July 19, 2008
Speed Never Slumps
"Good pitching beats good hitting."
We all have our favorite baseball clichés to hate. Attempting to summarize the game, or any aspect of it, with one easy catch-all statement rarely explains anything, and more often than not that statement is false. You can add "speed never slumps" to that list of incorrect clichés, and just ask Jacoby Ellsbury's fantasy owners whether that's true-the American League's stolen-base leader has just one steal in four attempts since June 17. His on-base percentage has dropped over 25 points in that period as well, since he's only drawn four walks. Most of his hits in that period have been singles, so he's certainly had opportunities to run, but he just hasn't taken them.
Ellsbury's slump on the basepaths illustrates my greater point-performance on the basepaths varies just as much as other aspects of the game. A player can go through a slump or a positive streak just as easily with his baserunning as he can with his hitting. That applies to both how successful he is when stealing, and how often he runs. While many names will repeat among the stolen base leaders year after year, there's enough variance to make it worth looking at the category in some detail to prepare you for the second half.
The Diamondbacks' Chris B. Young has to be among the more disappointing fantasy players this year. He fell three steals short of becoming a 30-30 man last year, but is well off that pace in 2008. While many of his problems stem from his poor on-base percentage (.296), he's also simply not attempting to run as frequently, with only seven stolen-base attempts in 377 at-bats. His stolen-base opportunity rate has dropped from .29 last year to .08 this year. If you're not familiar with it, SBO is a metric created by BaseballHQ's Ron Shandler to measure how often a player is taking advantage of his chances to run; the relevant formula is: (SB+CS)/(singles + BB). The Diamondbacks as a team are running far less frequently this year, with just 31 swipes altogether-only Pittsburgh and San Diego have fewer steals.
Curtis Granderson's season was delayed by a broken finger suffered towards the end of spring training, but that doesn't go far enough to explain his meager six steals in 10 attempts this season, after he swiped 26 bases in 27 attempts last year. Granderson's SBO has dropped from .18 last year to .13 this season. This isn't the first time that Granderson's attempts have dropped-they were even more infrequent in 2006. The short-term trends here aren't very good, either-he's hitting well in July, but hasn't yet attempted a steal in 14 games.
Like Young and Granderson, Alex Gordon was expected to run more often than he has thus far. After picking up 14 stolen bases in his rookie season, Gordon has just three this year in only five attempts. While he's made some incremental progress as a hitter, notably in his walk rate and subsequently in his on-base percentage, as a fantasy player he has to be considered a major disappointment because of his lack of stolen bases. The shortfall in steals for Gordon is especially painful because his power numbers fall short compared to the norm at third base-the projected steals were supposed to help close the gap between him and some of the higher-rated third basemen.
While this is hardly a comprehensive sampling of stolen-base slumpers, a common thread between Young, Granderson, Gordon, and Ellsbury is their level of major league inexperience. Speed is often considered a trait of younger players, but the ability to use that speed isn't automatic. They often have the raw speed, but lack the refined technique, be it in the form of a good jump, or in the ability to read the opposing pitcher. Further, a younger player's spot in the lineup and batting order is less secure, so with any sign of a slump at the plate, more attention will be placed on their batting and less on their baserunning. Additionally, many of the top basestealers remain successful late into their careers, particularly those players whose speed is their primary asset.
What's the takeaway here? Be patient if one of your primary stolen base threats isn't running often, particularly in keeper leagues, and especially if they're relatively inexperienced. Assuming that he can get his hitting woes worked out (and that's some leap right now) Chris Young will be off and running again. Also, be sure to temper those expectations for your second- and third-year players. Michael Bourn could end up with 60 steals this season and 25 next, especially if he's fighting for his job. It's always a little dangerous to chase last year's stats, and it's just as true with stolen bases as it is with other categories.
Where might you be able to find help from current minor leaguers or recent call-ups? Here are some potential sources of speed that you may be able to find on your waiver wire.
Three other prospects that might have made an impact are now unlikely to do so, at least in the short-term. Both Dexter Fowler and Colby Rasmus have been named to the US Olympic team, meaning that they won't be available until the end of August (closing ceremonies are on Aug. 24). Cameron Maybin has 17 stolen bases for Double-A Carolina, but has gone on the DL there with a back injury. The Marlins have been shopping for outfield help in advance of the trade deadline, indicating that they may not see Maybin making much of an impact this year.
Keep in mind that with all of these potential pickups, how much they run will be incumbent on how well they hit and field. Speculate if you can on their ability to run, but be aware of the risks.