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July 28, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Stolen Base Thieves and Wannabes

by Michael Jong

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Success in stealing bases is very difficult to predict, and we might be better off looking at a player's stolen base opportunities and attempts to help us find potential players who could help us in terms of volume steals. Of course, the players decide on their own whether or not they want to take off or not (perhaps with the help or confidence of their managers), and some do not seem to have the best of judgment when it comes to making these decisions. Looking through the list of players with at least 50 stolen base opportunities in 2011 (data provided by Baseball-Reference), one can definitely identify some players who should seemingly be running more to help their fantasy owners and some who should be running less to help their run-scoring chances.

Just take off, will ya?







Jason Bartlett






Emilio Bonifacio






Michael Brantley






If there was any team in the league that could afford to have more aggressive baserunning on their side, it is the San Diego Padres. Mired in the worst offensive run environment in baseball, the stolen base would hold its greatest value when manned by the Padres. The team seems to understand that very concept well, leading the league in stolen base attempt percentage at 10.3 percent (the league average is 6.7 percent).

Bartlett too has gotten the message, upping his stolen base attempt rate to 16.8 percent this season after attempting steals at an 11.8 percent clip coming into 2011. Still, his career 78.6 percent success rate combined with the fact that he is on a team with such a dearth of offensive weapons surrounding him in the lineup should encourage Bartlett to begin taking off at rates closer to elite baserunners like Michael Bourn and Jacoby Ellsbury—players who attempt steals at 20-plus percent rates. Fantasy owners need this sort of production because Bartlett just does not have the skills to provide much else. Expect him to continue to increase his attempts rate to fit into a more aggressive baserunning style in San Diego.

The Marlins have been running less and less over the years, and this season, the team as a whole is taking off in just 5.8 percent of stolen base opportunities. This has unfortunately rubbed off on one player who actually needs his speed to survive in the majors. Emilio Bonifacio brings very little outside of his game-breaking speed and has had the rare opportunity to not only start most of the season but also get on base a surprising amount. Thanks to a decreased swing rate (down to 43.2 percent from a 2009 high of 50.4 percent), he has improbably upped his walk rate to 10.6 percent. His stolen base attempt rate, however, has not changed since his early days, sitting at 14.9 percent versus a career mark of 14.3 percent before 2011.

Perhaps the Marlins have held him back in order to prevent him from being picked off (he was picked off 14 times from 2008 to 2010), but his 77.5 percent career success rate indicates that the team should also let him take advantage of his speed. Among players with at least 20 stolen base attempts, Bonifacio has the sixth lowest stolen base attempt rate, and the majority of the other players on that list are either ineffective stealers (Justin Upton) or playing on teams with strong offenses. As Bonifacio continues to perform well, expect the Marlins to loosen the reins on him a tad and let his one skill dominate before the BABIP regresses from its .374 perch and his OBP begins to fall.

Michael Brantley has led off 67 of the Cleveland Indians' 100 games this season. He has had 168 opportunities with a base open in front of him, yet he has only taken off 9.5 percent of the time. This would be more than acceptable for a player whose speed was only secondary to his value, but Brantley is hitting just .281/.337/.393, showing a lack of power and an acceptable but not outstanding ability to get on base—aspects of his game that were also present for much of his minor league career. The one thing he carried over well from the minors was his stolen base ability, but under the Indians' system, he has had to suppress that capability to a degree.

After stealing 162 bases out of 201 attempts in the minors (80.5 percent SB%), Brantley has only run 16 times in 2011. Last season, he had essentially the same rate while batting in a lineup that appeared worse than the 2011 version of the Indians. In this particular instance, it seems like the Indians prefer to have Brantley on base for their bigger bats to drive in, but this has only kept his value in real life and fantasy down; for a guy as fast as he is, recording only 0.1 runs above average on the season in terms of baserunning is a sin. By the end of the season, he might have lost 10 steals to the Indians' conservative baserunning ways.

Slow down, partner







Alex Gordon






Juan Pierre






Hanley Ramirez






In his rookie season, Alex Gordon stole 14 bags in 18 attempts, but his attempt rate has severely dropped since then, averaging just a 5.7 percent attempt rate from 2008 to 2010. Under new manager Ned Yost's more aggressive plan (the Royals are third in the majors in stolen base attempt rate at 9.2 percent), Gordon has been running a bit more often than usual this season. Unfortunately, he has been caught in six of his fifteen attempts and has been picked off four times. Gordon's game has been a relative revelation compared to his past few seasons, but his runs scored rate (percentage of times scored when on base) has dipped below the league average, in part due to his basepath blunders. He could probably eke out a few more valuable runs, even with the Royals lineup, if he gave up on his basestealing (of course, this comes with the caveat that stolen base success rate is highly volatile, and Gordon could still be successful is his lack of success turns out to be more random variation than anything else).

Pierre is the prime example of the one-category steals guy, but he has largely fallen off the map this season. Despite almost identical batting averages and OBPs in 2010 and 2011, Pierre has come around to score just 32 percent of the time he’s been on base this season compared to 38 percent last year, and his ineffectiveness on the bases has cost both the White Sox and fantasy owners a few runs. It is almost as if he himself has admitted as much; after running on 24.3 percent of opportunities prior to 2011, he has run on just 15.8 percent of chances this year. This could either be a mandate from management or a sign that Pierre himself recognizes that his running days are coming to an end, and it would be best to avoid him at this point.

Ramirez has been mired in a season-long slump and, perhaps as a result, has gone away from a strategy that used to work for him. After his 2006 and 2007 seasons, Ramirez dropped his stolen base attempt rate from 24.3 percent to 15.4 percent from 2008 to 2010. This season, it almost seems as if Ramirez is attempting to compensate for his struggles at the plate with his running, as his attempts rate is back up to 23.6 percent with a corresponding decrease in success rate. Now that he’s batting cleanup ahead of good hitters and his bat is waking up, that high attempt rates should start to diminish back to his previous level. As a result of an improved set of hitter behind him, Ramirez is scoring on 39 percent of his trips on base, and that should increase with fewer outs made on the bases.

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

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