MLB: Another Approach to Steals

MLB: Another Approach to Steals

When MLB announced a bunch of rule changes this offseason, nothing inflamed the brains of fantasy GMs more than the tweaks apparently designed to boost basestealing. Bigger bags! Fewer pickoffs! Pitchers distracted by pitch clocks and an increased focus on balks! The stage seemed set for a huge revival of a fantasy category that had increasingly seemed irrelevant to actual team success in recent seasons.

Not surprisingly, there has been no real consensus on what the impact of the rule changes might have. Jason Collette's recent article covered this ground already, but to recap, there are three main camps this offseason:

Same as it ever was

Proponents of this theory essentially believe that the hype is overblown, as hype tends to be, and that in the end the math still says an out is worth a lot more than one extra base. Sure, there will be some small increase in steals, but there won't be anything particularly actionable. Just draft the way you would have in 2022, and you should be fine.

Off to the races

Advocates of this approach believe that making stealing easier will disproportionately impact the fastest players, who were already the ones stealing bases anyway. While MLB won't return to the glory days of the go-go '80s when Vince Coleman was swiping triple-digit bags, or even the '90s when every player named Goodwin seemed like a lock to steal at least 20, the theory here is that the league leaders will start cracking 50 again and

When MLB announced a bunch of rule changes this offseason, nothing inflamed the brains of fantasy GMs more than the tweaks apparently designed to boost basestealing. Bigger bags! Fewer pickoffs! Pitchers distracted by pitch clocks and an increased focus on balks! The stage seemed set for a huge revival of a fantasy category that had increasingly seemed irrelevant to actual team success in recent seasons.

Not surprisingly, there has been no real consensus on what the impact of the rule changes might have. Jason Collette's recent article covered this ground already, but to recap, there are three main camps this offseason:

Same as it ever was

Proponents of this theory essentially believe that the hype is overblown, as hype tends to be, and that in the end the math still says an out is worth a lot more than one extra base. Sure, there will be some small increase in steals, but there won't be anything particularly actionable. Just draft the way you would have in 2022, and you should be fine.

Off to the races

Advocates of this approach believe that making stealing easier will disproportionately impact the fastest players, who were already the ones stealing bases anyway. While MLB won't return to the glory days of the go-go '80s when Vince Coleman was swiping triple-digit bags, or even the '90s when every player named Goodwin seemed like a lock to steal at least 20, the theory here is that the league leaders will start cracking 50 again and putting more distance between themselves and the pack. Miss out on an elite basestealer like Trea Turner or Randy Arozarena in your draft, or fail to stumble into the next Jon Berti or Jorge Mateo via FAAB, and you risk being left behind in the category.

The rising tide

This third theory hasn't gotten as much attention, but I think it's the most interesting, at least from a draft strategy standpoint. The idea here is that guys who have had great success stealing bases aren't necessarily going to see huge increases, because they were already running when it was optimal to do so. Sure, the definition of optimal will change and give them some more opportunities, but going from an 85 percent chance of success to 95 percent isn't going to change whether a player has a green light from his team. He already had it. Instead, the biggest increase — and the biggest source of potential draft-day profit — will come from players who go from having yellow lights to green, who see their chances of success on the basepaths go from 70 percent to 80 percent and thus cross the threshold of adding to their team's run-scoring capabilities with their legs rather than subtracting from it.

Partially out of curiosity and partially out of necessity, this third approach is what I ended up using in my TGFBI league.

The "necessity" part of that equation was my draft slot. Picking 15th in a 15-team league, I had no shot at landing someone like Ronald Acuna, Julio Rodriguez or Bobby Witt, and it was also an awkward spot in which to take a second-round steals threat like Arozarena or Michael Harris. Drafting one of those guys at 2.01 wouldn't have been completely out of bounds, but in either case it would have set a new NFBC high-water mark (in drafts since February 1, the earliest Harris has gone is 18th, or 2.03, and Arozarena's earliest pop was 24th, or 2.09), which is rarely ideal unless you are absolutely convinced the player is being universally undervalued.

There was one player who might have fallen to me at the turn and led me to adopting a more conventional approach to steals, and that was Bo Bichette, but he went 12th overall in my league. With that pipe dream busted, it was time to move onto Plan B.

Given who was on the board, I established a solid foundation in the other four hitting categories with Vladimir Guerrero and Manny Machado with my first two picks, then double-tapped aces in rounds 3/4 with Justin Verlander and Zack Wheeler to set my pitching foundation. After that, it was game on looking for hitters who were projected for relatively modest steals totals but who could overperform those projections in a big way.

But who are those guys, exactly? What kind of player might see the kind of stealth steal boosts that would make this plan viable?

The parameters I established were as follows:

  • Projected steals totals in mid-to-high single digits up to the teens. Basically, guys who had some ability to run and weren't statues on the basepaths, but whose fantasy value and ADP weren't being driven by their projected contribution in SBs.
  • A sprint speed above the 50th percentile in 2022 according to Statcast, or more specifically, of at least 27.5 feet per second in measured speed. Why that number? Well, it's 2.5 feet per second below 30. I dunno, it ends in a 5 and is easy to remember. There was no particular science behind it other than it lined up with being at least a bit above-average relative to the rest of the league.
  • A high career success rate. This wasn't as important, because raw numbers don't tell you whether a caught stealing was due to a bad jump or the guy in the batter's box missing a hit-and-run sign, but in general if a player has done well in the past converting steal chances into actual steals, it stands to reason they'll get more opportunities now that it's easier than ever to take that extra bag.

Here's who I ended up with that met those criteria:

Wander Franco, Rays (pick 5.15, 75th overall)

Franco's one of the players I am extremely high on this season. This weird conventional wisdom seems to have crept in that he's a "more valuable in real life than fantasy" player, but dude just turned 22 at the beginning of March and we really have absolutely no idea what his ceiling is. Over the final month or so last year after he got fully healthy again, Franco slashed .322/.381/.471. In my expert opinion, that's pretty good.

Specifically on the steals front, he went 8-for-8 last year in 83 games in 2022 and is 10-for-11 in his brief big-league career. RotoWire has him projected for 14 steals in 18 attempts while ATC pegs him for a 12-for-16 performance, and his sprint speed last year was 61st percentile (27.8 ft/s). He checks all the boxes I was looking for, and would anybody really be all that surprised if Franco swipes 25?

Christian Yelich, Brewers (pick 8.01, 106th overall)

I was hoping to land Tyler O'Neill here (ATC 17-for-22 SB projection, 97th percentile sprint speed in 2022), but he went at 7.14. Grr. Anyway, Yelich is projected by ATC to go 17-for-21 and has a 70th percentile sprint speed, so he still fits the bill. How healthy his back is, and where he hits in the lineup, will be huge factors in his actual steals contribution this season, but he does have a 30-steal season and a couple 20-steal campaigns on his resume already, so he's done it before.

Ian Happ, Cubs (pick 9.15, 135th overall)

Happ is a very sneaky steals play this season. He's never reached double digits in his career but has exactly nine each of the last two seasons, going 18-for-24. He should hit near the top of the order, and had a sprint speed in the 66th percentile last year (27.9 ft/s). ATC's projection? 9-for-12. What is he, the Khris Davis of stolen bases? He can do better.

Jonathan India, Reds (pick 11.15, 165th overall)

This is one of the guys I would have had circled in red on my cheat sheet if I still used paper cheat sheets. India's projected to go a modest 8-for-11 by ATC and barely squeaked over the bar in 2022 sprint speed (59th percentile, 27.7 ft/s), but he went 12-for-15 on the basepaths as a rookie before battling through hamstring woes last year. His sprint speed in 2021, before the injuries? 86th percentile, 28.5 ft/s. Oh, and Cincy might put him in the leadoff spot a lot this season.

Vaughn Grissom, Atlanta (pick 12.01, 166th overall)

Yep, I double-tapped 2B-eligible guys at this turn. At the time I made the picks (TGFBI uses a slow draft), there was still a little doubt as to whether Grissom would win the starting job in camp, but there really shouldn't have been when his competition was Orlando Arcia. Also, Gavin Lux and Brendan Rodgers had already followed Trevor Story out of the 2B pool and onto the injured list, and there were still five teams in the league who didn't yet have starters at the keystone, so I wanted to put some pressure on them to see if they'd make any mistakes and reach for one of the remaining options. It didn't exactly work — the next 2B taken was Ketel Marte at 13.11 — but it was worth a shot, and it's not like Grissom doesn't have upside as my MI. ATC projects him to go 16-for-20 in under 500 plate appearances, he swiped 32 bags in 39 attempts across all levels last year, and his sprint speed is... wait, 59th percentile? Really? Well, that's still just good enough.

Austin Hays, Orioles (pick 17.15, 255th overall)

My next couple of hitter picks after Grissom were relative statues in Ryan McMahon (who I intend to be my platoon UT guy for Coors Field series only) and Triston Casas, so I felt I was overdue for someone who might get me a handful of unexpected steals. Hays juuuust clears the sprint speed bar in the 61st percentile, but he's never been particularly successful on the basepaths and is projected to go 4-for-7 by ATC. In retrospect, maybe a gamble on an Austin Meadows comeback (he was drafted at 19.06) might have been the better play, but at the time I felt a boring compiler with a tiny smidge of theoretical upside made more sense for the roster.

Jake Fraley, Reds (pick 20.01, 286th overall)

Speaking of theoretical upside... if only Fraley could stay healthy. Maybe this is the year, he typed hopefully before knocking on wood. He's gone 14-for-17 in 146 games over the last two seasons, is projected to go 12-for-16 by ATC, and had a 69th percentile sprint speed in 2022. Nice.

Mark Canha, Mets (pick 21.15, 315th overall)

Believe it or not, Canha checks the boxes. He swiped 12 bags two years ago for the A's and has gone 19-for-22 over the last three years. ATC projects him to go 5-for-7, and his 52nd percentile sprint speed translates into 27.5 ft/s, right at my arbitrary cutoff. Like Hays, this was more of a floor pick than a ceiling selection, but him stealing double-digit bags again isn't a completely ridiculous notion.

There were other options I had on my radar if the draft had gone a different way — Nick Castellanos, Jorge Polanco and Oswaldo Cabrera would have been nice adds, I almost went with Christian Bethancourt as my second catcher, and speaking of catchers, did you know Will Smith has never been caught stealing and has never averaged below 27.5 ft/s over a season in his career? — but I think overall the plan worked out about as well as it could have. Per our draft software, I'm projected for a middle of the pack finish in steals (ninth place, gaining seven points). If each of those guys above picks up an extra 5-10 steals, boosting me by 30 or more, I'm up to second place in the category. (Of course, other teams should also get boosts if there is a league-wide speed renaissance.) And if some of them don't see noticeable improvements in the category (looking at you, Hays), I snagged James Outman and Will Brennan in the reserve rounds, just in case. 

Full TGFBI roster (round selected in brackets):

C – Cal Raleigh (10), Yasmani Grandal (18)
1B – Vladimir Guerrero (1), Triston Casas (15)
2B – Jonathan India (11), Vaughn Grissom (12), Ryan McMahon (13)
3B – Manny Machado (2), McMahon
SS – Wander Franco (5), Grissom, Maikel Garcia (26)
OF – Christian Yelich (8), Ian Happ (9), Austin Hays (17), Jake Fraley (20), Mark Canha (21), James Outman (24), Will Brennan (30)
SP – Justin Verlander (3), Zack Wheeler (4), Blake Snell (7), Hunter Brown (14), Michael Kopech (19), Mitch Keller (23), Ian Anderson (25), Domingo German (27), Ryan Pepiot (29)
RP – Camilo Doval (6), Jorge Lopez (16), Daniel Hudson (22), Brusdar Graterol (28)

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erik Siegrist
Erik Siegrist is an FSWA award-winning columnist who covers all four major North American sports (that means the NHL, not NASCAR) and whose beat extends back to the days when the Nationals were the Expos and the Thunder were the Sonics. He was the inaugural champion of Rotowire's Staff Keeper baseball league. His work has also appeared at Baseball Prospectus.
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