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April 25, 2008

Fantasy Focus

April Stolen Base Report

by Jeff Erickson

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In most fantasy leagues, saves and stolen bases are one-category events that often cost more than they're worth. Thus, we spend a lot of time studying the trends in each category to find cheap sources of both, and to avoid the fools' gold tempting an unsuspecting fantasy owner. More attention often goes to the closers, and we'll be addressing them in future columns, but stolen bases deserve their own focus. They aren't quite as scarce as they were just two years ago; there were over 2,900 total stolen bases in major league baseball in 2007, nearly 400 higher than in 2005. Still, they're rare enough to rate an early look. Keep in mind the usual small sample size caveats that come with any April analysis.

Looking at the Leaders
All stats as of 4/23, unless otherwise noted

Michael Bourn   13
Carlos Gomez     9
Jacoby Ellsbury  8
Brian Roberts    8
Chone Figgins    7
Joey Gathright   7
Hanley Ramirez   6
Willy Taveras    6
Rafael Furcal    6
Ian Kinsler      6

Brian Roberts, Chone Figgins, and Hanley Ramirez are fixtures on league leader boards, so nothing new there. Rafael Furcal ran less often last year because of an ankle injury, but his 12 September steals foretold a good recovery in that department. Willy Taveras has had three 30+ stolen base seasons in a row, so his presence here isn't all that shocking. We'll instead focus on the newer or more surprising names with their names up in lights.

Despite missing the last three games with a groin injury, Michael Bourn has jumped out to a quick lead in the majors with 13 stolen bases. That Bourn is running so often (and successfully, as he hasn't been caught) isn't a surprise; he was 18-for-19 in stolen base attempts last year in just 133 plate appearances with the Phillies. Bourn is running a little more frequently than he did last year, but not outlandishly so. He's doing this despite hitting only .216 so far, though a .250 BABIP suggests that his batting average will improve eventually. His success on the basepaths in conjunction with a 12 percent walk rate have made him a positive offense player (with a VORP of 3.1, the fourth highest mark on the Astros so far) despite the low average. Unless the groin strain lingers, look for him to remain among the stolen base leaders all season.

In contrast, fast starters Carlos Gomez and Joey Gathright are unlikely to keep up their early pace. Gomez's speed and stolen base ability are legit--both anecdotal (Jose Reyes' claim that Gomez is faster than him) and statistical evidence confirm that notion. If he sticks as the Twins' center fielder all season, he'll almost certainly eclipse 50 stolen bases. However, he's well on the way to losing his job, because Gomez has done little to overcome the perception created last season that he's overmatched by major league pitchers, as he's hit just .230/.247/.310, with a grisly 24:2 K:BB ratio in the early going. Unlike Bourn, there's little evidence that he's been unlucky at the plate, with a .317 average on balls in play. His defense and speed might keep him around a little longer, but he's already starting to get days off, and a demotion from the top of the order, if not to the minors, seems probable. Gathright is in a similar situation, except the competition for playing time is even more threatening to him, Jose Guillen's awful start notwithstanding. Now that David DeJesus is healthy, Gathright has been downgraded to a fourth outfielder. Although Gathright has a better history of taking a walk than Gomez, though it hasn't yet happened in 2008 (8:1 K:BB). It's also worth noting that three of his stolen bases came on one night against a gimpy-shouldered Jorge Posada.

Some sabermetricians discount the value of a stolen base, or at least have the reputation for doing so. In truth, it's the success rate, more than the pure number of steals, that makes a putative thief particularly valuable, though less so in fantasy than in real life. (This is a pretty compelling reason to make "net steals" a category in your leagues rather than total stolen bases, but I digress.) Because the Red Sox are a sabermetrically-inclined team, there's a perception that they'd be against having their runners steal, but as we demonstrated last year, this isn't really the case. The Red Sox and manager Terry Francona are willing to give their players the green light, so long as they have a good success rate. Thus, the presence of Jacoby Ellsbury among the league leaders in steals shouldn't surprise you, at least in terms of how it reflects organizational philosophy. Coco Crisp has already lived up to his injury-prone label (though he has four steals of his own after Thursday's game), providing Ellsbury with more playing time opportunity. Ellsbury has hit and run so well that it will be difficult for Crisp to dislodge him from the lineup on a regular basis. Ellsbury has the potential to eventually steal 40 bases.

Ian Kinsler stole 23 bases last season in 130 games, so his presence here shouldn't be that much of a surprise. He has had a spike in his stolen base opportunity rate (SBO), jumping from .17 last year to .23 so far this year. For those unfamiliar with SBO, it's a stat developed by BaseballHQ.com that measures how often a runner is taking advantage of his opportunities to run. The formula is:

(sb+cs)/(singles + bb)

The increased rate isn't marked enough that we'd expect a significant or immediate drop. If you're looking to trade for stolen bases, you can be confident that they'll keep coming for Kinsler.

Team Trends

The Angels under Mike Scioscia and the Rays under Joe Maddon (a Scioscia disciple) typically run more than anyone else in baseball, and this year is no exception. The Angels are tied with the Astros for the most steals in baseball with 24, while the Rays are three behind, but with more total stolen base attempts (34). The Astros under new manager Cecil Cooper are led by Bourn, but also feature Lance Berkman with four steals, and Kazuo Matsui snagged two quick bags after returning from the DL. Berkman won't continue this pace, but this could be one of those outlier seasons where he runs more frequently. His SBO sits at .14, as opposed to a career .06 rate.

The surprise team in terms of total steals is the Giants, who have stolen 23 bases despite not having one player with more than four. The team appears to be making a concerted effort to overcome its lack of power by running more frequently. If Eugenio Velez continues to get at least semi-regular playing time, he could find himself among the elite stolen base leaders.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the White Sox and Padres, who have each attempted only six steals all season. The lack of stolen bases for the White Sox is somewhat surprising given manager Ozzie Guillen's reputation as a skipper who embraces the stolen base. However, Jerry Owens was hurt to begin the season and then got demoted to the minors, removing Chicago's biggest stolen base threat; Orlando Cabrera has all three of the White Sox's stolen bases. The Padres rate towards the bottom in both running and controlling the running game. Those facts seem surprising in light of how Petco Park serves to muffle a team's power output.

Catcher Trends

No catcher has come close to the Padres' Josh Bard in allowing stolen bases. Last year, Bard easily surrendered more steals than any other catcher in baseball, giving up 121 (throwing out just six percent) while playing in 108 games. Jason Kendall was next, allowing 111. This year, Bard has already surrendered 26 steals, 10 ahead of his nearest competitor. It's not entirely Bard's fault; he works with two pitchers, Greg Maddux and Chris Young, who are either indifferent to the running game or very slow in getting the ball to the plate. Other victims almost among the league "leaders" include the Blue Jays' Gregg Zaun and the Red Sox's Kevin Cash (knuckleballer Tim Wakefield's personal catcher for the time being). On the flip side, the Twins' Joe Mauer has thrown out half of the attempted baserunners against him, and he's no stranger to successfully stopping the running game.

We'll revisit these trends later in the season to help you identify a few potential stolen base sources and chances to gain in the category.

---

Jeff Erickson is the Senior Editor at RotoWire, and the host of XM Radio's Fantasy Focus. He can be reached here.

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