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June 29, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Stolen Base Opportunities

by Craig Brown

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Nobody is running more–given the opportunity–than Rajai Davis. The Blue Jays center fielder has had 53 stolen base opportunities and has attempted to steal 26 times.  He’s trying to advance to the next open base 49 percent of the time. Forty-nine percent!

Of course, this would be great… if Davis could actually get on base.

For the season, Davis owns a .261 OBP, a mark well below the league average of .326. And it’s not like we’re dealing with his teammate in Toronto, Corey Paterson, who has a history of not reaching base enough to realize his steal potential (career OBP of .292); Davis actually knows how to get on base. At least he used to know. He’s two years removed from a .360 OBP and has a career mark of .321. That makes his sudden decline all the more surprising.

A couple things are happening here to cause his OBP to drop well below sea level. For starters, Davis is going berserk, expanding his strike zone:

Year

P/PA

Chase%

BB%

2009

3.59

30.9%

6.7%

2010

3.41

34.3%

4.6%

2011

3.37

39.5%

3.5%

(Chase% is the percentage of swings at pitches that would be called balls by the “perfect” umpire.) It should come as no surprise that as Davis has expanded his zone, he’s upped his strikeout rate. This year, he’s whiffing in over 21 percent of all plate appearances. Plus, swinging at poor pitches should mean his quality of contact suffers, and that’s exactly what has happened. Davis has (in the best of times) a compact, line drive stroke. For his career, he’s ripped a line drive in 18 percent of all balls in play. This season, his line drive rate has dipped to 14 percent. At the same time, his ground ball rate has dropped. Those missing line drives and grounders have transferred into the fly ball side of the ledger, a place where a player with Davis’ skill set shouldn’t be living. It’s no wonder his .292 BABIP is the lowest it’s been in four years.

For all his aggressiveness on the bases, Davis isn’t converting enough of those attempts successfully. For the season, he’s been caught eight times in 26 attempts, a 69 percent success rate.  Maybe it’s the lingering effect of an ankle injury he suffered in a rundown in the first game of the season. He played a few games with a bum wheel before he landed on the DL, which meant his speed was severely compromised–he stole a base in the opener before his injury then didn’t attempt a steal until after he was activated... a span of 40 plate appearances.  That makes his 49 percent attempted steal rate all the more amazing; he’s done it without running at all for his first handful of plate appearances.

Davis leads the universe in stolen base attempts taken as a percentage of opportunity. Given the number of chances he’s had and the number taken, he’s lapping the field. (Pun intended.) There are just a handful of other runners who have over 100 plate appearances and have been running over 30 percent of the time:

Name

PA

SBO%

SB

CS

SB%

Jason Bourgeois

102

46%

17

4

81%

Eduardo Nunez

107

40%

8

4

67%

Eric Patterson

104

31%

8

2

80%

Xavier Paul

126

31%

9

2

82%

That’s not an attractive group. If you were looking for short term production, you’d have to look at Nunez given that he’s the only one of the four with a steady job (at least until Derek Jeter returns.) Bourgeois will move back to the bench now that the Astros’ road portion of interleague is over and now that Hunter Pence is back after a brief absence due to a sprained elbow. Patterson proves that the tendency to have a low OBP is based in genetics, and Paul is a fifth outfielder and left-handed bat off the bench.

If we’re searching for steals, we’ll have to dig a little deeper. Flying under the radar due to a poor start to the season and subsequent demotion to Triple-A, San Diego’s Will Venable hasn’t been shy about flipping on the burners. With limited playing time, he’s found himself in 60 stolen base opportunities and has been off and running 15 times, meaning he’s gone for the theft a quarter of the time it’s been there for the taking.

Venable opened the season as the Padres’ leadoff hitter, but a rocky first 60 plate appearances during which he hit .154/.250/.173 meant he was soon dropped to the lower third of the batting order.  Shifting him around didn’t seem to help, and the Padres finally shipped him to the minors after 151 plate appearances, where he was hitting .224/.293/.291 before being recalled.

Since his return from Triple-A exile, Venable has excelled at reaching base. Certainly 35 plate appearances is a small sample size, and he won’t continue to reach base at a .429 clip, but this recent spurt seems to have given management in San Diego the confidence that Venable can once again hold down the leadoff spot in the Padre lineup. In his last four starts, he’s hit at the top of the order. It helps that he’s cut down on his strikeout rate, too. He was whiffing in over a quarter of his plate appearances before heading to the minors. Since his return, he’s at a 17 percent strikeout rate. That’s a good number for Venable as he’s had difficulty making contact in his first three seasons in the big leagues. He’ll never be more than an average on-base guy, but if he’s running a quarter of the time he’s on base, he’ll still provide decent fantasy value.

Venable is owned in six percent of ESPN leagues and just three percent of Yahoo leagues. With Brad Hawpe on the DL, Venable is getting even more opportunities. Even if the Padres fall into platooning him with the right-handed hitting Chris Denorfia, Venable would still carry enough stolen base potential to be rostered and rotated into a lineup on a game by game basis.

Craig Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Craig's other articles. You can contact Craig by clicking here

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