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As the Baseball Prospectus Fantasy Team boldly pushes forward in our Fantasy Categorical Breakdowns series, be sure to catch up with previous installments over the past couple of weeks. J.P. Breen kicked off our stolen-base series with a look at the league-wide decline in thefts, as only seven hitters eclipsed the 30-steal plateau this past season. Tomorrow, noted Mallex Smith enthusiast, Greg Wellemeyer will take a deep dive into the category at the next generation of speedsters that will pilfer our hearts and inhabit our dynasty rosters. Today’s article focuses on the mixed league relevant roadrunners, ranging from the games elites, to five intriguing names to watch, a rebound and regression candidate and finally a breakdown of the specialists capable of infusing your fantasy roster with the speed you covet in 2016.

The Gold Standards (Stolen base kings worth every last dollar in 2016)

Dee Gordon, 2B, Marlins

Arguably the best value in fantasy baseball, Gordon finished tied with Paul Goldschmidt as the top earner ($41) in NL-only formats this past season. The stolen bases have always been there, but his improvement at the plate has transformed him from a one-category specialist into one of the most dynamic hitters in fantasy baseball.

The biggest adjustment he’s made at the plate over the past two seasons, beginning with Los Angeles in 2014, was dramatically overhauling his batted-ball profile. Focusing primarily on putting the ball in play on the ground enabled him to take full advantage of his 80-grade speed. Among hitters with at least 500 plate appearances, only Christian Yelich recorded a higher groundball rate than Gordon (63.73 percent), who also led the league in both bunt hits (16) and infield hits (36). If there were any doubts about his ability to continue to hit for a high average after his breakout campaign with the Dodgers, he erased them in his first year with Miami.

Year

PA

R

HR

RBI

SB

AVG

OBP

SLG

TAv

2014

650

92

2

34

64

.289

.326

.378

.267

2015

653

88

4

46

58

.333

.359

.418

.292

Mainstream fantasy owners' aversion to speed-only, one-category specialists is warranted since they bring little else to the table besides the stolen bases. However, Gordon has evolved into much more than just a one-category speedster. Given the scarcity of stolen bases across the fantasy landscape, the 27-year-old’s floor is actually much higher than those of the majority of the other elite options on the senior circuit.

Billy Hamilton, OF, Reds

The 25-year-old became a much more efficient base-stealer in 2015, which is bad news for the rest of the league.

Year

PA

SB

CS

2014

611

56

23

2015

454

57

8

Had it not been for a shoulder injury, which cost him a significant chunk of the second half, he would have easily challenged for 70-80 steals this past season. We know he’s insanely fast, but just for a bit of perspective, according to Baseball Info Solutions data, Hamilton averaged 3.48 seconds (first to second base) on stolen-base attempts last year, which was the fastest time of any runner with at least 10 attempts.

The stolen-base upside is off the charts and the long-awaited monster campaign feels like it’s coming in 2016. If you’re interested in a lengthy, nuanced discussion of Hamilton’s value going forward, I’ll refer you to the latest edition of the Flags Fly Forever podcast.

Charlie Blackmon, OF, Rockies

A.J. Pollock, OF, Diamondbacks

Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros

The outfield tandem finished as top-five earners in NL-only formats this past season, earning $34 and $40, respectively. Blackmon, who burst onto the fantasy scene in 2014 when he swiped 28 bags, took another huge step forward in that department, stealing 43 bases in 2015. At 29 years old, it’s probably unreasonable to expect him to continue to reach the 40-steal plateau, but a consistent 25-30-steal floor isn’t out of the question.

Since 2012, only one hitter (Gordon) has racked up more stolen bases than the 162 accumulated by the Astros' electric leadoff man. According to Mike Gianella’s 2015 end-of-season valuations, Altuve finished as the top earner ($39) in the AL this past season. Honestly, what else is left to say? He’s cemented himself as the top fantasy second baseman in the game, and at just 25 years old, he’s a lock to steal at least 30 bases a year for the next half-decade.

Five To Watch In 2016 (The most polarizing speedsters in fantasy baseball)

Jacoby Ellsbury, OF, Yankees

Ellsbury has burned every fantasy owner in a re-draft league over the past decade. It’s a rite of passage, frankly. He’s now 32 years old and while a bounceback is not out of the question, especially considering the speed (3.57 seconds on average, according to BIS) remains vintage, his plate appearances and stolen-base totals have declined for three consecutive years.

Year

Organization

Plate Appearances

Stolen Bases

2013

BOS

636

52

2014

NYY

635

39

2015

NYY

501

21

My colleague Matt Collins wrote up an excellent breakdown of Ellsbury’s struggles this past season, which I implore you to read. The problem is going to be what he costs on draft day in relation to what he actually produces value-wise. In the expert leagues alone (CBS/LABR/Tout Wars AL-only formats), Ellsbury was purchased for an average price of $31 and returned just $18 last year. Given his age and the hefty freight on draft day, the risk simply outweighs the reward with Ellsbury going forward.

Ben Revere, OF, Blue Jays

He’s recorded at least 30 steals in all but one year (22 in 2013) dating back to the 2011 campaign and was one of just seven hitters to accomplish the feat this past season. The primary factor to watch isn’t his age (he’s still only 27 years old), but rather his lineup context. It will be interesting to see if he continues to run as much while leading off for the Jays—and risk getting thrown out with bats like Donaldson, Bautista, and Encarnacion coming to the plate behind him—going forward.

It’s worth noting that the rate of Revere’s stolen-base attempts per plate appearance significantly declined from one every 16 PA in Philadelphia to just one every 27 PA in Toronto last year. There’s no doubt that he will rank among the league leaders in runs scored (if he stays healthy) next season, but it could come at the expense of a handful of steals.

Jose Reyes, SS, Rockies

Setting aside the off-field issue, which MLB will undoubtedly address this offseason, the 32-year-old has reached 30 stolen bases just once over the past three years. He was particularly dreadful in a Rockies uniform after the trade deadline, slashing .259/.291/.368 while converting just eight of 12 stolen-base opportunities. He was thrown out as many times in Colorado as he had been in his previous 50 stolen base attempts with Toronto dating back to the start of the 2014 campaign.

Elvis Andrus, SS, Rangers

Despite posting lofty stolen-base totals, Andrus has never been an efficient thief, getting thrown out nearly a quarter of the time (75 times in 292 career attempts). Still, he’s only 27 years old and has stolen more bases (217) than all but four players since entering the league in 2009, serving as a consistent source of swipes, even if he isn’t bringing a whole lot else to the table fantasy-wise. The 42 steals he accumulated back in 2013, fifth-most in the game, look like an even bigger outlier now after 2014 and 2015 seasons with 27 and 25, respectively.

Cameron Maybin, OF, Tigers

The newly acquired Tigers center fielder thrived with the Braves in 2015, posting his highest stolen-base total (23) since 2012. It feels like he’s been around forever (2007 to be exact), but he’s still only 28 years old. When you think of the Tigers, you don’t think speed and stolen bases, but that’s exactly what they’ve aimed for under manager Brad Ausmus. They just haven’t been very successful. Detroit was caught stealing (51 times in 134 attempts) more than any other AL franchise a season ago, but only the Rangers (140), Astros (161), and Royals (138) ran more often. Maybin should get plenty of chances to run, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could challenge for 30, possibly even 40 steals in 2016. He’s done it before.

The Specialists (Five speed demons worthy of a mixed-league investment)

Jarrod Dyson, OF, Royals

The fantasy baseball equivalent of a Maserati, Dyson’s intoxicating speed is incredibly alluring proposition. However, just like you wouldn’t want to drive an Italian sports car through stop-and-go traffic to work everyday, Dyson isn’t someone you want to be relying on every day in a fantasy lineup. Even though Dyson has only eclipsed 300 plate appearances in a season just once in his six-year career, only five hitters have racked up more steals than the 126 he’s piled up since 2012. He was worth just as much ($15) as Hanley Ramirez in AL-only formats this past season, and despite turning 31, he remains the ultimate speed-specialist target heading into 2016.

Kevin Pillar, OF, Blue Jays

It’s a completely fair statement to claim that Pillar was “the biggest fantasy surprise of the entire 2015 season.” Not only did he hit an astounding .278/.314/.399 with 76 runs scored, 12 home runs, 56 RBI, and 25 stolen bases over 628 plate appearances, but he earned a whopping $26, finishing as the 17th-most-valuable hitter in AL-only formats. The speed is legit, as the kids say these days. According to BIS data, only eight runners recorded a faster average time on stolen-base attempts (first to second base) than the 26-year-old (3.54 seconds) in 2015. On the surface, he doesn’t appear to be a sexy target, but if you dig a little deeper, the lofty valuation figure shows the hidden value of his solid all-around contributions and the tangible impact of his stolen-base prowess.

Billy Burns, OF, Athletics

It’s hard not be a little biased when it comes to evaluating Burns, who derived a large majority of his fantasy value (a prodigious $25 valuation in AL-only formats in 2015) from his lofty stolen-base total and a groundball-centered approach, which enabled him to hit .294 over 555 plate appearances this past season. Fantasy owners may never be enamored with his hitting, but the 26-year-old's raw base-stealing talent is unquestioned. According to BIS data, among runners with at least 10 attempted steals of second base, only Billy Hamilton and Jarrod Dyson posted faster average times than Burns 3.52 seconds. Given the scarcity of stolen bases around the league, Burns is a solid late-round investment in 2016.

Delino DeShields, OF, Rangers

Overshadowed by Billy Hamilton in the minor leagues for years, DeShields finally got a big-league opportunity this past season after being selected by the Texas Rangers in the Rule 5 draft. Despite missing several weeks due to a hamstring injury, he finished the 2015 campaign hitting .261/.344/.374 with 25 steals on 33 attempts. Just like Pillar and Burns, DeShields recorded a top-10 (3.54 seconds, according to BIS) average time on stolen base attempts from first to second base.

The skills are there and so are the everyday at-bats in center field with Leonys Martin shipped out of town. DeShields is an even more attractive option in long-term keeper and dynasty formats given his age (23 years old) relative to the other names in this group, all of whom (with the exception of Inciarte) are 26 or older.

Ender Inciarte, OF, Diamondbacks

The 25-year-old followed up his out-of-nowhere arrival the previous year by hitting .303/.338/.408 with 73 runs scored, six home runs, 45 RBI, and 21 stolen bases in 2015. He’s piled up 40 stolen bases over the past two seasons combined and is worthy of mixed-league attention going forward, simply because of the speed alone. After earning $23 in AL-only formats this past season, he isn’t going to sneak up on anyone in the mid-to-late rounds, but he should be a preferred target for fantasy owners looking to add speed.

The Rebound Candidate

Leonys Martin, OF, Mariners

A healthy Carlos Gomez is the most obvious candidate to rebound in the stolen base department this upcoming season. He’s also an elite five-category fantasy asset (if healthy), which means he won’t be cheap to acquire on draft day. Martin, on the other hand, is a much cheaper alternative, capable of racking up a prodigious stolen-base total. From 2013-2014, Martin was one of just six hitters to bat .260 with 30 stolen bases in back-to-back campaigns. His fantasy stock cratered after a dismal campaign in which he nabbed just 14 bases over 95 games in Texas this past season. Given a new lease on life (and likely a starting gig as well) in Seattle, he is an attractive late-round target in mixed leagues given the league-wide decline in stolen bases.

The Regression Candidate

Ryan Braun, OF, Brewers

Unless you’re a Brewers fan (or Braun owner) you probably aren’t aware that he swiped 24 bases last year. Not only is that more than several prominent elite fantasy outfielders with speed like Jason Heyward, Mookie Betts, and Carlos Gomez, but it’s also the most the veteran outfielder has run since 2012 when he reached the lofty 30-steal plateau. Speed just doesn’t age well. Over the last five seasons, only 11 hitters over the age of 32 have eclipsed 24 steals in a single campaign. Counting on a 32-year-old middle-of-the-order bat, who has dealt with numerous injuries, to continue to provide a boost in stolen bases is a risky proposition to say the least.

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WickedCurve26
12/01
Any thoughts on Machado's 20 SBs this season? Is that what we should expect going forward, or do we expect more of an increase as he puts the knee injuries further behind him?
GeorgeBissell
12/02
Great question! The 20 steals were "legit." However, I wouldn't expect an increase going forward given the fact that he never stole more than 15 bases in a single season, even at the minor league level. This is more narrative driven than anything else, but if I'm the Orioles, I don't want my 23-year-old third baseman, who just hit 35 home runs while slugging .502, routinely risking injury on the base paths. He's not a prolific base stealer as evidenced by a 71% success rate and the fact that he was caught stealing eight times last year. Among hitters with 20-plus steals, only Anthony Gose and Ender Inciarte posted a lower success rate in 2015. I think 20 steals would be a more realistic ceiling than a baseline floor to project going forward.