Welcome to this year's first installment of Uncommon Thievery. Since the stolen base isn't as scarce as it once was (more on that in a moment), we've decided to scrap the weekly format and make this a monthly feature. Not to worry, this will still be your one-stop shop for everything concerning the stolen base. Let's get it started, shall we?
When I first started writing this column (three years ago at TalentedMrRoto.com), the stolen base had become a lost art in the game of baseball. Back then, there were only 12 to 14 players who could steal 30-plus bases and anywhere from five to nine players who could display both power and speed with 20/20 potential. The stolen base has been on the rebound since then, with 19 players breaking the 30-stolen base mark and 14 players going 20/20 in 2007. The overall number of steals has also increased nearly 14 percent from its low point in 2005.
With the stolen base making a mini-comeback last year, many fantasy owners (including myself) took a different approach to acquiring speed this season. Instead of paying for one or two elite "speed only" types, I decided to make it a point to pay a premium for those who possess both power and speed. Some might argue that this has always been the best strategy, but it's even more effective now as there are more stolen bases to go around, and more importantly, more power/speed threats out there. The value of a single stolen base isn't what it was a few years ago, and it probably isn't worth it to sacrifice your power categories with a high draft pick on a guy who can only steal bases. This, of course, is only true if the current trends continue. And that is why we must always keep a close eye on the relative scarcity of the category. If stolen bases begin to fall into obscurity again, we will have to shift our focus. With that in mind, let's take a look at how the early-season returns stack up against years past:
Given how easy it's been to steal bases in recent years (see success percentages above), the single most important trait we as fantasy owners should be concerned with is aggressiveness on the base paths. Possessing great speed is one thing, but having the green light is like having a golden ticket. You can't steal second if your manager won't let you.
When it comes to the green light, one of the best stats I use is what I like to call "attempt percentage." In its pure form, attempt percentage is stolen base attempts divided by the number of times a player reaches first base (Att/1B+HBP+BB). It's not a perfect statistic (it does not take into account steals of third base, for instance), but it is still the best indicator we have in determining a player's aggressiveness on the base paths. Let's take a look at our current leaders:
Seeing Carlos Gomez and Michael Bourn near the top of this list is not all that surprising, given that they are leading their respective leagues in swipes. Neither is hitting the ball well, nor are they getting on base with any consistency, but they sure are taking advantage when they do get on base. They may be slumping, but both are insanely active on the base paths, and that is why I believe both Gomez and Bourn will continue to be either at, or near, the top of their respective leagues in stolen bases, regardless of how well they perform at the plate.
Juan Pierre and Joey Gathright are similar talents in similar situations. Both are ultra-aggressive on the bases, but neither can be counted on to be in the lineup on a day-to-day basis. That said, if an injury opens the door for increased at-bats -- as it did in Kansas City earlier in the year -- both Pierre and Gathright would be dominant fantasy forces in the stolen base department.
It's been feast or famine for Corey Patterson thus far. He is hitting just .190 on the season, but has four doubles and five home runs to date, and has reached first base only six times. We're looking at an extremely small sample size here, but Dusty Baker has already shown a willingness to let Patterson fly, and he is a prime candidate to see a major boost in thefts once he starts getting on base. Let me rephrase that, if he starts getting on base.
Brian Bocock (0.0 percent owned) is the least recognizable name on the list, and even though he's running, he'll probably stay unknown. Bocock isn't much of an offensive player, and he probably won't get on base enough to take advantage of Bruce Bochy's aggressive early-season tactics. That said, because of his weak offensive lineup, Bochy has been forced into playing small ball in an attempt to score runs. The Giants are going to run a lot this season, so be sure to grab players like Bocock, Fred Lewis, Randy Winn and Eugenio Velez when you need a burst in speed.
I love seeing Delmon Young's name among the league leaders in attempt percentage. Young is off to a slow start at the plate, but at least we're getting to see a glimpse of why many considered the kid to be a legitimate 20/20 threat this season. Ron Gardenhire is a run-friendly manager, and he should continue to send him because he doesn't have much speed in his lineup other than Young and Gomez. I still have high hopes for Young this season. His average and power should come around, and given how much he's running, I wouldn't be surprised to see him nab 25-plus bases this season. Can you say buy low?
Ian Kinsler was one of the 14 players to reach the 20/20 mark last season, and he did it in just 130 games. He's back at it again early this season, at least on the bases, with six steals in six attempts. With all this running, I know a lot of people are starting to wonder if a 30-stolen base season could be in the future for the 26-year-old. I think so, even thought Kinsler was never a big stolen base guy in the minors. Kinsler has been amazingly efficient on the bases at the major league level, stealing 40 bases in 46 attempts for his career for an 87 percent success rate. With those kind of numbers, 30-plus stolen bases is well within reach.
All in all, the list above represents the most active baserunners in the league to date. They may not be your league leaders in steals, but they are getting the green light from their managers. One would like to think that an increase in playing time or on-base percentage would eventually lead to an increase in steals for the group above. Now, that doesn't always work out in practice (Julio Lugo was on this list last year and stole 22 bases while hitting .197 before the All-Star break last season, but took just 11 bases while hitting .280 after the break), but it is still a good rule to live by. Attempt percentage is one of the best underlying statistics that you can look at to project future stolen bases, and it's not all that hard to calculate.
Play the matchups
Half of dominating the stolen base category is about drafting, trading and acquiring speed; the other half is about playing the matchups. One of the biggest complaints about owning a cheap-speed player is that you will inevitably run the risk of losing out on the power categories when you play your "speed only" guys. Informed owners will alleviate that risk by platooning their speed-only options when unfavorable matchups present themselves. There is no use in starting Michael Bourn or Willy Taveras if he's not going to steal a base, right? That said, here's a list of the best and worst pitchers, catchers and teams to exploit. My suggestion would be to print out the lists below and take a quick peek at them every night before setting your lineups. If you play your cards right, you'll see your swipes skyrocket while not doing too much damage to your power numbers.
Other historically good matchups: Greg Maddux, A.J. Burnett, Brandon Webb, Derek Lowe, Roy Halladay, Brad Penny, Tim Hudson, Dave Bush, Daniel Cabrera, Kevin Millwood, John Lackey, Ian Snell, Rich Hill, Livan Hernandez.
Worst Matchups: Pitchers
The following pitchers have yet to allow a stolen base attempt thus far this season. Typically, baserunners will not even attempt to steal a base on pitchers who are either quick to the plate or have tremendous pickoff moves. Here's a list of players who are keeping runners grounded on first thus far: Jon Lester, Kenny Rogers, Nick Blackburn, Zack Greinke, Brian Bannister, Kason Gabbard, Jason Jennings, Oliver Perez, Brandon Backe, Matt Cain, Zach Duke and Roy Oswalt.
On tap next month
I know I threw a lot of stats and numbers at you, but it's a necessary evil in the fantasy game. These statistics are incredibly useful when it comes to gaining a competitive advantage on your league mates. Hopefully this article will serve as a nice foundation for maximizing your stolen base potential and we can focus a little more on individual players. We'll continue to update these lists and stats as we move along this season, and we'll take a deeper look into potential pickups and trade targets next month. Until then, happy thieving, my friends.
Brian McKitish is an award-winning fantasy baseball and basketball analyst for ESPN.com.