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With the exception of saves, stolen bases are the category most likely to make people moan and groan in fantasy baseball. The value of the stolen base is disproportionate to what it is in real life, which generates a great deal of frustration when it comes to constructing teams in roto leagues. Some go as far to suggest that the solution is to play in a (shudder) points league.

Two common beliefs among fantasy players are that: 1) stolen bases are not all that valuable and 2) stolen bases can found easily on the free agent pool. In this article, I will examine both of these perceptions and see how well they hold up under scrutiny.

Table 1: Players with 20 or more stolen bases, 2015

PLAYER

$$$

AB

R

HR

RBI

SB

AVG

Rank

ADP 2015

ADP 2016

Gordon, Dee

$36.47

615

88

4

46

58

0.333

7

41

17

Hamilton, Billy

$15.56

412

56

4

28

57

0.226

84

44

86

Blackmon, Charlie

$32.36

614

93

17

58

43

0.287

14

76

28

Pollock, A.J.

$41.15

609

111

20

76

39

0.315

1

157

34

Altuve, Jose

$32.44

638

86

15

66

38

0.314

13

12

11

Revere, Ben

$20.66

592

84

2

45

31

0.306

49

120

101

Marte, Starling

$28.82

579

84

19

81

30

0.287

21

32

21

Cain, Lorenzo

$30.56

551

101

16

72

28

0.307

18

194

51

Polanco, Gregory

$17.09

593

83

9

52

27

0.256

77

118

81

Burns, Billy

$14.44

520

70

5

42

26

0.294

99

127

Dyson, Jarrod

($0.44)

200

31

2

18

26

0.25

413

343

287

Pillar, Kevin

$18.59

586

76

12

56

25

0.278

66

146

Andrus, Elvis

$14.41

596

69

7

62

25

0.258

100

128

150

DeShields, Delino

$11.27

425

83

2

37

25

0.261

130

168

Segura, Jean

$9.93

560

57

6

50

25

0.257

148

145

185

Braun, Ryan

$28.10

506

87

25

84

24

0.285

24

30

52

Reyes, Jose

$11.00

481

57

7

53

24

0.274

133

46

220

Marisnick, Jake

$4.54

339

46

9

36

24

0.236

261

384

462

Heyward, Jason

$20.12

547

79

13

60

23

0.293

56

74

64

LeMahieu, DJ

$19.93

564

85

6

61

23

0.301

59

378

143

Phillips, Brandon

$19.72

588

69

12

70

23

0.294

62

275

218

Maybin, Cameron

$13.82

505

65

10

59

23

0.267

105

275

Gose, Anthony

$8.07

485

73

5

26

23

0.254

192

322

362

Goldschmidt, Paul

$40.77

567

103

33

110

21

0.321

3

5

2

Betts, Mookie

$26.45

597

92

18

77

21

0.292

28

93

16

Inciarte, Ender

$14.61

524

73

6

45

21

0.303

97

410

193

Ellsbury, Jacoby

$7.63

452

66

7

33

21

0.257

204

25

110

Machado, Manny

$34.29

633

102

35

86

20

0.286

11

130

8

Gardner, Brett

$20.62

571

94

16

66

20

0.259

50

138

139

Fowler, Dexter

$18.77

596

102

17

46

20

0.25

64

262

165

Table 1 lists the 30 major leaguers who stole 20 bases or more in 2015. In order to show the complete picture, I included the full 5×5 stat line for all of these players. Including Goldschmidt and Braun here is fine; presenting them as “stolen base” plays by hiding all of their other stats would be misleading. Looking at the hitters on Table 1, it is fairly clear which players were drafted for steals and which players were not, but rather than use some kind of arbitrary home run cutoff, I decided not to manually intervene with the data.

In drafts, it does appear that stolen bases are “cheap”. Pollock, Cain, Marisnick, Gose, Machado, and Fowler all finished 100-199 slots ahead of their ADP, while Phillips and Inciarte exceeded their ADP by over 200 slots. This doesn’t even include Burns, Pillar, DeShields, and Maybin, who weren’t taken as Top 500 draft picks in NFBC leagues at all.

This is a success-oriented sort, so it is logical that there would be a high number of bargains on the table. What is more telling to me is how these players were viewed in 2016 drafts. I can understand why players like Marisnick, Gose, and Maybin were discounted as severely as they were. Playing time matters, and while playing the upside game is fun, at bats are still king. It is with established veterans like Segura (37 ADP slots below last year’s earnings’ ranking), LeMahieu (84), Phillips (156), and Gardner (89) where I am puzzled. There is a significant stolen base discount baked into the draft rankings not only of players whose value is primarily generated from speed, but for players who offer value in other aspects of their game as well. Even near-elite players like Charlie Blackmon (14) and Lorenzo Cain (33) are discounted quite a bit relative to their 2015 earnings.

For comparable power hitters, you do not see the same kind of mass discounts across the board.

Table 2: Players with 27 or more home runs, 2015

PLAYER

$$$

AB

R

HR

RBI

SB

AVG

Rank

ADP 2015

ADP 2016

Davis, Chris

$32.04

573

100

47

117

2

0.262

16

64

23

Cruz, Nelson

$30.20

590

90

44

93

3

0.302

19

67

48

Harper, Bryce

$38.88

521

118

42

99

6

0.33

4

29

3

Arenado, Nolan

$34.65

616

97

42

130

2

0.287

9

43

7

Donaldson, Josh

$41.11

620

122

41

123

6

0.297

2

18

5

Trout, Mike

$34.41

575

104

41

90

11

0.299

10

1

1

Bautista, Jose

$32.07

543

108

40

114

8

0.251

15

9

26

Gonzalez, Carlos

$24.95

554

87

40

97

2

0.271

31

49

55

Pujols, Albert

$22.81

602

85

40

95

5

0.244

38

51

88

Encarnacion, Edwin

$28.37

528

94

39

111

3

0.277

22

10

25

Martinez, J.D.

$28.25

596

93

38

102

3

0.282

23

115

31

Ortiz, David

$21.66

528

73

37

108

0

0.273

43

94

113

Machado, Manny

$34.29

633

102

35

86

20

0.286

11

130

8

Cespedes, Yoenis

$32.46

633

101

35

105

7

0.291

12

65

42

Frazier, Todd

$24.35

619

82

35

89

13

0.255

34

38

41

Goldschmidt, Paul

$40.77

567

103

33

110

21

0.321

3

5

2

Rodriguez, Alex

$18.67

523

83

33

86

4

0.251

65

305

262

Rizzo, Anthony

$31.01

586

94

31

101

17

0.278

17

13

9

Teixeira, Mark

$11.05

392

57

31

79

2

0.255

131

293

183

Abreu, Jose

$24.08

613

88

30

101

0

0.29

36

7

18

Votto, Joey

$27.80

545

95

29

80

11

0.314

26

72

37

Carpenter, Matt

$22.66

574

101

28

84

4

0.272

41

144

69

Dozier, Brian

$21.54

628

101

28

77

12

0.236

45

63

71

Gonzalez, Adrian

$17.52

571

76

28

90

0

0.275

74

47

66

Gattis, Evan

$20.41

566

66

27

88

0

0.246

51

82

245

Jones, Adam

$16.50

546

74

27

82

3

0.269

79

14

57

Duda, Lucas

$9.83

471

67

27

73

0

0.244

151

141

138

Alvarez, Pedro

$9.61

437

60

27

77

2

0.243

153

202

270

Davis, Khris

$9.06

392

54

27

66

6

0.247

159

201

151

Stanton, Giancarlo

$7.42

279

47

27

67

4

0.265

208

4

10

On the whole, these hitters are discounted compared to 2015. But the average ADP of 70 for 2016 is only 19 slots behind the average earnings of these hitters in 2015. Gattis, Alvarez, and Rodriguez all take significant pay cuts, but there isn’t nearly the same across-the-board penny pinching that there was for the stolen base kings. For the most part, fantasy managers pay the full freight for power. They don’t do the same for stolen bases.

It turns out that we do not value stolen bases correctly. The biggest hitting bargains in deep mixed leagues are stolen base guys, and this is because we don’t pay for them. There is a circular logic to this. Fantasy managers don’t value stolen bases properly. Therefore, they are a bargain. Power is valued appropriately; therefore, it is not a bargain.

Smart fantasy managers know this. Parlaying this knowledge into fun times and crushing your opponents into subatomic dust particles is easier said than done. If everyone else is undervaluing speed, it doesn’t help you if you take Dee Gordon, Jose Altuve, and Billy Hamilton with three of your first six or seven draft picks. If you can trade one or two of these hitters for help in another category later on bully for you, but having an extreme categorical excess often leads to a disadvantage on the trade front. If you can’t catch up in home runs and RBI, it doesn’t matter if you win steals by 150.

The PFM and other projection systems try to account for this in valuation, but even so tend to regard steals more highly than the market does. I’m OK taking Altuve or Gordon ahead of the rest of the pack, but a valuation system that tells me to take three of these guys isn’t going to be very useful in real time draft or auction conditions.

This leads me to my second question: how plentiful are stolen bases in the free agent pool once the season begins? Part of the premise of discounting steals at the draft is that there are plenty available later on the waiver wire. Is this premise accurate?

Free Agents: 15-Team Mixed Leagues, 2015, 20+ steals: Billy Burns, Cameron Maybin, Delino DeShields, D.J. LeMahieu, Ender Inciarte, Jake Marisnick, Jarrod Dyson, Kevin Pillar.

Free Agents: 15-Team Mixed Leagues, 2015, 20-plus home runs: Brandon Crawford, Carlos Correa, Colby Rasmus, Justin Bour, Luis Valbuena, Mitch Moreland.

The idea that home runs are significantly more difficult to find than stolen bases in the free agent pool doesn’t hold up under any kind of scrutiny. Yes, there were more players available with 20 or more stolen bases via free agency. But at 8-6, it was hardly a slam dunk. Overpaying for steals in your draft is bad. But shying away from them because you believe “they’ll be available later” is worse.

In researching this article, I thought I’d find that steals were more plentiful in 12-team leagues. But this wasn’t the case. A shallower league in 2015 found more solid home run hitters into the free agent pool than it did stolen base elites.

Free Agents: 12-Team Mixed Leagues, 2015 20-plus steals (not including above): Anthony Gose.

Free Agents: 12-Team Mixed Leagues, 2015, 20-plus home runs (not including above): Adam Lind, Ryan Howard, Mark Teixeira, Trevor Plouffe, Alex Rodriguez, Kendrys Morales, Mike Moustakas.

Perhaps this is simply a one-year fluke. But looking at 2015 alone, if you missed out on steals in your auction last year, you would have had a hard time getting them via free agency.

I suspect the reason that the “steals are scarce” perception exists is because the climate for stolen bases has changed while the idea that they’re easy to come by via free agency has not.

Table 3: Major League, 5×5 Categories: 2010 versus 2015 (pitchers not included)

Year

AB

R

HR

RBI

SB

AVG

2015

160,739

20,409

4,884

19,440

2,503

.258

2010

160,144

21,022

4,597

20,023

2,956

.261

Not all of these statistics can be packed onto a fantasy roster. However, a 453 steal drop and a 287 home run increase league wide is going to have an impact on what is available in the free agent pool as well as on what these statistics are worth. The dip in stolen bases over the last five seasons has primarily impacted the top end of the player pool. In 2015, 30 players had 20 or more stolen bases, compared to 35 players in 2010. However, where 19 players stole 30 or more bases in 2010, only seven players turned the trick in 2015. Elite stolen base players—uncommon in recent years—have become even more scarce the last couple of seasons. With Charlie Blackmon, A.J. Pollock, and Ben Revere all on the DL in 2016, the paucity of elite stolen base options this year is painful.

If you have fallen behind early in the category, you cannot simply assume that a trade will cure what ails your fantasy team. The paradigm that “steals are easy to get” is an old one, and has shifted over the last few years. It is okay to decide that you want to dump stolen bases or not pay too much in FAAB or trade for the category. However, as with anything else, you want to make sure that you are making a decision based on accurate information, and not based on outdated and/or poor competitive intelligence.