These Toronto Blue Jays are full of surprises.
Flash back a year ago, to the "Year of the Pitcher," and it was at this point they were hitting home runs like nobody's business, en route to a major league-leading 257. Those 257, incidentally, were tied for the third-most in baseball history, and largely a product of hitting coach Dwayne Murphy's focus on power.
Today, these Blue Jays are pacing the majors in a different category, and it's one you wouldn't expect from them: stolen bases.
You read that right: The Blue Jays, who swiped the third-fewest bases in 2010 and attempted the second-fewest steals in the past decade (2001-10 seasons), are already off to the game's hottest start on the basepaths. Dismissively claim "It's early" if you wish, but the Blue Jays already lead the major leagues in team stolen-base attempts (29) and rank second in successful steals (23). They're also pacing the game in percentage of attempts per opportunity (.124 ATT/OPP), those opportunities as judged by Baseball-Reference.com, and bases taken (28), described by that site as "bases advanced on fly balls, passed balls, wild pitches, balks and defensive indifference."
The reason? New manager John Farrell's plan to diversify the offense; he has made a concerted effort to be aggressive with his players on the basepaths in an attempt to throw opposing pitchers off their rhythm.
For instance, during a weekend series versus Farrell's former team, the Boston Red Sox (he was their pitching coach from 2006-10), the Blue Jays stole nine bases in 12 attempts in four games, capitalizing upon what has been one of the worst teams at throwing out opposing baserunners in recent seasons. To that, you might point out that the Red Sox represent arguably the softest base-stealing matchup in the game; they have, after all, afforded 189 steals to their opponents since the beginning of last season, most in the majors.
The Red Sox might be such a soft matchup, so let's not overstate the Blue Jays' numbers from that series, but in their defense, they do have 14 more games against their division rivals. They also have 18 more games against the Tampa Bay Rays, 17 against the New York Yankees and seven apiece against the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Angels, all of which are considered some of the worst teams in the game at gunning down opposing baserunners. Total them and that's 63 of their 145 remaining matchups (43.4 percent) that can be classified as "favorable." Check out the numbers of those five opponents:
Red Sox: 18 SB (third), 26 attempts (first), 14.5% ATT/OPP (first)
Yankees: 3 SB (30th), 4 attempts (29th), 1.9% ATT/OPP (29th); but keep in mind this team ranked fourth, sixth and sixth in those categories in 2010.
Rays: 19 SB (first), 22 attempts (third), 11.3% ATT/OPP (third)
White Sox: 15 SB (seventh), 16 attempts (13th), 6.6% ATT/OPP (14th)
Angels: 17 SB (fourth), 22 attempts (third), 11.2% ATT/OPP (fourth)
Turning the focus to the individuals, the Blue Jays have four players who have attempted steals more than 20 percent of the time:
Aaron Hill: 21 opportunities, 6 SB, 0 CS, 28.6% ATT/OPP
Corey Patterson: 15 opportunities, 3 SB, 1 CS, 26.7% ATT/OPP
Travis Snider: 23 opportunities, 5 SB, 1 CS, 26.1% ATT/OPP
Jayson Nix: 14 opportunities, 3 SB, 0 CS, 21.4% ATT/OPP
Hill's and Snider's inclusion on the list seem out of place, being that Hill had 23 career steals in seven big league seasons entering 2011, never topping six in a single year, while Snider actually was caught stealing (19) more often than he successfully stole (18) during his minor league career. Either might be an aberration, but as the Toronto Star reported in March, the Blue Jays currently employ a "green-, yellow- or red-light" system for determining who gets the OK to steal. In that report, Snider was hinted a "green," meaning he can run at will, while Hill is a "yellow," meaning he first needs the go-ahead from Farrell. If true that neither player is a "red," meaning he'll rarely ever be allowed to run, it's not unthinkable that either player could get well into the double digits in steals, perhaps even pushing 20. That would be a substantial advantage for two players generally regarded as merely power hitters.
Patterson, meanwhile, has always had great speed, but hasn't gotten the playing time needed to make it count. He stole 21 bases in 90 games for the Baltimore Orioles in 2010, once swiped 45 bases in a single year (2006) and has averaged 30 steals per 162 games for his career, but hasn't appeared in more than 140 games in a season since 2004. He's getting regular at-bats right now with Rajai Davis sidelined and shouldn't be overlooked if you need help in the category, and it's possible that capitalizing upon this opportunity -- while serving as a perfect fit for the Blue Jays' new team philosophy -- might earn him regular at-bats in right field, with Jose Bautista returning to third base, even after Davis' return.
Speaking of Davis, what's the story with the most obvious speedster on the roster?
TOP 125 HITTERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 125 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Davis is out for at least the next 10 days -- and perhaps until sometime in May -- due to soreness in his right ankle. His fantasy ownership has slipped by more than a quarter in all ESPN leagues (down 26.3 percent, to be exact) in the past week, which makes sense in a format that affords you only three bench spots and one disabled list spot; if you already have a Josh Hamilton or Evan Longoria on your DL, you probably can't afford to burn a bench spot on Davis.
But Davis' owners in larger leagues should keep him stashed until his return, and he should be scooped up in ESPN leagues the instant his return date becomes clear. He did, after all, steal at least 40 bases in each of the past two seasons, 50 in 2010 alone and that Toronto Star report, of course, had Davis as a "green light" Blue Jay. He's a much better hitter than people give him credit for, having batted .293 in 2009-10 combined, enough to fuel a .337 on-base percentage that provided him the stolen base opportunities to contend for the league lead in the category. Davis was also coming off a fantastic spring (.333/.386/.714 in 21 games) and was the linchpin in the Blue Jays' 2011 plan when he was acquired during the winter.
Sticking with the topic of steals, here are other sleepers you might want to consider if digging deep to fill the category:
Jason Bourgeois, Houston Astros (5 SB, 46.2% ATT/OPP): The primary problem with Bourgeois is a lack of playing time; one of his two starts this season was merely the result of Michael Bourn sitting with a groin injury. But with Brett Wallace (.278/.371/.370) still no lock to hold down the every-day first-base gig, there could be an outfield spot available at some point, with Carlos Lee shifting to first base. NL-only owners looking to fill their final outfield spot dirt cheap should take a look at Bourgeois, who stole at least 30 bases in each of his past four minor league seasons.
Jonathan Herrera, Colorado Rockies (4 SB, 13.3% ATT/OPP): He's been one of the hottest pickups in fantasy over the past week, and as the Rockies' starter at second base in 10 of their past 12 games, there's plenty of short-term value in Herrera at the very least. Though he stole only two bases in 76 games for the big club in 2010, he did manage double-digit steals in each of his first seven years in the minors, and averaged 19 steals per full season. Herrera is the kind of player who shouldn't hurt you, filling your middle-infield spot with a solid batting average (career .280 in minors, .283 in majors), but don't expect him to stick to his current pace.
Lance Berkman, 1B/OF, St. Louis Cardinals: So far, so good, with the Berkman-as-a-starting-right-fielder experiment. That's not to say he's become a quality defender -- his -12.3 UZR/150 (ultimate zone rating in runs above average, per 150 defensive games), per FanGraphs, ranking him 17th among 24 qualified right fielders -- but offensively speaking it hasn't caused him any problems at least not yet. He's hitting .308/.368/.692 through his first 14 games, and is coming off an extraordinary week in which he hit six home runs with 12 RBIs in six games from April 11-17. The Cardinals are smart to spot Allen Craig in for Berkman against left-handers, Berkman's weaker side, which, if the veteran can stay healthy might help him keep his batting average in the .280s with 25-homer power. There's always the chance that, at age 35, Berkman could break down, but so far he hasn't given any reason to expect it's coming soon.
Logan Morrison, OF, Florida Marlins: He's one player of whom you could safely say that his volume of tweets is far greater than his hits in a given day; though that's only because he tweets several dozen times a day. Morrison -- at least so far -- has averaged more than a hit per day, resulting in a .327 batting average through 15 games. He's also as adept at drawing walks as anyone, doing so in 15.2 percent of his plate appearances (after 14.3 as a rookie in 2010). But here's the most pleasant early development of Morrison's sophomore year: He's hitting fly balls 46.7 percent of the time, that number helping support his burgeoning power; he has four home runs already. While we projected a .284 batting average and 12 home runs for Morrison in the preseason, he's clearly a more polished hitter than that batting average hints -- think something more like .300 -- and if he can keep elevating the ball, a 20-homer season might be within his reach.
Grady Sizemore, OF, Cleveland Indians: He might be as brittle as they come, but you couldn't ask for a stronger start to his season. Sizemore, who began the season on the disabled list as he recovered from 2010 microfracture surgery on his knee, went 2-for-4 with a home run during his debut Sunday, then followed that up with a 3-for-5 performance Monday before getting a night off Tuesday (he ended up 0-for-1 as a pinch hitter). That came on the heels of a five-game rehabilitation stint in the minors during which he had .353/.450/.647 rates, so clearly Sizemore feels comfortable at the plate right now. The risk of injury might remain high for the veteran outfielder, but a healthy Sizemore is a potential 30/30 man. If he can appear in even 100 games this year, he could get to 20/20 numbers, and that would certainly make him a worthy asset in any fantasy format.
Pedro Alvarez, 3B, Pittsburgh Pirates: He's up to his usual free-swinging ways, and to date, Alvarez has shown his owners little of what had been advertised as exciting, monstrous power potential. Through nearly three weeks he's the NL leader in strikeouts (22), he has whiffed in 36.7 percent of his at-bats and has swung and missed 13.6 percent of the time, 13th-worst in the majors. Opposing pitchers are clearly exploiting the holes in his swing, and Alvarez has yet to make the necessary adjustments. Fortunately for him, the Pirates can afford more patience than a top contender might, but the worry here is that they'll eventually sour on him and send him for more seasoning if his slump lingers deep into the year. Fantasy owners -- at least those in shallow leagues -- can ill afford to stomach an extended cold spell, either, at least not one lasting into May. It's not time to cut Alvarez yet, but he has no business being in any fantasy lineups right now.
Austin Jackson, OF, Detroit Tigers: Speaking of players with holes in their swings, Jackson hasn't improved much in that regard as a sophomore, either, having whiffed in 34.8 percent of his at-bats so far, up from 27.5 as a rookie in 2010. He's also hitting more fly balls than usual; his 42.9 percent rate is significantly higher than 2010's 27.4, and since he's not the kind of player known for power, many of those are winding up as harmless outs. Unlike the Pirates, the Tigers have their sights on a division title, so they'll probably be less patient with Jackson. His defense should keep him in the lineup, but he's primarily a stolen-base asset in fantasy, and at his current rate, he's not going to get on base enough to even match 2010's 27 steals. Bench him for now and consider cutting him in the shallowest leagues.
Vernon Wells, OF, Los Angeles Angels: Though Wells is coming off a 31-homer, 88-RBI campaign, I remain every bit as skeptical about his 2011 prospects as I did at the time of his trade to the Angels in January. Angel Stadium is not nearly as friendly a venue for his skill set as Toronto's Rogers Centre was; I said in January that a 20-homer follow-up was much more likely than another 30-homer campaign, and now even that appears iffy. Wells has whiffed in 21.4 percent of his at-bats and swung and missed 13.3 percent of the time so far, both of which would set career worsts by far, and he's hitting a slew of harmless infield pop-ups (49.1 percent fly-ball rate, 22.2 percent infield fly-ball rate). He's a better hitter than this, but even at his best, he isn't the hitter he was in 2010.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.