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To Catch an Undervalued Thief: Stolen Base Efficiency and Upside

We’re still a few weeks away from the dawn of rankings season and the cold winter winds do whip and howl, quelling once more the flames of baseball and leaving us with nothing more than the occasional Gammons #burn from which to draw warmth until spring rekindles our souls once more. Well maybe the off-season’s not that poetic for you, but there’s really nothing else going on right now, so we might as well get into it a little bit, right?

Last year around this time I wrote a couple pieces outlining some of the little quick and dirty stats I like to peak at as I start to move into off-season list-building mode, and one of my first annual checks in recent years has been for potential breakout speed guys. And as my BP colleague Mike Gianella pointed out in an excellent column on valuation the other day, stolen base volume has been trending pretty emphatically down across the league over the last few years, and the ripple effect of that trend in fantasy baseball value terms has been to significantly increase the potential for speed-only guys to return surplus draft value. Sometimes finding a couple bench guys who steal bases at a high percentage relative to their playing time can be a nice way to set yourself up strategically for a long roto season, and obviously the deeper your league the more this will ring true.

To this end one of my starting points involves taking a look at the PA/SB metric I discussed here. Now, standard disclaimer, this is NOT meant to be an exercise of scientific precision. The goal is not to get to the bottom of this article and triumphantly cheers to unlocking the secret speed sleepers for 2015. Rather, the goal here is to discover a couple guys that we might not otherwise have on our collective radar and track their situations through the winter and into spring training. Most of the names I’ll be able to take away from this exercise are part-time players, so a lot of their value heading into 2015 will be dependent on roster moves that will be made over the next couple of months. I’ve always liked PA/SB as a starting point for evaluating speed guys, though, because there’s a kind of built-in accounting for things like playing time opportunity and organizational philosophy that is valuable to recognize up front. Not all 15 stolen base guys are created equal, and figuring out which ones have a shot at increasing their totals with more playing time or a uniform change is a nice advantage to give yourself.

To reiterate the scale here, a typical 20-or-so stolen base guy will average about a steal every 25 plate appearances – roughly just shy of a bag a week over the course of a 575 PA season. The top shelf guys who steal you 35 or 40 with a full season’s slate of plate appearances, will check in at half that rate or better, and the elite of the elite will post single-digit marks. So without further ado let’s take a look at the top 30 guys in baseball (min. 150 plate appearances, with one exception. PA/SB and PA/SBA 13 are 2013 totals where applicable):

RANK NAME PA SB SB% PA/SB 14 PA/SB 13
1 Jordan Schafer 240 30 81.1 8.0 12.0
2 Jarrod Dyson 290 36 83.7 8.1 7.0
3 Dee Gordon 650 64 77.1 10.2 10.6
4 Eric Young 316 30 83.3 10.5 13.0
5 Billy Hamilton 611 56 70.9 10.9 1.7
6 James Jones 328 27 96.4 12.1 n/a
7 Jose Altuve 707 56 86.2 12.6 19.2
8 Ben Revere 626 49 86 12.8 15.3
9 Craig Gentry 258 20 90.9 12.9 12.0
10 Rusney Castillo 40 3 100 13.3 n/a
11 Rajai Davis 494 36 76.6 13.7 8.0
12 Leury Garcia 155 11 91.7 14.1 15.9
13 Carl Crawford 370 23 79.3 16.1 31.3
14 Jacoby Ellsbury 635 39 88.6 16.3 12.2
15 Emilio Bonifacio 426 26 76.5 16.4 16.5
16 Jonathan Villar 289 17 81 17.0 13.4
17 Lorenzo Cain 502 28 84.8 17.9 31.6
18 Starling Marte 545 30 73.2 18.2 13.8
19 Anthony Gose 274 15 75 18.3 38.3
20 Leonys Martin 583 31 72.1 18.8 14.1
21 Carlos Gomez 644 34 73.9 18.9 14.8
22 Sam Fuld 402 21 84 19.1 25.0
23 Alcides Escobar 620 31 83.8 20.0 29.2
24 A.J. Pollock 287 14 82.4 20.5 40.2
25 Drew Stubbs 424 20 87 21.2 28.3
26 Daniel Santana 430 20 83.3 21.5 n/a
27 Jake Marisnick 237 11 78.6 21.5 39.3
28 Denard Span 668 31 81.6 21.5 33.1
29 Kolten Wong 433 20 83.3 21.7 20.7
30 Everth Cabrera 391 18 69.2 21.7 11.8

Now, the first thing that sticks out here is the presence of three Royals in this top-30, and seeing as how the cat’s probably out of the bag now after their march to Game 7 of the World Series I want to pause for a moment up front to give some love to Jarrod Dyson (#2). He has been arguably the most fantasy-valuable fourth outfielder in baseball over the past three years for those of us in deep leagues, as his elitist-of-elite stolen base opportunism has helped him return a metric ton of surplus value. He’s stolen 100 bases at an 85% success rate and led Major League Baseball with an average of a bag every 8.6 plate appearances since 2012. He finished as the 54th ranked outfielder in standard leagues last year despite failing to record 300 plate appearances and barely cracking the top hundred outfielders by ADP before the season. I’ve also written extensively about Alcides Escobar (#23), and the emergence of Lorenzo Cain (#17) this season was largely tied to health. He nearly halved his stolen base efficiency with strong legs underneath him. Throw in Terrance Gore’s five bags with two regular season plate appearances, and you can sense the theme. The Royals are an aggressive organization on the bases, and their efficiency rates warrant that approach. So on the one hand all three of these guys should be bumped up a notch on draft boards to account for the plentiful running opportunities they’re likely to see again in 2015. But on the other overexposure in the post-season and recency bias means all – especially Cain – are likely to be more popular targets on draft day, and that will eat into their margins to make them less valuable acquisitions.

Moving on though, let’s take a look at some of the more notable second- and third-tier names here.

Jordan Schafer, OF MIN – Schafer’s an interesting case, with perhaps the most legitimate argument as a challenger to Dyson for undervalued fantasy speed guy MVP in 2014. He isn’t really much of a hitter, but to his credit he lucked into some solid BABIP regression at a fortuitous time last year. After wasting away on the Braves bench for the first half of the season he was DFA’ed to Minnesota just in time to take over more or less regular playing time as an injury fill-in, and he responded with a .346 BABIP-fueled .270 average over the second half. On base at a .340 clip he stole 16 bags in 160 plate appearances. He’s now put up a 13.6 career rate, which has improved to a thoroughly elite 9.7 rate over the past two seasons. Part of that is contextual, as he’s appeared in his fair share of pinch-running situations, but you get the idea. It’s highly unlikely he winds up with a starting gig out of the gate next year unless something has gone terribly, terribly wrong in Minnesota, but he’s a guy to keep tabs on. In the likely event he goes undrafted in your league he’s the kind of guy that can make for a nice, quiet FAAB gamble for those in need of a speed injection if and when injury strikes and he slides into regular playing time.  If he hits enough in limited exposure – a big if, given his flaws at the dish – the bags will be there.

James Jones, OF SEA – Jones finally broke into the bigs at Age 25 last season, and while he possesses no game power to speak of he made up for it on the bases with 27 stolen bases in 28 attempts as the Mariners’ fourth outfielder. Jones posted the second-best speed score in baseball (min. 300 PA’s) last year, and will play 2015 at Age 26. As things stand he’d head into Spring Training with the fourth outfielder job to lose, and can provide elite stolen base production in a half season’s worth of AB’s.

Rusney Castillo, OF BOS – I included Castillo despite the miniscule sample size for pretty much the sole purpose of working this link into the article. It’s Castillo’s first career stolen base, and his epic necklace looks like something he dug out of Rick James’ trash can. He’ll be expensive given the uncertainty around his profile, but the speed does look like it can play. Anyway, let’s move on…

Leury Garcia, SS CHW – Garcia’s probably more of a name for AL-only leaguers at this point, and his will be a back of the brain name as the offseason shakes out on the South Side. Now, those of you with weak constitutions may want to leave the room for a minute and rejoin us for the Gose blurb below…Garcia hit .166/.192/.207 in 155 plate appearances last year. That’s a fourteen OPS+. But stepping back from the ledge, Garcia’s a very strong defender with an arm and instincts to handle any infield position. If Alexei Ramirez gets dealt he immediately becomes the top in-house option to man short for the Sox, and even if Ramirez stays he’ll be the odds-on favorite to break camp as the Sox’ utility man. Whether he’ll hit enough to warrant everyday duty next (or any) season is where the question marks rear their ugly heads. Last year’s showing on the bases came on the heels of a minor league career in which he stole 158 bags at a 76% clip over less than 500 career games. There’s legitimate stolen base upside here if he can get on base enough to make the speed play. Monitor for depth chart standing for now.

Anthony Gose, OF DET – Well, the good news is that the move to Detroit probably opens up a clearer path for Gose to win a starting job, at least as things currently stand on Detroit’s depth chart. The bad news for upside vultures is that it might just turn him into a trendy lil’ sleeper pick, and that’s unfortunate because he’s probably unlikely to hit enough to warrant an everyday gig in real life, much less a starting role in medium-depth leagues. I wrote about Gose’s 2015 potential recently over at BP, and the gist of it is that the power he flashed at AA a couple years back hasn’t ever manifested itself since, and it’s unlikely it ever will. Still, he’s managed to maintain a strong walk rate despite persistent, fairly extreme contact issues in his brief big league career. The legs aren’t a question, as he stole 36 bags in under 500 plate appearances between AAA and Toronto last year. But whether he hits enough is. Now that regular playing time has become more likely he may prove too toasty for this list when the fantasy hot stove’s done with him, but for now the uncertainty and fringe-average real-life offensive profile makes him a notable inclusion.

A.J. Pollock, OF ARI – Pollock’s a guy that’s pretty well guaranteed to get some sleeper buzz this offseason. A broken hand courtesy of a high-and-tight heater interrupted what was on pace to be his breakout season last year. He hit .300 when he was on the field, and he managed to do it despite a rather absurdly low line drive rate. But his speed score was outstanding to back up a ]n already-stellar efficiency rate at stealing bases relative to opportunity, and he sticks out as an early name to potentially target hard next spring – particularly given the possibility of a built-in post-injury discount.

Danny Santana, SS/OF MIN  Santana figures to be something of a polarizing player this winter. His rookie year breakout was propped up by a wholly unsustainable .405 BABIP, and his terrible walk rate means that if he falls he’s likely to fall hard and fast. On the other hand, he posted the fourth highest speed score in baseball and stole 20 bags with a strong conversion rate. The Twins will have a new manager coming in next year, so it will bear watching what level of on-the-bases aggressiveness Molitor brings to his squad. A lot of Santana’s value heading into drafts next spring will be tied to how many articles are written about him as a likely regression candidate over the next several months. But even if a dreaded Regression does attack his batted ball profile his speed skillset should still leave him a decent floor for fantasy production.

Jake Marisnick, OF HOU – Ben went into some #strong detail about Marisnick as a post-hype prospect over at BP the other day, and I largely agree with his assessment. There are whiff rate and general approach issues here that aren’t likely to go away and will hold down his OBP (and therefore his SB opportunities). And playing time in a more crowded Houston outfield picture will be a key component of Marisnick’s fantasy profile for 2015. But he stole 35 bags between AAA and the bigs last year with Miami, and we know the Astros are not shy about green-lighting their thieves. Post-hype guys, particularly ones with bad approaches like Marisnick, can tend to get lost in the shuffle on draft day, so the package here has some intrigue.

Everth Cabrera, SS SDG – I proudly rode shotgun on the E-Cab bandwagon entering last season, taking him in the sixth round of the TDGX draft and even having a victorious chuckle at my good fortune at the time. But he dinged his knee in the second week of the season and it turned out to be a lingering injury that knocked his running game out of whack. He later suffered a recurrence of the left hamstring injury that forced him to the DL in 2013, and this time it basically cost him the second half of the season. He also managed to get himself busted for fishbowling his car and resisting his subsequent arrest for fishbowling his car, so between that and the persistent leg injuries his status as the Padres ostensible starting shortstop for 2015 is now in limbo. For our purposes, however, it’s certainly worth noting that even with a collapse of his walk rate and OBP and a massive injury-aided decline in theft efficiency when he was on base, he still managed to crack this list. That should give you an idea about what kind of a basestealing threat Cabrera is if – IF – his legs are healed up next season. We’ll have to see how things play out for him with the legal issues and whatnot this offseason, but he’s a guy I’d circle in pencil for now as a potentially unvalued option for infield speed.

The Author

Wilson Karaman

Wilson Karaman

2 Comments

  1. Tom
    November 15, 2014 at 10:06 pm

    Good article and research. Finding undiscovered or under-the-radar SB contributors can be difficult. Have you tried tinkering with SB attempts/(1B+BB)? Excluding IBB.

    Kind of gives a sense of how often guys run given the opportunity. Obviously sometimes there are runners on 2nd so it would be a rough metric. However, it would show players who, if they develop better plate discipline or hitting skills, could blossom on the basepaths. Just a thought.

    • November 19, 2014 at 1:14 pm

      Thanks Tom. Yeah, a helpful companion to this exercise is to use the BRef metric of SBO (Stolen Base Opportunities), which more or less measures exactly what you’re talking about. You can download that data, drop it into an Excel sheet, and create a new column for SB (or SBA) divided by SBO. I usually like to do that as a second step because it’s a good way to drill down on the organizational philosophy component.

      http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/MLB/2014-baserunning-batting.shtml

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