Yesterday George Bissell laid out the speed landscape, which last year continued to appear significantly less densely populated than it had in years (and especially decades) past. Go forth and acquire speed, young bloods, for it is an asset in demand. Let’s take a look at some of the players who over- and under-performed relative to pre-season expectations in 2016, before diving a little deeper into the category later this week.
The extra playing time’s certainly the decider here from a raw totals perspective, but Jankowski also posted nearly double his projected volume of steals on a rate basis. His 2.64 Stolen Base Runs were the second-best mark in baseball behind only Billy Hamilton, and his 30 steals and okay-enough average in part-time duty made him a poorer-man’s Jarrod Dyson. That’s not exactly a dynamic best-case scenario, however, and given that he both lacks for any semblance of power and can’t hit lefties at all, he’s just not a great asset in most weekly leagues. There’s some marginal upside here: he’s posted consistently strong on-base numbers relative to batting average throughout his professional career, and his approach has produced outsized BABIP’s at most every stop. He’ll play the first half of next season at just 25 still, and while top prospect Manuel Margot figures to nip at his heels right out of the gate, there will be at-bats to be had for Jankowski next spring. I wouldn’t go nuts trying to acquire him this winter as a potentially undervalued asset in most leagues, though.
Alright, now this dude’s just getting ridiculous. After flashing 20-bag acumen for the first time in 2015, Goldy took things to the next level with a breakout baserunning campaign to offset some of the decline in his power production. His 86.5-percent conversion rate was a career-best at age 29, and he showcased a maturity of approach to supplement still-there raw speed to create an unforeseen potency to his game on the basepaths. You are betting on bulk accumulation and health when you bet on him sniffing anything close to this number of steals again, but given the dearth of production in the category at first base it’s all gravy. What’s especially remarkable about him is that he’s a 4.3 runner – average from the right side. His reads and reactions are among the best you’ll find, however, which gives hope that as long as he’s healthy and reasonably within his physical prime years he can continue to be an effective base-stealer.
Wil Myers, 1B/OF, San Diego Padres. PECOTA: 11 SB in 625 PA, Actual: 28 SB in 676 PA.
Yeah, I dunno what to tell you about this one, man. Myers has never been a lump on the bases or anything, but his 28 bags matched the total he’d compiled in the previous three seasons combined. The Padres imported a new manager, Andy Green, last off-season, and Young apparently imported a new aggressiveness on the bases as part of his management philosophy. Myers embraced the new governing theory, evolving into a player three times more efficient at generating runs on the bases than he’d been in partial duty the season before. Out-of-nowhere spikes in stolen base productivity like this are generally cause for caution in projecting sustainment, though Myers’ age (26) and team context certainly makes him a more intriguing proposition for rolling over some of that value. I wouldn’t go paying full freight to assume another 25-plus bags, but barring trade he should be in a similarly advantageous position to produce outsized value relative to his position-mates.
What a fascinating hitter this guy is, man alive. He posted the fourth-highest exit velocity of any hitter in baseball last year, while staying in the zone at an elite rate. He also made contact on pitches in the zone at one of the worst rates of anyone to amass as many plate appearances as he did, en route to striking out an absolutely obscene clip. We just care about the wheels today though, and they are, well, round. He managed to rack up the seventh-best SBR total in the majors despite limited playing time, and his 10.6 plate appearances-per-stolen base marked the third-best rate in the bigs. He figures to see his fair share of sleeper posts this winter, and the skillset is certainly tantalizing for those who can stomach the whiff-tastic ways. Given the relative premium value for speed, he figures to offer a solid value floor based on the stolen bases alone even if his contact issues prove too much for consistent power output.
A year after posting one of just three 40-steal seasons, Blackmon’s attempts and efficiency plummeted dramatically while he all of a sudden morphed into a deadly power threat. Turf toe, thou art a most cruel and bitter tempest. On average it took him twice as many plate appearances (24) in between stolen base attempts in 2016 as it had the year prior (12), and his success rate plummeted by 11 percentage points when he did run. At 30 he isn’t exactly old, though turf toe is a chronic condition, and given his revolutionized approach that led to such a tasty power spike, it’s fair to question what kind of expectations we should harbor for his speed game going forward.
Machado was the downside counterfactual on the other end of the Stolen Base Spike Spectrum™ from Wil Myers, attempting all of three steals – and succeeding on precisely none of them – a year after splitting 28 times and succeeding on 20 breaks. The Ghost of Earl Weaver is alive and well in Balmer, where the Orioles have now stolen the fewest bases in the majors in each of the last three seasons and haven’t run at a league-average clip once in the last decade. This really boils down to a warning that as much as lineup context demands consideration for counting stat projections, so too does organizational context in assessing stolen base potential. It’s probably a fairly safe bet at this point to pencil Machado in for a token bag or three at most going forward, and call it a day. It was nice while it lasted.
PECOTA can struggle sometimes with aging speedsters who’ve taken their first steps down into the abyss, and its projection for Ellsbury of 35 bags at a near-elite 83-percent clip is a good case in point. He remained a net-positive baserunner on the season, generating a couple runs on the bases, but his days as an elite stolen base asset in fantasy have begun to wane in earnest. Still, 20 bags are 20 bags, and there were less than thirty dudes who swiped that many last year. His medical file can probably lay claim its own zip code at this point, and the fact that he managed just the 20 steals in a season of relatively full health does not bode well for his production as those everyday aches and pains of the mid-30’s set in for real.
I’m not going to sit here and claim Gose was a popular sleeper pre-season, but his final ADP checked in at 361, which meant that on average he came off NFBC draft boards ahead of guys like Wilmer Flores, Desmond Jennings, Nick Markakis, Didi Gregorious, and Mike Napoli. PECOTA was clearly bullish, affording a more-or-less full season of playing time despite poor-but-justifiable-given-defensive-value production. Here’s the thing, though: Anthony Gose just hasn’t been a particularly good hitter since his Double-A breakout as an insanely young-for-the-level prospect in 2011. He posted a decent PCL-aided line the following season, but has subsequently failed to sniff a .700 OPS at any stop since, and his whiff rates have exploded in the intervening years. There’s ostensibly still some whiff of upside here – he’s still 26, after all – but the combination of gnarly contact rates and no power severely limits the best-case scenario, and he’s really best left for dead at this point outside of silly-deep AL-onlies.
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