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July 19, 2008

Fantasy Focus

Speed Never Slumps

by Jeff Erickson

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"Good pitching beats good hitting."
"He just knows how to win."
"It's the little things that win ballgames."

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.

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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.

  • Brett Gardner: We'll start with Gardner, who was called up a few weeks ago and is seeing a lot of playing time with Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui on the DL. Gardner can fly (34 stolen bases in 80 Triple-A games) and had a fantastic .412 OBP at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, but his utter lack of power makes it unlikely that he'll draw that many walks with the Yankees. All six of his hits in 40 major league at-bats have been singles, but he's also stolen five bases. Damon is due back soon, but Matsui might not return this season. Unless the Yankees trade for an outfielder at the deadline, Gardner should find ways into the lineup.
  • Andrew McCutchen: In a bit of a surprise, McCutchen was not named to the US Olympic team this week. Thus, instead of being unavailable for the month of August, McCutchen could be a candidate for an early call-up if the Pirates follow through and trade either Jason Bay or Xavier Nady before the deadline. One word of caution on McCutchen-while he's stolen 24 bases this year for Triple-A Indianapolis, he's also been caught 15 times, and he might not have a full green light once he's with the Pirates. Also, make sure that the Bucs don't promote either Steven Pearce or Nyjer Morgan before they bring up McCutchen. If Morgan gets the call and has the playing time, he'd actually make for a better stolen base candidate, though he's an inferior hitter and prospect.
  • Brent Lillibridge: Lillibridge's earlier trial with the Braves didn't go so well, and he was only hitting .212/.276/.288 at Triple-A Richmond before Yunel Escobar and Omar Infante got hurt about 10 days ago. Lillibridge has since been starting at shortstop and hitting well the last few games. Though he hasn't attempted a stolen base with the big-league club, he did manage 15 steals (in 20 attempts) while at Richmond, and had a combined 42 between Double- and Triple-A last year. If Escobar ultimately needs a DL trip, Lillibridge could get a two-week trial to see if he can stick in the big leagues.
  • Denard Span: Span has been a much more patient hitter this season than in the past, both in the minors and in the majors. Has he picked up a new skill, or is this more likely a sample-size fluke? Either way, he's getting regular time in right field for the Twins, and could stick there for a while. Michael Cuddyer is making slow progress returning from the DL, and most of their alternatives to Span are paltry. His SBO in the minors has regularly been above .20, suggesting that his current prowess on the basepaths is no fluke.
  • Eugenio Velez: Giants manager Bruce Bochy has been slow to use younger players over veterans, both with the Padres in the past and with his current club. Whether that's a reflection of his priorities or the talent he's had to work with is a legitimate question, though at least in the case of Xavier Nady back when both were Padres, it seems as if the skipper's the one at fault. The Giants are on the fringes of the NL West race ("we're only seven games out!"), yet are 16 games below .500. If they can find a buyer for Ray Durham or any of their veteran position players, they should sell. If Durham is moved, Velez could step in for significant playing time. Though he hasn't hit yet in his limited trial (130 at-bats), Velez already has eight stolen bases with the Giants, thanks to a whopping .52 SBO. The Giants also remain among the top 10 teams in stolen base attempts, so if Velez returns to the starting lineup, look for him to have the green light.
  • Dave Roberts: Fred Lewis has been one of the few modest success stories for the Giants in their quest to develop young hitters. They were forced to play Lewis when Roberts' knee forced him to the DL after just eight games this season. They've said that Lewis will remain the starter in left field once Roberts comes back, which could happen within the next week or so. Should Roberts get any sort of reasonable playing time, he'll almost assuredly have the green light and could get 10-15 steals down the stretch. Watch the playing time situation in San Francisco carefully.
  • Emilio Bonifacio: Bonifacio was considered the fastest man in the Diamondbacks' spring training camp back in 2007, when they had a healthy Eric Byrnes to go along with Chris Young. He had a combined 102 stolen bases in 2006-07 before landing in Triple-A Tucson this year, where his pace has slowed down some. He's currently up with the big-league squad, though he's not getting any playing time. Should Orlando Hudson hit the DL, snap up Bonifacio for a short-term boost.
  • Alcides Escobar: It's going to take an injury to J.J. Hardy or Rickie Weeks for him to get a shot, but Escobar's prospect status has skyrocketed at Double-A Huntsville this year. He's stolen 25 bases there, but more importantly is hitting .339/.369/.445 while playing excellent defense. A September call-up seems likely, and Escobar could force the Brewers into a tough decision about Weeks in 2009.

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.

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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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Prospectus Today: Bubb... (07/18)
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