Are stolen bases more scarce for fantasy baseball?

Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve (27) reacting safe after stealing second base in the fourth inning of an MLB baseball game between the Houston Astros and the Seattle Mariners during a MLB baseball game at Minute Maid Park, Tuesday, July 5, 2016, in Houston. ( Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire )
(Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire )

Every year a new hot topic seems to emerge in regards to fantasy baseball. Starting pitching moving up the ranks and in drafts dominated the landscape a year ago. For 2017, the dearth of stolen bases available looms as a strategic angle for those with drafts or auctions nearing. Never being a positional scarcity person, some of the steals debate can be seen as an overreaction, but in NFBC draft and hold leagues, the upward trend of players with stolen base potential becomes clearly visible. Whether or not one buys into Moneyball, the quote adapt or die seems appropriate.

Starting with the premise of stolen bases in decline, should this come as a surprise? Looking at the aggregate numbers from the last five years, four of them produced a total lower than 3,000 and the last season the majors finished above this number of cumulative steals was 2012. For a visual, take note of the chart below:

Despite stolen bases being in sharp decline since 2012, they actually increased by 32 versus from 2015 to last year. This marks a very slight increase, but the demand for stolen bases in drafts remains on the rise. For those in league-only formats, the scarcity in the American League shows an even wider divide in numbers:

With the huge power outburst last year, teams in the American League ran much less with teams in the Senior Circuit accumulating 239 more steals on the year. This may be a paradigm shift with teams focusing on on-base percentages and power but it makes a difference when targeting players with the green light to steal.

No team ran more than the Brewers last year who finished with 181 steals as a team with a whopping 237 attempts. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Orioles stole 19 bases as a team and only tried to steal 32 times all year. Manny Machado’s disappointing stolen base total may not have been by choice, rather a team’s philosophy. League average regarding steals was 85 for a team with 118 attempts.

So how does this translate to roster construction? Trying to lead your league in the stolen base category may be tough to achieve due to the lack of players who produce in all five categories, with steals included, for fantasy. Taking a look back at two leagues last year in two different 12-team leagues, one on CBS and the other an NFBC league produced interesting results. Here are the top-four finishers for each league represented in one last chart:

While the leaders in each league finished with 198 and 190 respectively, more realistically, note the teams who finished in third amassed 154 stolen bases. Deeper league formats may want to shift to a total near 135 as a mark to hit while selecting a team. There will be different schools of thought in crafting a team, some will prefer to get a player with a high upside stolen base ceiling but low home run and RBI totals to insure the category.

Others will try to build a team with a multitude of players who could get 15 or more steals for a safe buffer but not sacrificing a category on offense. Last, there will be some who punt the category, like saves on the pitching side but knowingly finishing last in a category makes it difficult to win a league.

In an attempt to prepare those with drafts on tap, stolen base targets will be identified below using a 12-team standard draft as the guide but taking into account the overall rank in NFBC ADP. Identify targets but do not be afraid to reach for a player with speed due to the increased focus in early drafts based on the perceived need to procure them.

Last year, only one player exceeded 60 steals, one surpassed 50, three reached at least 40, nine with a total in the 30’s and 14 finished with at least 20 or better. This represents only 28 players, which explains the need to identify players who can provide in the category.

Rounds 1 through 5

Part of the allure of the players in the top-60 lies within the projections of double digits steals for them. Of this group, 21 carry projections of 10 or more stolen bases. For ease of display, they will be broken down by their potential to contribute in the category with their ADP in parentheses:

10 or more stolen bases: Bryce Harper (9), Carlos Correa (16), Francisco Lindor (28), Trevor Story (29), George Springer (33), Brian Dozier (36), Rougned Odor (39), Ian Desmond (50)*adjusted total due to injury

20 or more stolen bases: Mike Trout (1), Mookie Betts (2), Paul Goldschmidt (7), Charlie Blackmon (17), A.J. Pollock (34), Jean Segura (55), Wil Myers (57)

30 or more stolen bases: Jose Altuve (4), Trea Turner (10), Jonathan Villar (20), Starling Marte (23), Dee Gordon (47), Billy Hamilton (49)

Options appear in this group more often than the later rounds, so trying to get two of the players in the middle section remains realistic. Players like Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton secure the category along with runs but power and RBI take a hit. Trying to build around balance should be a focus, taking a speed only pony limits an offense unless immense power hitters can supplement them.

Trea Turner will be a player of interest. Many think he’s overrated due to last year’s breakout with the league adjusting to him. Time will tell, but if Turner the burner can hit double digit home runs and steal 40, hard to knock his value as a top-20 player, but top-10 overall could be a bit daunting.

Rounds 6 through 10

10 or more stolen bases: Todd Frazier (74), Justin Upton (83), D.J. LeMahieu (86), Anthony Rendon (89), J.T. Realmuto (112)

20 or more stolen bases: Gregory Polanco (63), Jose Ramirez (94), Eduardo Nunez (115), Jose Peraza (117), Odubel Herrera (119)

This group seems to thin out a bit. Some remain wary of Eduardo Nunez but his spike in production matched past numbers, he just played more games. Jose Ramirez resembles Michael Brantley’s breakout while others above proved pocket steals at premium positions. Take note of J.T. Realmuto taking ground balls at first base, more at-bats while not catching could mean more steals at a position where he represented the only one at his position to reach double digits last year.

Rounds 11 through 15

10 or more stolen bases: Javy Baez (121), Adam Eaton (126), Lorenzo Cain (130), Anthony Benintendi (131), Byron Buxton (142), Eric Thames (178)

20 or more stolen bases: Carlos Gomez (152), Elvis Andrus (153), Tim Anderson (156), Keon Broxton (174), Kevin Kiermaier (180)

This group represents upside. If one misses out on players above while drafting pitchers, hone in on speed here. It’s always been about health with Lorenzo Cain, but his price here could be more tolerable than A.J. Pollock almost a 100 picks sooner. There’s no bargain to be had on Anthony Benintendi, trust me.

Byron Buxton and Keon Broxton could easily surpass their ZiPS and Steamer projections regarding steals. Both possess batting average downside, but as long as a team drafts average protection, either of these outfielders could be a “steal” here, no pun intended. Taking Carlos Gomez depends on need, but if the Texas version shows up all year like Ian Desmond last year, profit will ensue at this price.

20 SEP 2016: Texas Rangers left fielder Carlos Gomez. (Photo by Steve Nurenberg/Icon Sportswire)

Rounds 16 through 20

10 or more stolen bases: Dexter Fowler (188), Michael Brantley (225)

20 or more stolen bases: Hernan Perez (185), Ender Inciarte (194), Leonys Martin (239)

30 or more stolen bases: Rajai Davis (193), Jarrod Dyson (226)

Although fewer in numbers, two players who carry a projection of more than 30 steals show up for the first time since the top five rounds. Part of the reason to avoid reaching for a player like Dee Gordon in the top-50 with a lack of power points to taking either Rajai Davis or Jarrod Dyson. Inherent risk can be identified for any of the three, but the cost favors the two above. Dyson may wear down during the year, so if he starts hot, try to trade him by the All-Star break.

No one love Dexter Fowler or Ender Inciarte, but they provide steals, an average which should not hurt a team and runs scored. Both should lead-off for their respective teams and with health, 90 runs should follow.

Rounds 21 through 25

10 or more stolen bases: Jason Heyward (254), Eugenio Suarez (265), Orlando Arcia (267), Josh Harrison (274), Brett Gardner (285), Cesar Hernandez (286), Jose Reyes (296)

20 or more stolen bases: Yoan Moncada (243), Manuel Margot (245), Jacoby Ellsbury (249), Travis Jankowski (288)

Representing the last five round block to end a 12-team draft, some interesting names exist. Yoan Moncada seems to have a high ceiling, it all depends on how many games he plays in the majors. So far in spring, Jacoby Ellsbury looks healthy and with three steals already, could return to a 25 stolen base season with the Yankees. Two Padres with upside and a team which will need to manufacture runs in Manuel Margot and Travis Jankowski. Each could reach 30 with a projection in the mid-20’s for the season.

Two sneaky plays with low ADP’s, Cesar Hernandez and Jose Reyes. Both will hit near the top of the lineup and only need slight improvement in attempts to reach 20 or more steals at a bargain bin price.

21 Aug. 2016: New York Yankees runner Jacoby Ellsbury (22) heads for second base on a steal during the eighth inning of a game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim played at Angel Stadium of Anaheim in Anaheim, CA. (Photo By John Cordes/Icon Sportswire)

21 Aug. 2016: New York Yankees runner Jacoby Ellsbury (22) heads for second base on a steal during the eighth inning of a game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim played at Angel Stadium of Anaheim in Anaheim, CA. (Photo By John Cordes/Icon Sportswire)

Late Round Fliers

Pair of Halos: One could do worse than having Ben Revere (342) and Cameron Maybin (297) on the bench in leagues to mine for stolen base upside. Maybin swiped 15 bags in less than 100 games last year and Revere stole 102 bases from 2013 to 2015 prior to an injury-riddled season last year.

New homes, new opportunities?: Mitch Haniger will start in right field for the new look Mariners and his manager will give him the green light. A high OBP guy with some speed could be a double-digit provider in home runs and steals this year. Mallex Smith bounced around this offseason but with injuries abound in Tampa Bay, his speed and defense could be a factor this year.

Others of note: Chris Owings (302), Ketel Marte (345), Andrew Toles (349), Raul Mondesi Jr. (393), Roman Quinn (411), Gerardo Parra (414), Tyler Saladino (427), Billy Burns (534), JaCoby Jones(613), Dalton Pompey (614)

Best of luck in drafts. Try to amass at least 135 steals to survive, 150 to place in the top-four on average and understand which tiers stolen bases start to dry out. Scarcity of steals should not be perceived as exclusive to this year, but surviving drafts in the category will determine league titles.

Statistical Credits:

Fangraphs.com, hosted.stats.com, ZiPS projections courtesy of Dan Szymborksi, Steamerprojections.com

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