June 1, 2007
We've now had two months of data, which should be enough to examine some trends that can help you corner the stolen bases category for your fantasy leagues. We'll look at who is running more frequently and successfully than normal, and also which catchers stand out in their attempts to thwart the running game. One metric that I'll frequently refer to is a player's stolen base opportunity rate (SBO), which measures how often a runner is taking advantage of his opportunities to run. The formula was created by the folks at BaseballHQ.com, and is elegantly simple:
(sb+cs)/(singles + bb).
It's not a perfect metric--it only measures what happens to a player reaching first base (although I've seen it computed by including doubles in the denominator), and it doesn't incorporate players reaching first base on a fielder's choice or an error. Still, as long as it's applied evenly, it can give us a quick look at how often a player is running. League average was about .09 in both leagues last year; usually for guys that really have the green light, their rate is .20. The two things I'll be looking for are the rate itself, and a big variance in that rate from previous seasons. I'll attempt to explain the outliers in the latter category.
Kenny Lofton is tied for second in the AL behind only Brian Roberts with 16 stolen bases, but there's some cause for pessimism regarding the question of whether he can keep this rate up. His SBO is at .37, highest in the AL and considerably higher than his rate over the last five years, which has hovered around .25. He's also been able to avoid the injuries that have plagued him in recent seasons. With the Rangers falling quickly into the cellar of the AL West, there's a chance that later in the summer they'll trade or bench Lofton in order to make room for younger options. It's not as if Lofton's speed is a fluke, only the frequency in which he's been able to use it. If you're looking to trade for stolen bases this year, Lofton isn't the best player to target.
The Red Sox aren't viewed by many as a running team--in fact, many associate them with the A's as a team that almost discourages the use of the running game. Because of that, many stolen base projections for Julio Lugo and Coco Crisp were fairly conservative. However, even though both haven't hit very well, they are running a ton. Lugo's SBO rate is .31, and Crisp's is .28. Both rate stats are in line with their career norms. Just think how much damage they could wreak on the basepaths if they were getting on base at a league average clip.
Reggie Willits has been one of the catalysts for the Angels in the early going. LAnaheim has gotten out to a 5.5 game lead in the AL West, helped along by Willits hitting .339 with 20 walks in 127 at-bats at the top of the order. Along with his superb on-base results, he's also been successful stealing in 11 of 12 attempts. He's had 31 or more stolen bases at each of his last three stops in the minors, and he ran with more frequency at each stop before reaching the majors, so his stolen base output is no fluke. One concern is what happens to Willits' playing time once Garret Anderson returns from the DL. The Angels haven't made any official pronouncements, but hinted that they'll keep Willits in the outfield and use Anderson more often at DH, bumping Shea Hillenbrand out of the lineup rather than Willits. Willits is not going to keep hitting .339, but he can still be acquired cheaply in many leagues if you're looking for a boost in stolen bases.
Adrian Beltre runs pretty well for a third baseman, stealing 11 bases last year, and five so far this year. His pace is probably going to slow down, however. Ten of his 11 stolen bases last year came in the first two months, and his SBO (.17) is well above his career norms, which hover around the league average. Hold him if you already own him, but don't trade for him if you're seeking to add stolen bases.
Esteban German may only have four stolen bases so far, but he's capable of pulling off a number of heists in a flurry at any moment. German had 43 stolen bases as recently as 2005, when he was in the Rangers' system at Triple-A Oklahoma. Don't be surprised if he keeps working his way into more playing time, especially considering Alex Gordon's struggles, Mark Grudzielanek's inability to stay healthy, and German's own on-base skills. An added bonus is German's flexibility--he qualifies at second base, third base, and the outfield in most leagues.
Prior to this season, Shane Victorino only had 11 stolen bases for his career at the major league level, but he's already compiled 16 with the Phillies this season. Because his last stolen base attempt was on May 18, there's a natural inclination to believe that his high output so far is a bit of a fluke, but I don't believe that to be the case. If you look at both his raw stolen bases and his SBO in the minors, along with his .29 SBO this year, there's good reason to believe he's going to keep on running. The Phillies brought in Davey Lopes this year with the express intent of improving the team's basestealing, and Victorino is certainly one of his apparently most apt pupils.
Rafael Furcal isn't running as frequently as he normally does, with only six stolen bases in nine attempts so far, and his SBO of .15 is well below both his career .24 rate as well as the .20 rate he had last year. However, this decline is probably injury-related rather than a reflection of a career-altering decline in speed. He missed the first two weeks of the season while on the DL with an ankle injury, and struggled immediately after returning, and he has recently missed a game due to a sore knee. Presuming his wheels heal fully, Furcal's opportunity rate should increase back up to his career norms. He won't end up stealing as many bases as we had projected for him, but he'll still be a good buy-low trade target.
Yadier Molina's fractured left wrist removes the one catcher perhaps most effective at shutting down opposing baserunners. In 40 games this year, opposing runners only had 14 attempts against him, with Molina gunning down eight of those putative thieves. His replacement, Gary Bennett, has only thrown out one runner in 11 attempts over just 15 games. Look for teams to start running more often against the Cardinals with Molia gone for a good stretch.
If you're in leagues with daily moves and are targeting stolen bases, here are a few more opposing catchers that you should look to avoid. Before he went on the DL, Joe Mauer had thrown out seven of 11 baserunners. Meanwhile, Mike Redmond has picked up the slack while Mauer has been out, nailing seven of the 15 runners that have run against him. Ronny Paulino (16 of 35) and David Ross (11 of 23) may not be hitting, but both are earning their playing time defensively.
On the flip side, there are some catchers and teams that you definitely want to target if you're looking to get an edge. Mike Piazza might not be there to kick around anymore, but the Padres still haven't stopped the running game. Josh Bard has only thrown out four of the 40 runners attempting to steal against him, and his backup Rob Bowen has been no better, throwing out three of 24. Not all of the blame should go to the catchers here--Chris Young (16 stolen bases against, none caught) has a slow delivery to the plate, and it's a little late in the career of Greg Maddux (16 steals, none caught) to encourage him to use a slide-step.
Similarly, teams are running wild against the Blue Jays triumverate of catchers (Gregg Zaun, Jason Phillips, and Sal Fasano), as opposing baserunners have 43 stolen bases in 50 attempts. Much of that damage has come against A.J. Burnett, who has seen 17 stolen bases against him without anyone getting caught.
The two catchers who have given up more stolen bases than anyone else, however, are Jason Kendall (39 in 50 attempts) and Jorge Posada (38 in 47 attempts). The numbers on Kendall are particularly striking given that he used to be effective controlling the running game. Posada's 19 percent caught stealing rate is well below his career average of 30 percent, and much of that can probably be attributed to him working with so many new pitchers during the first two months of the season. His backup, Wil Nieves, has been more successful throwing out runners, nailing five of the nine attempted thieves.