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Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Uncommon Thievery: Ellsbury already an elite base stealer

By Brian McKitish
Special to ESPN.com

Prior to Sunday, Jacoby Ellsbury was a perfect 25-for-25 in stolen-base attempts in just 72 career major league games. The 24-year-old was halfway to Vince Coleman's record 50 straight swipes before he was gunned down by the battery of Carlos Villanueva and Jason Kendall on a pitchout. Ellsbury shouldn't feel too bad, though, as a career 96.4 success percentage rate isn't anything to scoff at.

Jacoby Ellsbury
Don't worry about playing-time issues, Jacoby Ellsbury just keeps on running.
Success on the bases is nothing new for Ellsbury; after all, he did steal 105 bags with an 80 percent success rate in the minors. But Ellsbury has progressed since then, with a little technical and philosophical help from a former Boston speed demon, Tommy Harper, who stole 54 bases for the Sox in 1973. Now the kid has the smarts to go along with the speed, a dangerous combination. Ellsbury will even watch game tapes of opposing pitchers, looking for tendencies and pickoff moves in order to gain that little extra advantage on the bases. That's maturity right there, and with a work ethic like that, there is no doubt that Ellsbury will continue to improve as his career progresses.

So even though the kid is on pace to steal 63 bags in his first full season as a pro, I can't help but think he can do even better than that. I know that's asking for a lot, but he has all the tools to make it work.

Speed Targets

Nate McLouth, OF, Pirates: While most folks are waiting for McLouth's power to disappear, I'm waiting for his speed skills to reappear. You might not know it by looking at his 2008 stats, but McLouth used to be one of those speed-only prospects. Sure, he showed a bit of pop for a little guy, but he never hit more than 12 home runs in his minor league career. He did, however, steal an average of 29.2 bases at an 82.5 percent success rate in five minor league seasons. The speed he showed so often in the minors hasn't disappeared; he nabbed 22 bases in 23 attempts in 2007 and holds a career 88 percent success rate. With only four swipes in seven attempts thus far this season, McLouth looks like a great buy candidate, at least in terms of stolen bases. Sure, his power might fall off a little bit, but when it does, expect him to make amends on the bases, and don't be surprised to see 25-plus stolen bases when all is said and done.

Rickie Weeks, 2B, Brewers: I would imagine that plenty of fantasy folks are starting to get a little tired of Weeks. Hitting just .200 this season, Weeks has again failed to show us why he is a perennial fantasy sleeper candidate. Still, before we tab him as a failure, we might want to check out his underlying statistics. Weeks displayed a much improved batter's eye last season, and he's building on that this year by continuing to show patience at the plate while cutting down on his strikeouts. His BB/K ratio (0.79) has improved in each of his past three seasons (0.67 in 2007, 0.33 in 2006) and his on-base percentage stands at .330, which isn't all that bad considering his poor batting average. Once he cleans up that batting average -- which should only be a matter of time -- there won't be much to complain about. He already has seven swipes in 10 attempts, and should be a good bet for at least 30 by season's end. Find an owner who's frustrated with that sub-.200 batting average and make a play for Weeks, as his underlying statistics indicate that he should break out any day now.

Shane Victorino, OF, Phillies: I know Jayson Werth is all the rage right now, but don't forget about Victorino. Victorino has struggled at the plate since returning from a calf injury, which is not surprising given that his most redeeming quality is his speed. Still, his six steals in seven attempts this month lead me to believe that his calf is 100 percent. After nabbing 37 bags in 41 attempts in 2007, it should only be a matter of time before we see Victorino near the top of the league in steals.

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Juan Pierre, OF, Dodgers: Apparently, rumors of Pierre's demise were greatly exaggerated. With 17 steals in 20 attempts, Pierre is almost on pace to match his stolen-base total in 2007 (64). Pierre will continue to hit at the front end of the Dodgers lineup as long as Rafael Furcal is out (Joe Torre likes to have speed near the top) and he seems to already have the upper hand on both Andre Ethier and Andruw Jones in the crowded Dodgers outfield. Whether you think Pierre deserves a spot in the lineup doesn't matter much. The fact remains that he is becoming a fixture there, and he probably will continue to see plenty of at-bats and thus steal plenty of bases this season. Given how low folks have been on Pierre, I'm sure you can get him for less than market value in trade negotiations.

Not Buying It

Eric Byrnes, OF, Diamondbacks: I've heard some experts tab Byrnes as a great trade target, but like the title of this section, I'm not buying it. Granted, after hitting just .218 with four home runs and four stolen bases through Sunday, Byrnes has nowhere to go but up, right? The problem with that line of thinking is that most folks will believe that they are getting the 2007 version of Byrnes. Byrnes' hamstrings clearly aren't right at the moment. He hasn't stolen a base since May 7, and has just two attempts total all month! Hamstring injuries need time to heal -- more than just a night or two off -- and runners don't react very well when their legs are hurting. That said, Byrnes might continue to struggle with this injury unless the D-backs decide to put him on the disabled list to take care of those bothersome hammys.

Bobby Abreu, OF, Yankees: Abreu has stolen 20-plus bases in each of his past nine seasons. Unfortunately, that streak looks destined to end in 2008. Don't listen to the history of stats an Abreu owner might attempt to throw at you in trade negotiations. Simply put, this isn't the same fantasy superstar we once knew and loved. At age 34, his speed skills have diminished considerably, and he's at the point where he's barely even running anymore. Just five attempts despite reaching first base 47 times this season? It doesn't help that he's only been successful twice, and Abreu doesn't figure to get the green light much if he continues at his 40 percent success rate.

Derek Jeter, SS, Yankees: I don't mean to bag on the Yanks, but until Sunday night, when he finally got his first steal of the season, Jeter hadn't attempted a theft since Opening Day. We simply can't ignore the fact that he's not getting the green light from Joe Girardi. What's strange is that Girardi was super run-friendly when he managed the Marlins, but he seems to be a little gun shy with the power-oriented Yanks. It doesn't help that his team is dead last in success percentage at just 56 percent. I'd be gun shy, too, with those kind of stats. Granted, he doesn't have much speed at his disposal, but one would think that he'd at least be letting Jeter loose from time to time. The fact that he's not doesn't bode well for Jeter's stolen-base prospects.

NL Pickups

Fred Lewis
Fred Lewis has been more than an adequate replacement for the injured Dave Roberts.
Fred Lewis, OF, Giants (17.8 percent owned): As we discussed last month, San Francisco is what we like to call "offensively challenged", and Bruce Bochy is going to do whatever he can to create run-scoring opportunities for his club. This includes putting his runners in motion every chance he gets. So if you're wondering why I'm recommending a guy who has hit .217 this month, it helps that the Giants are fourth in the league in steals and third in attempts. Lewis had a rough go at it earlier this month, but is starting to get back into the flow and is beginning to swing the stick like he did back in April when he hit .341 with a .423 on-base percentage and four swipes. Look for Lewis to get it going again, just be sure not to play him when he goes up against left-handed pitchers as he is hitting just .167 with no stolen bases against southpaws this year.

Randy Winn, OF, Giants (27.2 percent owned): Sticking with the Giants, it is a little surprising that Winn hasn't been scooped up already as he is hitting .371 this month. I realize that he hasn't done much other than hit for average (just two homers and two steals in May), but the way he's hitting, the stolen bases should follow suit fairly quickly. Winn may be 33, but he still has speed and the 20-plus stolen-base potential he flashed a few years back. Bochy should continue to run his guys wild as the season progresses, which will also make Omar Vizquel somewhat of an intriguing pickup in deeper NL-only leagues. Vizquel does not possess the pure speed he once did, but he's an extremely smart baserunner and will steal a fair amount of bases as long as his 41-year-old legs will allow him.

Jerry Hairston Jr., SS, Reds (1.5 percent owned): With Jeff Keppinger on the shelf for the next 4-6 weeks, Hairston and Paul Janish will battle it out for the vacant shortstop gig in Cincinnati. Hairston shouldn't have too much of a problem winning this battle, and that will give him some extra at-bats to build on his four steals in 21 games this season. Hairston is the type of player who always had 25-plus stolen base potential, but has never had an opportunity for regular at-bats. Now that he has the at-bats, owners in deeper mixed and NL-only formats should take a look to see what he can do with the opportunity.

AL Pickups

Freddie Bynum, SS, Orioles (0.0 percent owned): Luis Hernandez clearly was not the answer for the O's at short, and manager Dave Trembley has turned to the speedy and versatile Bynum for some much-needed production at short. Bynum has yet to swipe a bag since his promotion, and is hitting .267. Still, don't mistake Bynum for a good hitter -- he's not. But he can run the bases quite well as evidenced by his 16 stolen bases in 264 career at-bats. Bynum has an accomplished track record in the minors as far as swipes go, so as long as he can continue to hold on to his starting spot (which might be in jeopardy with Alex Cintron in town), he'll for sure start to pay dividends on the bases at some point.

Rajai Davis, OF, Athletics (1.0 percent owned): The A's won't steal all that often, but they will put their runners in motion more often than one might think, with 21 steals in 27 attempts thus far. You should already know about Davis' pure speed (he stole 17 bags in just 142 at-bats in 2007), so he should be able to act as a one-category specialist as long as he continues to get at-bats in Oakland. Davis has made his speed known during his short stint with his new club, going 3-for-4 on steals despite reaching first base just eight times. That means he's attempting a steal 50 percent of the time he reaches first base, which a good sign for any baserunner, let alone one with his speed.

Maicer Izturis, 2B, Angels (0.4 percent owned): When in doubt, go with an Angel. A Mike Scioscia-managed team is almost always near the top of the league in thefts and attempted thefts, and this year has been no different. I like teammate Erick Aybar much better, but Aybar injured his finger Tuesday and may go on the DL, so those in deeper leagues will have to settle for the lesser-known Izturis. Izturis is already 6-for-6 on steals this season and is a highly efficient baserunner with a career 80 percent success rate at the major league level. He will continue to earn playing time all over the diamond while Chone Figgins and Howie Kendrick are on the mend, and should be looked at as a solid short-term addition for the stolen-base category.

Scarcity Watch

As we discussed last month, the relative scarcity of the stolen base category should be on every fantasy owner's mind this season. By now, most folks know that the value of a stolen base isn't what it was from 2002-2006. But we still need to continue to monitor the situation just in case the current trends reverse themselves. With that in mind, we'll finish this column off with a look at the current state of the stolen base:

Year SB CS Attempts SB percentage
2000 2923 1323 4246 68.8
2001 3103 1408 4511 68.8
2002 2750 1282 4032 68.2
2003 2573 1132 3705 69.4
2004 2589 1100 3689 70.2
2005 2566 1069 3635 70.6
2006 2767 1110 3877 71.4
2007 2918 1002 3920 74.4
2008 (projected) 3055 1160 4215 72.5

Brian McKitish is an award-winning fantasy baseball and basketball analyst for ESPN.com.