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How to deal with stolen base scarcity

Lorenzo Cain's frequency of stolen base success portends good things for his fantasy value in 2016. Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Forget positional scarcity. This season, the story is categorical scarcity; as in, scarcity of stolen bases.

In 2015, Major League Baseball totaled the fewest stolen bases (2,505) in any of the previous 37 non-strike seasons, and had the fewest stolen-base opportunities (3,568) and successful steals per game (0.516) in the previous 38 non-strike years. Only 11 players stole as many as 25 bases, which was the fewest in any non-strike season since 1972 (10); by the way, at least 11 did it in each of strike-shortened 1981, 1994 and 1995.

This had a somewhat unrecognized impact upon fantasy baseball player value, and if the trend extends into 2016 -- which seems pretty likely -- it means that your strategy to fill the category might be more important than ever.

Some have claimed that ESPN's Player Rater values stolen bases too heavily; these individuals also might not recognize the declining bar for categorical replacement level. To illustrate, let's extract Player Rater stolen-base values -- these are the Player Rater scores for stolen bases alone -- for players who finished with exactly 25 steals, the benchmark cited above. Last season, a 25-steal performer (the number exactly accrued by Elvis Andrus, Delino DeShields, Kevin Pillar and Jean Segura) scored significantly higher than such a player in any of the preceding six seasons:

  • 2015: 2.932 Player Rater stolen base points for a 25-steal performer

  • 2014: 2.596 points

  • 2013: 2.657 points

  • 2012: 2.359 points

  • 2011: 2.318 points

  • 2010: 2.374 points

  • 2009: 2.338 points

Shifting the focus to the league's leader, Dee Gordon, consider that his 58 stolen bases in 2015 were worth slightly more to a fantasy team than his 64 stolen bases were worth in 2014; he earned 7.558 Player Rater points in that category alone last season, but only 7.517 in 2014, despite swiping six more bases. In addition, using the Player Rater value for each individual stolen base, by 2011 standards, it would've required a player to swipe roughly 70 bases to match Gordon's 2015 valuation.

In other words, it's not unfair to call "60 steals the new 70," or "25 steals the new 30." And it's for that reason that when people tell you that base stealers are overvalued in our rankings, your wiser reaction is, rather than to agree, to recognize those individuals as the competitors in your league who aren't properly strategizing the category.

How to strategize?

Now, this doesn't necessarily mean that one-category speedsters -- OK, let's admit that this refers almost exclusively to Billy Hamilton, the only player with a greater Player Rater stolen base (7.417) than Player Rater overall score (6.269) to finish among the top 250 overall players -- are suddenly all the rage again.

What it does mean, however, is that such players can be necessary safety nets in the middle to late rounds, for teams that were light on the category -- due, with hope, to drafting power heavily -- in the earlier rounds. It is the reason Ben Revere (86th in ESPN's rankings, or roughly a ninth-rounder), Hamilton (119th, 12th-rounder) and Billy Burns (146th, 15th-rounder) are so generously ranked; and notice that they are the only players besides Jose Altuve (sixth, first-rounder) and Gordon (14th, second-rounder), much more complete fantasy players, and the currently injured Jarrod Dyson (ranked outside our top 300) with a projection of greater than 26 stolen bases.

Meanwhile, players like Dyson, Rajai Davis and Jonathan Villar, none of whom seem draft-worthy in ESPN standard mixed leagues, become all the more important late-rounders for teams light on speed, and absolutely relevant midround selections in 12-plus-team mixed and one-league formats for their base stealing contributions alone. Remember: Just because a player is excluded from our Top 300 doesn't mandate that he shouldn't be drafted in our standard game. Team context is supremely important when it comes to the stolen-base category in the modern game, and it's the one category for which it's relevant to consider players perceived "outside the draft-worthy pool."

Ah, but who can we trust to steal?

One of the byproducts of the decline in stolen bases in the real game is increasing risk in the category from a fantasy sense. After all, if steals totals dropped that much in 2015, that means players as a whole are running less, right?

The chart below confirms this; it shows the progression of stolen base attempt rates during the past 55 seasons (since 1961, the beginning of the expansion era during which in every year there were at least 18 big league teams). "Opportunities" were those as judged by Baseball-Reference.com, which defines these as "Plate appearances through which a runner was on first or second with the next base open," and the attempt rate is the percentage of attempts per opportunity. Though steals enjoyed an apparent rebirth in 2011-12, players' attempt rate has generally hovered just beneath 6 percent during the 21st century, while from 1976-92, their rate was almost exactly eight percent.

Unfortunately, this has largely influenced the player pool as a whole, meaning that as fantasy's replacement level for a stolen base has declined, so has the bar for what's considered an elite base stealer. (This is another way of saying "25 is the new 30.") The effect is somewhat similar to what we know about pitching; as the bar for an elite starting pitcher has risen, so has the replacement level at the position, which is why you rarely see multiple starting pitchers selected in the first round.

But one type of base stealer seemed to be more significantly affected, which represents an area a fantasy owner could exploit.

Certain players with higher success rates actually enjoyed an increase in their stolen base attempt rates the subsequent seasons. But it was only one group, strangely: Players who attempted between 10 and 19 steals in any of the past five seasons with a success rate of at least 90 percent actually improved in terms of their attempt rates in the subsequent year, their rates collectively rising by 2.72 percent.

Again, there's a bit of a sample-size problem at play, as only 12 of the 42 players in the study successfully stole more bases than they did the season before, with many of them your obvious names (Lorenzo Cain, Dyson, Hamilton and Dustin Pedroia, to name four). That does suggest, however, that players who earned their managers' trust with more positive outcomes, who also possessed speedy reputations, earned a greater number of green lights the following year.

In 2015, this group -- those with 10-19 attempts and at least a 90 percent success rate -- included Michael Brantley, Matt Duffy, Freddy Galvis, Denard Span and Will Venable, none of whom might immediately strike you as a great draft-day value as far as stolen bases are concerned. Still, knowing that their success rates could result in at least as many green lights on the basepaths in 2016 -- and let's note that all five have better-than-even odds of landing sizable roles, with the lone exception being Brantley possibly supplanting Venable midseason once healthy -- might all five be undervalued? Galvis, Span and Venable, after all, have shown a prowess for stealing bases in the past and could be worth an extra buck accordingly, at least in deep-mixed and one-league formats.

Conversely, players who were successful on less than 70 percent of their stolen-base attempts were more likely to attempt at a lower rate the subsequent year, regressing by 1.01 percent in the 10-19 attempt group. (As an aside, those who attempted 20 or more experienced an almost perfectly balanced rate of regression regardless of their success rates, the group regressing by 2.67 percent.)

A whopping 32 players finished within this group in 2015, and among the household names -- those regarded for historical stolen-base contributions -- included were Starlin Castro, Ian Kinsler, Joc Pederson, Marcus Semien, Steven Souza and Mike Trout. That's not to say that all five are likely to see their stolen base numbers plummet, but their poorer success rates do hint at decreasing odds, which should be considered when setting their projections for the category.