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The way to approach stolen bases in fantasy baseball

Or: How to manage a scarce resource

USA TODAY Sports/Pete Rogers Illustrations

Stolen bases are scarce. This is all I’m hearing for the last two months. I know — I’m not denying it. Look at the prices being paid for Trea Turner, Adalberto Mondesi, Whit Merrifield and Starling Marte. This season, the prices being paid for Triple M (Mondesi, Merrifield and Marte) are, in my opinion, ridiculous when compared to the prices being paid for players going around the same range. I really focus on obtaining one or, if I can, two five-category hitters in the first five rounds. I will pay the price to get them, particularly in an auction. After that, I don’t focus on speed much at all. Let’s make it clear I am talking about a standard 12-team league with a waiver wire.

Let’s shift from opinions to undeniable facts.

According to Fangraphs, there were 2,474 stolen bases recorded in 2018 on 3,432 attempts — a success rate of 71.2%.

In the first half of last year, players stole 1,423 bases (71.7% success rate) and in the second half 1,051 bases (72.6% success rate). But, there are less games in the second half. Let’s look at it on a per-game basis for every player that attempted at least one steal (stolen bases divided by games played). On a per-game basis, a base was stolen 6.01% of the time in the first half. This increased to 6.70% in the second half. This may not sound like much, but it’s an 11% increase. Remember, these are just games played by players who stole at least one base, so it is not a perfect science. Why would there be more steals in the second half than the first half last season? Why would the success rate increase? Possible theories include:

  1. Speedy young players are called up part of the way through the season
  2. Teams fall out of contention and are more lax on their stolen base policy
  3. Poor runners stop running. Aging players realize they’ve aged (Segura had a poor success rate all of last year and had 21 attempts in the first half and only 10 attempts in the second half) and rookies realize it’s not as easy to steal in the Majors (a la George Springer).

In September and October, the success rate was up to 74.8% — a stolen base in 9.17% of games — up approximately 50% from the rest of the season. Perhaps, the call-up theory holds true and, in turn, my theory.

That said, you will not find all of the stolen bases you need on the waiver wire or with $1 sleepers. As I mentioned earlier, I want to target stud hitters that also contribute in steals in the first few rounds. You won’t see a lot of J.D. Martinez or Nolan Arenado on my teams. Great players, but it really hamstrings you, I feel.

Pause for some fun stolen base facts…

The highest number of steals with a 100% success rate was 10, accomplished by Jurickson Profar. The only other players to have five or more without being thrown out were Eric Thames, Austin Slater, Giancarlo Stanton, Terrance Gore and Byron Buxton.

The worst success rates with over 20 attempts were: Rougned Odor (50%), Manuel Margot (52%), Andrew McCutchen (61%), and Jean Segura (64%). No other player that attempted 20 or more steals had a success rate under 65%.

Back to business...

As mentioned, there were 2,474 stolen bases in 2018. But you have to figure a good portion were from players that are not relevant to fantasy. Let’s focus on those players that can make a significant impact on stolen bases — say 10 steals. Of the players that stole 10 or more bases, there were 1479 stolen bases in 2018.

Of these players, I consider 20 of them four or five category contributors in which stolen bases are not his top tool. These players contributed 364 stolen bases. I’m going to count on all of them for extremely solid contributions across the other four categories when healthy. They include:

  1. Mike Trout
  2. Mookie Betts
  3. Jose Ramirez
  4. Christian Yelich
  5. Ronald Acuna
  6. Francisco Lindor
  7. Jose Altuve
  8. Bryce Harper
  9. Charlie Blackmon
  10. Manny Machado
  11. Freddie Freeman
  12. Javier Baez
  13. Trevor Story
  14. Alex Bregman
  15. Andrew Benintendi
  16. Cody Bellinger
  17. Tommy Pham
  18. Wil Myers
  19. Yasiel Puig
  20. Aaron Hicks

After omitting our “studs”, there are 1115 stolen bases remaining from those with 10 or more steals. Of which, 713 came from drafted players (ADP of 300 or lower). 402 came from undrafted players or waiver wire pickups — 36%. Within the drafted pool of 713 steals, I’ve included top-tier players I consider ones you draft mainly with stolen bases in mind which include:

  1. Trea Turner
  2. Whit Merrifield
  3. Adalberto Mondesi
  4. Starling Marte
  5. Lorenzo Cain

Also in this mix are players like Andrew McCutchen and Jean Segura.

I’ll repeat it — I try to get one or, if I can, two of the top tier players who steal bases — like a Jose Ramirez or Ronald Acuna. When it comes to the middle rounds, I am not going to panic and reach on a Dee Gordon, Mallex Smith and I’ll even throw A.J. Pollock in here. Once you are through the first five or six rounds, I am no longer thinking about speed. Here’s why: let’s go back to the double-digit stolen base pool of 1,479 – those players who can make an impact in the category. The four or five-category studs are surely drafted knocking out 25% of the pool (364 steals). Then you must figure that the five super speed guys’ 183 bags (2018 stats) are also gone (see list above). Now 37% of the double-digit steals pool is gone. There are 932 stolen bases left to draft from the double-digit stolen base crowd. But, 402 went undrafted – 43% of this pool. Why am I worrying about stolen bases when almost half of what can significantly help me can essentially be had for free after the draft? If you know how to play the waiver wire.

Look at last year’s waiver wire steal darlings:

  1. Adalberto Mondesi
  2. Jonathan Villar (he was dropped in most leagues early in the season)
  3. Greg Allen
  4. Roman Quinn
  5. Amed Rosario
  6. Shohei Ohtani (Batter) in Yahoo leagues
  7. Harrison Bader

I will make three exceptions after round six as these players I feel can produce top-five round value immediately, contributing in speed among other categories:

  1. Victor Robles
  2. Garrett Hampson
  3. Harrison Bader

I will reach on those players. You might be saying that Puig, Myers and Hicks are falling beyond Round 6 as well. In my drafts, the only one of these that is consistently falling after Round 6 is Hicks — and he probably shouldn’t be. Unfortunately, all of these players tend to go around the time I need to start worrying about saves — another scarce stat. So I am usually juggling category needs to the best of my ability and passing on these guys for Brad Hand or Jose Leclerc.

In conclusion, my plan is threefold:

  1. Get steals early. Get the five-category studs in the first few rounds where I can. Thanks, captain obvious! What I mean is I’ll prioritize Acuna or Yelich over Arenado or J.D. Martinez.
  2. Reach on my boys Hampson, Hader and Robles if I must.
  3. Ignore the #&@$ out of stolen bases for the rest of the draft and go bargain hunting at the end of the draft or on waivers — Byron Buxton, Manuel Margot, Lewis Brinson, Tyler O’Neil, etc. Just dart throws at a scrap heap. There will be stolen bases that pop up on waivers this season. I hope my timing is right on Bo Bichette and Kyle Tucker. There will be others that will find opportunity via injury or trade. Perhaps the waiver wire saviors will be Bradley Zimmer, Oscar Mercado, Anthony Alford, or Myles Straw. Roman Quinn and Greg Allen are going undrafted again. Will opportunity arise again?

Remember, all drafts are different, but I feel that a “must get” strategy for stolen bases is one to cut off your nose to spite your face.