year who stole 25 or more bases (an arbitrary number that I chose):

Number of 25+ SB guys in each year since 2000

Year 25+ SBs
Year 25+ SBs
2017 14
2016 18
2015 15
2014 21
2013 18
2012 30
2011 27
2010 27
2009 29
2008 23
2007 28
2006 26
2005 16
2004 17
2003 14
2002 24
2001 31
2000 23

The trends may not look significant to some, but over the last few years we have plateaued in the mid-teens for the 25+ threshold for individual players. Leaguewide steals totals have leveled at 2500+ every year—a far cry from the steady 2900 to 3200+ levels of 2007 to 2012.

I understand strict adherence to any one idea or strategy is folly. When you get down to it, any strategy can work if you pick the right players. However, looking at these overall trends makes me want to do a few things:

1. Take at least one elite starter in the early rounds of my draft. ERAs have risen every year since 2014, and the leaguewide ERA in 2017 was a massive 4.36. It follows that if I can get a guy with a sub-3.00 ERA as my anchor, I should feel good about my starting pitching from the onset.

2. Draft elite speed threats aggressively. Dee Gordon, Billy Hamilton, and Byron Buxton will be top targets of mine in 2018. Manuel Margot, Christian Yelich, Jean Segura, and Andrew Benintendi are other names of note. Truly, whenever I am deciding between a pair of players, I will lean towards the guy with more speed potential. I won’t forget about Lorenzo Cain in Milwaukee, either. He should leadoff and score 100 runs easily.

3. Identify cheap home run threats at every position. To be prepared for whatever may come in each draft, I need to identify my middle or later targets at each position that have a chance to offer plenty of power potential. Randal Grichuk in Toronto comes to mind, but there are countless names that offer 25+ home run upside.

In summation, any strategy can work if the right players are picked. But it is still wise to operate from a framework. If you have an idea going in, you can at least deviate from that idea if your draft necessitates that you do so.

If you are not a believer in the “need for speed,” what is your spin on things for 2018 and what strategy will you employ instead?