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A deep dive into stolen base sustainability

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Trea Turner might be safe, but not a lot of other players are.

USA Today/Pete Rogers Illustrations

As some of you may have noticed, stolen bases are coming at more and more of a premium these days in fantasy baseball. As such, I wanted to dig in to answer a few questions, most notably: What are the trends among the league teams? How sustainable is one individual stealing bases year after year and what is the stolen base (SB) cutoff for them being able to repeat?

First I will go high level:

Stolen base stats (Last 4 years)

Year Total Stolen Bases % Change in SB # Players with at least 1 SB 3 teams with most SB
Year Total Stolen Bases % Change in SB # Players with at least 1 SB 3 teams with most SB
2016 2,537 1% increase 381 Rangers, Royals, Nationals
2017 2,527 0.39% decrease 392 Indians, Rays Red Sox
2018 2,474 2.1% decrease 408 Angels, Brewers, Reds
2019 2,280 7.84% decrease 386 Brewers, Reds, Diamondbacks

Milwaukee and the Reds are the only two teams that come up twice, once in 2018 and 2019. Looking beyond that, there is not an overwhelming trend of bad vs. good teams holding a monopoly on steals, it looks like both good and bad teams steal bases—its more the manager. I will point out that generally speaking, if you are looking for steals, here are the top average teams over the last four years: Milwaukee Brewers (average 3.5th most stolen bases), Washington Nationals (4.75th), Kansas City Royals (6th), Cleveland Indians (6.5th) and Cincinnati Reds (8th).

Looking back on the numbers, while the total number of steals went down each year, an increasing number of players were getting those stolen bases. Specifically, among players who had three or fewer stolen bases, here are the counts: 190 in 2016, 196 in 2017, 219 (2018), 196 (outlier 2019). While we are seeing an increasing pool of players with a small handful of stolen bases, that doesn’t really help from a fantasy perspective. A player with four or five stolen bases doesn’t do much for your fantasy team. So I wanted to take it a step further and see how many players hit the 10, 20, 30, 40, and 50+ stolen base thresholds over the last four years.

Number of players with stolen bases

Year 10+ SB 20+ SB 30+ SB 40+ SB 50+ SB
Year 10+ SB 20+ SB 30+ SB 40+ SB 50+ SB
2016 79 28 14 5 2
2017 85 29 6 3 2
2018 83 28 11 3 0
2019 71 21 8 3 0

There’s a serious drop off in 20+ SB last year which was down from 28 in 2018 to 21 in 2019, a decrease of 25% over the previous three year average. 30+ SB really jumps up and down year over year and 40+ SB you have a steady set of three players doing that. The days of 50+ SB seems to have disappeared along with the Reggie! Bar (well, technically the Chocolaty covered caramel and peanuts candy bar was discontinued in 1982) but I digress.

Toronto Blue Jays v Seattle Mariners Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

Now that we have a sense of stolen base stats, let’s turn our focus to sustainability. How much can you rely on players with a lot of stolen bases last year backing up that again in 2020? You’d hate to draft someone primarily for their base stealing abilities only to have them not steal bases. So, how many players had back-to-back seasons of 20 or more stolen bases? Funny you should ask...

Players who repeated 20+ SB

Year # Players with 20+ SB # Players Who Repeated It The Following Year
Year # Players with 20+ SB # Players Who Repeated It The Following Year
2016 28 17
2017 29 15
2018 28 13

An average of about 53% of players repeated a 20+ stolen base season. That is not a very good hit rate.

If we take that percentage and turn to the 20+ base stealers of 2019, there’s about a 50% chance that they repeat their performance this season in 2020. Here are the names of last year’s 20+ club:

  • Mallex Smith
  • Tommy Pham
  • Kolten Wong
  • Elvis Andrus
  • Victor Robles
  • Delino DeShields
  • Trea Turner
  • Jarrod Dyson
  • Adalberto Mondesi
  • Dee Gordon
  • Jose Ramirez
  • Billy Hamilton
  • Domingo Santana
  • Francisco Lindor
  • Trevor Story
  • Manuel Margot
  • Jonathan Villar
  • Ronald Acuna Jr.
  • Christian Yelich
  • Whit Merrifield
  • Starling Marte

For the record there are five players who have 20+ SB in each of the four years: Trea Turner, Billy Hamilton, Jonathan Villar, Dee Gordon and Starling Marte. Have you picked the 10 players from above that you think won’t hit 20 SB this season?

When we turn to 30+ SB, things get even worse. Only 39% of players repeat a 30+ SB season. Among the eight players in 2019 who had at least 30+ SB, we can expect just 39% to repeat. So that means roughly three players from Jonathan Villar, Mallex Smith, Adalberto Mondesi, Elvis Andrus, Trea Turner, Jarrod Dyson, Christian Yelich and Ronald Acuna Jr. will post another 30+ SB season this year. (Again, let it be noted that only Trea Turner has 30+ SB each year and only Jonathan Villar, Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton had 30+ SB in three of the four years.)

When we turn to 40+ SB, the likelihood of repeating is just 27%. No player has maintained 40+ SB in even three of the last four years let alone all four years. Mallex Smith, Trea Turner, Billy Hamilton and Jonathan Villar kept that pace for just two of the four years. My point here, the likeliest outcome is that only one of these three is able to swipe 40 bags this year: Mallex Smith, Adalberto Mondesi and Jonathan Villar. Generally, the pool of players who are able to do this at ALL is very small, only 10 total players have achieved this feat over the last four years and a majority of them (6/10) did it for just one of the four years.

So when it comes to drafting...

I trust players on these teams to be given the green light to steal: Milwaukee Brewers, Washington Nationals, Kansas City Royals, Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds. I also trust these players to steal at least 20+ bases: Trea Turner, Billy Hamilton, Jonathan Villar, Dee Gordon and Starling Marte.

I don’t trust these players to steal 20+ bases in 2020: Javier Baez, Chris Owings, Brett Gardner, AJ Pollock, Bryce Harper, Kevin Kiermaier, Byron Buxton, Odubel Herrera, Amed Rosario, Paul Goldschmidt, Michael Taylor, Andrew Benintendi, Keon Broxton, Wil Myers, Ian Desmond, Travis Jankowski, Eduardo Nunez, Lorenzo Cain and Ender Inciarte

Finally, the numbers tell me that 10 of these players likely won’t get 20 SB this year: Ronald Acuna Jr., Manuel Margot, Victor Robles, Kolton Wong, Francisco Lindor, Christian Yelich, Tommy Pham, Mallex Smith, Trevor Story, Adalberto Mondesi, Whit Merrifield, Jose Ramirez, Elvis Andrus, Delino DeShields and Jarrod Dyson. The tricky part is, even playing part-time, seven of these 15 players are among the top five teams in steals.

My initial thoughts were to pick Manuel Margot, Whit Merrifield, Tommy Pham, Kolten Wong, Elvis Andrus, Delino DeShields and Jarrod Dyson as the most likely NOT to repeat 20+ SB but that still leaves me two short: Lindor? Mallex? Story? Victor? It’s tough!

Let me know whose stolen bases you’re worried about or certain of this year in the comments!