Stolen bases are a unique hitting statistic in standard fantasy baseball scoring. In points leagues, they're an underappreciated source of scoring. In standard rotisserie leagues, steals are their own category, requiring a different approach than for the other categories.
Why are stolen bases unique? Namely, because of the singularity of the category.
Over the past three seasons, an average of 101 players were responsible for half the homers hit. In contrast, only 56 players swiped half the bags. In rotisserie scoring, home run hitters also contribute to runs and RBIs while stealing a base may increase the chance of scoring a run. Steals need the element of opportunity to complete the feat -- would-be base stealers need to get on base at a time apropos to running. In points leagues, there's the perception that speedsters aren't useful.
While it's true most scoring systems favor power hitters, players whose primary contribution is steals are still roster-worthy; they're just picked later in a draft or cost less in an auction. In season, the available free agents in points leagues are populated with speedy players.
In rotisserie leagues, the distribution of the category is different than the others. While each league has its own spread, in general, compared to the other stats, steals are more bunched in the middle with lengthening gaps at either end. If you're situated in the middle, a small number of bags often results in many points, whereas if you're near the top or bottom, that same number doesn't alter your points.
Regardless of your format, identifying players with a better chance to steal, either on a daily or long-term basis could be key to winning. Here are some tips.
If you're in a league with daily moves, start with ESPN's Daily Notes which pulls a team speed score from Tristan Cockcroft's Forecaster. The higher the number, the easier it is to steal off the opposing battery. If you want to do the research yourself, we have everything you need on site for both catchers and pitchers. The league average stolen-base success rate is 72 percent, so catchers throwing out more than 28 percent of runners are above average. Ideally, target pitchers and catchers falling below the 20 percent mark while avoiding those above the 30 percent level. Put just a little more weight to the pitcher's numbers since the catcher's record includes all arms he handles.
While it's true more steals emanate from the Senior Circuit, the blanket statement to "target players from the National League" is misleading. Spot in the batting order is integral. Here's the average number of steals spanning 2015-17 from each spot in the order by league:
Everyone expects leadoff to garner the most bags but perhaps not to the extent demonstrated. This is germane to daily leagues if a player is hitting leadoff when they usually don't and in weekly formats when a player is permanently moved to the top of the order.
Another takeaway is the level of running from the three-hole. It's more prevalent than many may intuit.
The last observation pertains to the bottom third of the order being much more amenable to running in the American League. Obviously, it's due to the pitcher hitting ninth more often than not in the National League, but if you're looking for steals, like you may do on a Monday or Thursday to supplement your lineup with off days, don't shy away from an American League player with speed, hitting at the bottom of the order.
Manager tendencies are important as some teams utilize the running game more than others. That said, there's a peculiarity at the extremes. Teams that run early in the season tend to keep running while those eschewing the steal usually stay on that path. However, the teams stealing the most in the first two months take off less frequently after Memorial Day while those running the least pick up the pace a bit.
This may seem obvious, since there's nowhere to go but down or up, but keep in mind this is relative to their own pace, not within the league. The top team could remain the top, it just runs less frequently. Similarly, a bottom-five team continues to steal sparingly, it just runs a little more than the first few months. If this pattern holds true this season, it's been the case from 2015-17, expect the Braves, Nationals, Mariners, White Sox and Brewers to run a little less while the Twins, Cubs, Dodgers, Marlins and Athletics give the green light a little more often.
Curiously, a team's success rate doesn't factor into the decision to let their player attempt to steal. Correlating success rate with percent of times a player runs per opportunity yields a random result.
On the other hand, in season-long leagues, one of the best means to pinpoint a potential contributor in the category is by individual success rates. It's not huge, but it's significant enough to be actionable. Players exhibiting an early success rate above their career mark tend to run more frequently as the season progresses.
Ender Inciarte is an excellent example. From 2015-17, he was 59-for-85, a weak 69 percent success rate. So far, he's a remarkable 18-for-21, 86 percent. Players who may run more than initially expected are Trevor Story and Andrew Benintendi, both perfect in seven chances. This enhances their points-scoring potential in all formats, making them nice trade targets.
In the spirit of sometimes no result is a result, there's no discernable pattern with respect to time of the season and number of steals. This isn't the case with homers, since the distance a batted balls travels is shorter with cooler temperatures. There isn't a narrative, scientific or otherwise, supporting more or less running at different points of the season.
Similarly, there's little to no effect with respect to the strength of a team's offense. There was a time when steals and runs scored were inversely proportional, but in the past five seasons, the results are random. This is likely due to a pair of contradicting thoughts. Some likely believe outs are currency and they don't want to give any away while others feel they need to be aggressive to mitigate being deficient in power, especially in today's climate. The two serve to balance each other out.
In summary, those making a daily move should pay most attention to the opposing battery in tandem with the player's spot in the batting order. Longer term objectives should concentrate on the player's early success rate, team tendencies as well as their spot in the lineup.