If you want to know why rookie Billy Hamilton is going so early this offseason in fantasy drafts, all you have to do is look at last year's weak stolen base totals for your answer. With stolen bases down by 536 in 2013 from 2012 - a drop of almost 17 percent - fantasy owners know that filling that category won't be easy. Unless you find a Billy Hamilton, that is.
Hamilton is the biggest Wild Card in this year's drafts, the one and maybe only player who could dominate one of the 5x5 categories. I'm not saying he WILL do that in 2014. I'm saying he's the one guy who COULD do that.
First of all, let's analyze WHY folks are so desperate to draft a player like Hamilton. As I mentioned above, MLB hitters produced only 2,693 stolen bases in 2013, its lowest total since 2005 (2,565 SBs). The 2,693 stolen bases were down drastically from 2012 and 2011 when MLB base runners produced 3,229 and 3,279 stolen bases, respectively.
In our 15-team NFBC leagues, your target goal now in the stolen base category to finish in the Top 3 in your league is 160, down from 180 the year before. That's a huge difference from any single category.
So when a player like Hamilton comes around who has the potential to get half of what you need in one category, you obviously get excited. Maybe we get even too excited. In our NFBC drafts so far, Hamilton's Average Draft Position is 75 and he's the 22nd outfielder being taken, ahead of veterans like Jason Heyward, Josh Hamilton and Alex Gordon. Heck, I confess to jumping the gun myself as I took Billy Hamilton 77th in the recent FSTA Industry Draft. I felt that he was the perfect complement to my first two picks - power-hitters Miguel Cabrera and Edwin Encarnacion - and I teamed him up with Elvis Andrus to move very close to my projected goal of 160+ stolen bases.
Even though Hamilton is being drafted in the 5th and 6th rounds of NFBC drafts, I think most of us realize that Hamilton isn't guaranteed of stealing even a single base this year. He still has to make the team out of spring training and then he has to hit out of the gate. You can't steal first base, although if anyone can do it Hamilton can. And what we're hearing this off-season is that he's working hard on his game, even working with former big-leaguer Delino DeShields on his bunting to get more base hits.
"Bunting is more points on your average,” Hamilton told CBSSports.com. “My first year in Billings, I had maybe 20-something bunt hits and a great average [.318 in 2010]. I'm realizing now that I will have to bunt more for my average to get where I want it to be. It will be part of my game."
And if it works, then Hamilton will be a big part of the Reds' offense.
"If he is what we think he can be, he'll be just what we need -- somebody that puts that bit of fear in every opponent," Reds manager Bryan Price said in December. "I watched Ichiro [Suzuki] do it [for the Mariners]. He was a true left-handed hitter, but the speed tool just created a sense of anxiety that was palpable on the field."
If Hamilton can hit .250 or better with a .320 OBP, he could get on base enough to steal 60+ bases. And when you consider that only 16 players had 30 or more stolen bases last year - down considerably from 23 players in 2012 - you see why Hamilton and all of the top base stealers are so desired on Draft Day.
We know what his potential is, but let's also realize that nobody has topped 80 stolen bases in 25 years, when Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman both did it in 1988, so let's temper the projections for Hamilton a bit at this point.
No player has reached even 70 SBs since Jacoby Ellsbury did it in 2009. Ellsbury led the majors last year with 52 stolen bases, while Eric Young led the NL with 46. Also topping 40 SBs last year were Rajai Davis, Jean Segura, Elvis Andrus, Alex Rios, Starling Marte and Carlos Gomez. Potential value picks among this group could be Young (NFBC ADP of 219) and Davis (250), but all of the rest are going in the Top 60 overall.
Injuries kept some players from reaching the 40-SB mark last year, although each could return to their previous form this year. I see potential bargains for Brett Gardner (173), Michael Bourn (190) and Ben Revere (213). The top minor-leaguer to watch outside of Hamilton could be Houston OF George Springer, who hit 37 homers with 45 stolen bases last year between Double-A and Triple-A. He likely will start this season at Triple-A before moving to right field, but he has the power-speed combo that nobody else in the minors has and fantasy owners know it as his ADP is 187.
There are many reasons that stolen bases are down in the majors these days. Teams are playing for the 3-run homer. Pitchers are much better at holding runners on first base and quickly delivering to home plate. Base runners aren't as good technique-wise to steal a lot of bases. None of that is going to change overnight, which makes filling your stolen base quota even tougher in 2014.
Which brings us back to Hamilton, who set the minor-league record for stolen bases in 2012 with 155. Yes, he's a risk on Draft Day and yes he could be the biggest bust for fantasy owners like a lot of pundits are predicting. But at least understand why some of us are taking a chance on him this year. With stolen bases way down and the barrier to win this category so low, it might take just one guy to deliver a big number in steals to win you a title this year. It's possible that he fails, but if you team him with the right power-hitters who can hit for average - Miguel Cabrera owners HAVE to consider Hamilton at some point - then the gamble could pay off.
Good luck filling up this very tough category in 2014. With any luck, Hamilton and other players will stop the decline in stolen bases that we've seen over the last two seasons and many of us will walk away with titles because of it.
(Greg Ambrosius is the founder of the National Fantasy Baseball Championship and the Director of Fantasy Games at STATS LLC. For more information on the NFBC, go to nfbc.stats.com or contact Greg at firstname.lastname@example.org.)