With baseball's plate appearances more frequently finishing with one of the "three true outcomes" -- walks, strikeouts and home runs -- finding stolen bases in fantasy baseball has become a chore.
In 2018, Major League Baseball averaged just 0.51 stolen bases per game -- the lowest mark since 1972 (0.49). Compare that to walks, homers and strikeouts:
Strikeouts were at an MLB all-time high, after being on the rise for the past 10 seasons. The homer rate was the fourth-highest of all time -- not to mention the highest (2017) and third-highest (2016) in recent years. Walks were at their highest level since 2010, but unfortunately, steals haven't followed. It's fair to say not much has changed with stolen bases. Still, fantasy baseball has often needed a year or two to address trends (shifts, openers, etc.), so it's a good time to reset how we deal with our increasingly plodding pastime, because while swipes mean less in points and many head-to-head games, they remain vital in rotisserie formats. Do we rush to buy the league leaders in steals? Do we ignore the category? The solution sits somewhere in between.
The double-digit strategy
Instead of committing to one-trick ponies at a way higher price point than deserved, target as many players with legit potential for double-digit stolen bases; first-rounders with 20-plus ceilings and even middle- and late-rounders who can chip away with a swipe every other week. This spreads the risk for speed sources rather than pinning an entire category on one player. This simple, yet effective "DDSB" strategy helped me win last year's Tout Wars mixed auction league. Sourcing these DDSBs rather than competing, and sometimes overreaching, for the top base stealers, makes economic sense as well. As steals have dipped, so has the combined output of the best thieves in the game. However, while the top end of the SB standings doesn't look like Maury Wills or Vince Coleman, the number of players with 10-plus swipes has normalized since a noticeable dip in 2012.
Of course, we shouldn't ignore the boundless nine- and eight-SB players who come close to double digits, but the concept shows we don't have to throw away a fourth-round pick or a larger chunk of our auction budget to make sure we win steals. All we want to do is remain competitive in the roto category throughout the season, where a few breaks here and there could put us in front.
Balance of speed and power
The historic abundance of homers may lead many to think they can eschew them in favor of loading up on speedsters. Well, you still don't want to fall too far behind those who load up on dingers, because a homer is factored into all four offensive counting categories, which upholds its unique power in the standings. Thus, we keep pace in both categories with, finally, a positive SB trend.
After a noticeable dip about six years ago, the influx of prospects and other blossoming players boasting power-speed combo tools has helped rebuild this highly coveted skill set for fantasy purposes. Stolen bases are the most important tiebreakers when choosing between otherwise similar batters and will give the biggest standings boost of any offensive counting category because of their ever-growing rarity. You can argue a .300 batting average comes close, but that stat remains too volatile and reliant on outside forces to fully trust as a draft move beyond the elite contributors in that category. What does this year's player pool say? Among ESPN's projections, 102 players are expected to steal at least 10 bases. Here's the breakdown of how many DDSB thieves you can find in each tier by primary position.
Logically, no catchers are projected to reach the summit. There'll be carryover for players with multipositional eligibility, but players with infield eligibility were placed there ahead of outfield, where necessary. This distribution that leans 86 percent in favor of middle infielders and outfielders reminds us of the most reliable position groups to mine for steals. Now, where in the rankings can you find these players?
We still can find some speed sleepers late, in different fashions. And this isn't a tip to ignore those who can go 20-plus early: Just make sure you have homers there as well. Here's the preseason leaderboard:
Note that 12 out of the 16 names here are solid bets to reach at least 10 homers. With them, you're getting more of a return for your speed. It's not batting-average-dependent steals. It's why I argue Turner is a better ROI on a first-round pick than J.D. Martinez or Nolan Arenado, who are projected to combine for seven steals. Of course, this difference becomes bigger when you compare someone like Starling Marte to a Nelson Cruz: Cruz's excellent power, for all its potency, is less unique than Marte's power-speed mix.
What Won't Work
Panic over not having enough steals may cause a knee-jerk reaction. "I have to reach to draft Billy Hamilton in Round 5!" All set, right? Maybe in eight- or 10-team leagues where you trip over 20-homer players in every round. But in deeper leagues, the edge Hamilton gives you can be eaten into quickly as you make up for Hamilton's deficit in the other four categories. One-dimensional speedsters like Hamilton, Gordon and Smith -- the new Ben Revere -- will set you back. You might be able to get DeShields later, where expectations are lower, and maybe Smith will have a helpful batting average, but for what they will cost, there's a microscopic margin for error. So how can you locate the best SB options throughout your draft?
Best SB traits
While being above 30 years old doesn't reflect the decline in footwork it used to, counting the rings on a player can still be used as a tiebreaker. When looking later in drafts, it could mean the difference between settling for 35-year-old Brett Gardner or 24-year-old Manuel Margot.
Look strongly toward those batting first or second, especially if it's a National League hitter.
Note how the middle of the order isn't as active on the basepaths. You'll find the occasional 4-5-6 bat who'll have a green light, but you mostly want to target the table setters -- and even the bottom of the order on AL clubs, which often have faster options at the bottom to turn things over. Unfortunately, most NL No. 8 hitters remain in a black hole ahead of the pitcher. One example of how lineup order can swing fantasy fortunes: Early spring reports are uncertain whether Ronald Acuna will lead off or hit cleanup. That's a big difference for SB potential.
Positive team SB trend
Consider team context, managerial trends and even first-base coaches when thinking about how much a player will attempt to steal. A 32-year-old Brian Dozier enters a promising situation to rebound in the SB column: The Nationals have ranked fifth in steals in each of the past two seasons and seventh in 2016.
Great Statcast sprint speed
MLB's Statcast tools measured Trevor Story with a top-20 average foot speed last season, which portends that he could easily again steal 20-plus bags. This stat also unearths lesser known names, like Phillies OF Roman Quinn (second) and Marlins OF Magneuris Sierra (third), as well as blocked Cardinals OF Tyler O'Neill (tied for 19th), who is typically pegged as a slugger.
Think about how often a player reaches via walk or, in many speedsters' cases, by running out a single. That puts them in many positions to steal an open second base. Even if your league counts batting average instead of on-base percentage, a high OBP will work toward creating runs and stolen base opportunities. And with the leaguewide upswing in free passes, that puts players more frequently in line for an attempt to swipe second, if the bases are empty.
SB success rate
Look at who is experiencing a jump in stolen base attempt percentage through several seasons or different minor league levels. A progression in one direction or the other could predict future success or failure. (Net steals -- steals minus caught stealing total -- is becoming a more popular league category.)
Names to know
Though it is ideal to attack steals that have power attached to them, that's not the only plan that'll work. At every stage of the draft, you can find promising names available for a reasonable investment.
SB positional advantages
Targets for getting steals from traditionally speed-deprived spots:
Defensive aces with speed
Some have elite speed already. Some will help their totals by staying in the lineup as often as possible thanks to their highlight-reel glove work.
Players with a 20-plus-SB projection or potential, with increased playing time.