Stolen base strategy

What numbers can you trust to pick up the best speedsters?

Updated: March 14, 2014, 3:35 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Those stolen bases ... they're sooooo '80s.

The 1980s certainly were the glory days for the stolen base; they represent the only decade since World War I in which the majors averaged more than one steal attempt per game in every single season within. They were also the decade responsible for 10 of the 14 all-time seasons of 90-plus steals since 1901. Rickey Henderson, Vince Coleman, Tim Raines ... ah, the memories.

Since the 1980s concluded, however, steals production has waned. No player has reached even the 80-steal plateau since 1988, and since the turn of the century, Jose Reyes (78, in 2007) is the only player to have exceeded 70 steals in a season. It seems that those sabermetric teachings to not risk senseless outs on the base paths has resulted in a more conservative approach to base stealing in the modern game.

[+] EnlargeJacoby Ellsbury
Icon SMIJacoby Ellsbury led the majors in steals last year while with the Red Sox and garnered the highest Player Rater score by one player in one category in the process.

This culminated in a 2013 campaign during which only 0.761 steals were attempted per game, the fourth-lowest number during the divisional era (1969 and beyond) behind only 1971 (0.723 attempts per game), 2005 (0.747) and 2004 (0.760). For the 10th consecutive season, though, the game's stolen-base success rate was greater than 70 percent; baserunners were successful 72.8 percent of the time, the fourth-highest rate in baseball history.

There are only two rational conclusions:

• That baserunners -- and/or their managers -- are being more selective when stealing.

• That 2013 was an outlier year during which several historical speedsters produced poorer numbers because of injuries (Ryan Braun, Jose Reyes, Ben Revere) or simply disappointing years (Michael Bourn, Dee Gordon, B.J. Upton).

• Or, we throw in a third option: A little of both?

Whatever the cause, fantasy owners are forced to adapt their strategies accordingly -- just as we've explained they need do regarding both batting average and wins the past two days -- adjusting for the fact that premium speedsters are becoming rarer and more valuable relative to replacement.

There is perhaps no greater example than this: Last year's major league leader in stolen bases had 52 (Jacoby Ellsbury), which was the same amount accrued by Michael Bourn in 2010 and Chone Figgins in 2006. Our Player Rater judged Ellsbury's 52 steals as worth 6.13 value "points," which is more than any other player scored in any of the other nine Rotisserie categories. Three years earlier, however, Bourn's 52 steals were worth 5.55, and four years before that, Figgins' 52 were worth 3.30.

This alone explains why there is so much preseason buzz surrounding rookie speedster Billy Hamilton, currently the No. 124 player overall in terms of average draft position (ADP) despite only 13 games of big league experience. Hamilton's speed grades an "80" on the scouting scale -- that ranges from 20 on the low end to 80 at the high end -- and is described as the best currently in the majors, and his minor league stolen-base prowess is astonishing: He has stolen 408 bases in 515 games as a professional, a rate of one every 1.26 games played, and he has been successful 82.8 percent of his pro attempts.

[+] EnlargeBilly Hamilton
Michael Hickey/Getty ImagesWhat will Billy Hamilton do steals-wise after going 13-for-13 in a short September stint last year?

No currently active player has averaged better than one steal per 2.74 games at the big-league level in his career (that's Dee Gordon's rate), and only Chase Utley (88.4 successful steals percentage), Jayson Werth (87.0), Carlos Beltran (86.5), Nate McLouth (84.9), Jacoby Ellsbury (84.0), Alcides Escobar (82.9), Chris Getz (82.9) and Shane Victorino (82.8) have better career success rates among players with at least 100 attempts, than Hamilton. Question any of Hamilton's other skills -- hitting, strike-zone judgment, defense -- if you wish, but don't doubt his prowess on the base paths. If he could steal first base, he would ... and then he'd probably promptly swipe a triple-digit number of bags from there in a year.

That would carry a substantial margin of weight in fantasy.

That's not to say that Hamilton will make the Cincinnati Reds' Opening Day roster (though he almost assuredly will), that he'll be their regular leadoff man (though it appears he'll begin there) or that he'll succeed at getting on base more than 30 percent of the time (that's what's in serious doubt). But recognizing the importance of his best skill is critical to your 2014 preparations, and what's most fascinating about his circumstances entering the year is that, in addition to being a rookie himself, he's also being managed by a rookie.

In fact, Bryan Price has never managed at any level, which makes Hamilton all the more difficult read. There is perhaps no greater influence on stolen-base production, after all, than a player's manager.

Managerial tendencies

Skills, naturally, heavily influence a speedster's statistics. But if a speedster is managed by a conservative manager -- Art Howe and several of his Oakland Athletics successors stand out as notable examples -- he might not be granted the opportunity to fill the category; in other words, the dreaded "red light."

That's why it's smart to examine every manager's tendencies in advance of the season. Listed below, in a chart sortable by category, are statistics for all 25 current managers with at least one full season of big league experience. These numbers count the most recent three seasons managed, when applicable, and only full seasons. The reason for full years is that Baseball-Reference.com is the source for SBOpp (Stolen Base Opportunities), and that statistic cannot be tabulated by date.

Personnel influences these numbers, as someone like John Farrell might have a higher rate only because he has had Jacoby Ellsbury or Rajai Davis, two of the top three in steals in 2013, on his roster the past three seasons. But then there are examples such as Bud Black: His 2013 San Diego Padres showed a distinct look of a "green-light" team, with Everth Cabrera (37), Will Venable (22), Chris Denorfia (11), Chase Headley (8) and Yonder Alonso (6) all chipping in healthy steals totals.

Even after Cabrera's suspension in August, the Padres didn't exhibit that much of a decline in stolen-base production: The team averaged 0.75 steals and 0.96 attempts in their 112 games with Cabrera on the roster, 0.68 and 0.90 in their final 50 contests. They had nine games of at least two steals, and one with five alone (Sept. 20)!

Bo Porter's numbers should also catch your eye. His is a smaller sample than the others -- he has one year's experience to the others with two or three -- and it's possible that he was more aggressive on the base paths than other managers simply because, with a poor roster at his disposal, he had to get creative. Still, his Houston Astros aren't in that much better shape in 2014 than 2013, though they did add a potential speedster who didn't get the green light that much in Colorado: Dexter Fowler. Fowler once attempted a steal on 18.9 percent of his opportunities, in his rookie year of 2009, but he has a mere 10.6 percent rate in his four seasons since. It's possible that, under Porter's watch, Fowler might receive the requisite chances to get back into the 20s in the steals category.

Rookie George Springer might also benefit from Porter's aggressive approach, once the team promotes him. Springer has stolen 32 and 45 bases in his first two full professional seasons, and if he's freed up to steal regularly, his fantasy owners will more easily be able to deal with any hitting adjustment periods he endures in 2014.

But, returning to Price, what of him and the new managers?

Bryan Price, unfortunately, is the great unknown, as is new Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus. New Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams, meanwhile, has only a quarter-season's experience in the minors. Without any data to judge these managers' stolen-base preferences, we are left to guess.

Fortunately, we have minor league data for two other newcomers, the Chicago Cubs' Rick Renteria and Philadelphia Phillies' Ryne Sandberg (a relative newcomer), as well as Williams. Stolen-base opportunities are unavailable for minor-league teams, but the following chart shows these managers' leanings in the other categories:

Don't put too much stock into these numbers, but recognize that they don't show any particularly strong leaning one way or another. It's possible that all three will strategize like league-average managers, with Sandberg the one most important to watch because of two highly projected base stealers on his roster: Ben Revere (projected for 35) and Jimmy Rollins (22).

Price, incidentally, did offer a peek at his proverbial hand earlier this spring, however, when he told ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick that he expects his Reds to take more chances on the base paths. Crasnick suggested Zack Cozart and Todd Frazier, players who once stole as many as 30 and 18 bases, respectively, in previous professional seasons, as candidates to enjoy an uptick in stolen-base production.

"I know that we need to be able to create scoring opportunities, especially in that bottom third of our lineup," Price said. "Being station to station didn't give us as many opportunities to score as I would have liked. We have to be somewhat creative."

Sure enough, Price's Reds have stolen 15 bases this spring, fifth-most in the majors, and Hamilton has six steals on his own, third-most. There isn't much reason to think that the Reds' managerial change will have any adverse effects.

Another way to look at stolen-base production

Among my research projects when examining speedsters each winter is to not only evaluate players based upon raw steals totals; it's to calculate their rates of steals attempted, just as in the managerial charts above.

Doing this helps identify more aggressive base stealers, an important task if you believe a player's other hitting skills are trending in either direction. For example, let's take Alexei Ramirez. His career-high 30 stolen bases might appear an outlier, but understand that he also set a career high in opportunities (260).

First, here were the top 20 players in terms of stolen-base attempt rate in 2013, with a minimum of 50 opportunities.

Next, these were the top 20 players in terms of steals attempt rate in the past three seasons combined (2011-13), with a minimum of 100 opportunities.

Rajai Davis certainly stands out on both lists, doesn't he? He has actually led the majors in terms of attempt rate in each of the past three seasons, which is why news of Andy Dirks' injury this spring has made Davis such an intriguing steals target. With increased at-bats might come more steals chances, and Davis, who with 216 steals the past five seasons combined ranks second only to Michael Bourn (239), could elevate his performance in the category to the 50s.

That'd be quite the advantage, in a modern game shying more often from the stolen base. After all, only two players topped 50 steals in the past three years: The aforementioned Ellsbury and Michael Bourn (61, in 2011). Make sure you keep that in mind, as even just as simple a tweak as, "This year, I'll ensure I draft one elite speedster, a Davis, Ellsbury or Everth Cabrera," might result in greater success.

Suddenly, there's no longer any shame in chasing a one-category stud.

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