This article is part of our The Long Game series.
In the Staff Keeper League, the home run swoon that happened in 2014 disappeared, but was replaced by an
In the Staff Keeper League, the home run swoon that happened in 2014 disappeared, but was replaced by an even bigger drop elsewhere among the hitting categories:
Hmm. A nearly 17 percent drop in steals is certainly odd. Let's check my 12-team AL-only league to see if the same thing holds there:
Not only does it hold up, the drop is almost double what it is in the 18-team mixed format, as third place brought in about 32 percent fewer steals than the average of the previous two seasons. Ouch.
Pulling back a little further, the league-wide drop in stolen bases in MLB was even clearer than those numbers suggest. Last year, big league teams stole 2,505 bases on 3,569 attempts (a 70.2 percent success rate). That may sound like a lot, but in 2014 they stole 2,764 bases on 3,799 attempts (a 72.8 percent success rate). In fact, last year's steals and attempts were the lowest league-wide totals of the last two decades, and the success rate the lowest since 2004.
In the 20 seasons since the shortened seasons of 1994/1995, league-wide stolen base numbers have followed fairly consistent patterns. From 1996 through 2001, the league averaged 3,213 steals on 4,657 attempts, with success rates in the high 60s (1996's 70.7 percent being the high-water mark). From 2002 through 2005, attempts dwindled without much improvement in the league-wide success rate, with averages of 2,619 steals on 3,851 attempts. Starting in 2006, though, success rates began to climb as teams became more discerning about who ran and when. From 2006 through 2014, MLB's season averages were 2,931 steals on 4,025 attempts, and from 2007 through 2014 the success rates ranged from 72.2 percent (2011) up to 74.4 percent (2007).
So what the heck happened in 2015? Suddenly players ran much less, and were much less successful when doing so.
I can think of a few possible theories. Maybe the use of instant replay is causing managers to avoid decisions that might produce close plays, though that seems unlikely and what numbers I can find on the use of replay doesn't really bear it out. Possibly the new rules intended to reduce game time, such as the between-pitch clock, are also impacting the running game somehow as the Law of Unintended Consequences takes hold. But I think the most likely culprit is an increased emphasis on catcher defense. Last year saw both Evan Gattis and Kyle Schwarber yanked out from behind the plate, following a pattern in which players like Carlos Santana and Joe Mauer also ditched the tools of ignorance. While the teams in question usually point to the player's offensive contributions or injury history as the reason for moving them to another position, they inevitably replace them with a catcher who doesn't hit as well but is an upgrade when it comes to calling a game, pitch framing and gunning down runners.
Or maybe none of those are true, it's just a one-season fluke and steal totals will bounce back in 2016.
If it is the beginning of a new trend, however, there are some things you can do to take advantage of it in keeper and dynasty formats.
Now, this is hardly a mind-blowing recommendation. When 20 percent of your hitter points come from a category provided primarily by specialists, you're incentivized to scour the minor league looking for players who swiped 50 bags in Low-A. But if we are heading into a period where steals at the major league level are on the decline, finding one player who can single-handedly keep you afloat in the category becomes even more important. Grabbing the next Dee Gordon or Billy Hamilton gives you a big competitive advantage over your competition, so bump players like Jose Peraza, Mallex Smith or Trea Turner up a bit on your prospect cheat sheets.
This applies to your end-game auction strategy as well as your minor league targets. Not thrilled with any of your $1 options for your fifth outfield spot? Why not take a chance on Travis Jankowski, who didn't show much in his major league debut last year but has a good shot at the larger share of a center-field platoon or better with the Padres this year and who went 71-for-85 on the basepaths in 2013 down at High-A?
Focus On Team Tendencies
You'll notice all three of the prospects listed above as examples are in National League systems. The senior circuit still tends to be the more active one on the basepaths (NL teams stole 1,320 bases last season, versus 1,185 for AL teams), and the only two teams that stole more than 130 bases on the season in 2015 were the Reds and Diamondbacks. Only four others stole more than 100: the Astros (121), Marlins (112), Royals (104) and Rangers (101). Yep, Gordon accounted for more than half of Miami's steals last year. Aiming for targets who play on teams that have an organizational philosophy geared toward running gives you a better chance of hitting on a player with a chance of producing big stolen base totals, but even if you don't get their top speedster, you might pick up a useful handful from an unexpected player or position as that philosophy permeates the lineup.
Paul Goldschmidt remains the present-day poster boy for getting those "extra" steals, but Chris Owings' 16 steals were a nice little haul too. Even in deep dynasty leagues rostering 300-plus prospects, this is worth remembering. Marten Gasparini, an 18-year-old shortstop prospect signed out of Italy by the Royals, isn't exactly a household name even in prospect circles, but he swiped 26 bases in 54 games in Rookie ball last year. We know the organization values speed and has a knack for converting raw athletes into major league players (see: Lorenzo Cain and Paulo Orlando), so with your last dynasty pick, why not stash Gasparini and see what happens?
One team that might make a big jump up the steals list this season is the Nationals. Dusty Baker doesn't have a reputation as a particularly aggressive manager when it comes to stolen bases (his Reds stole just 67 in 2013, his last year as a manager) but the team also added Davey Lopes as their new first-base coach. Lopes, one of the most gifted base-stealers in baseball history as a player with a career 83-percent success rate, has become something of a base-stealing guru as a coach and the Nats have been running wild in spring training, going 24-for-26 on stolen base attempts (fun fact: both caught stealings were chalked up by Ben Revere). Given the offseason addition of Revere, the probable promotion of Turner early in the season and players like Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and Michael Taylor who have shown flashes of base-stealing ability in their careers, politicians may not be the only people doing a lot of running in the nation's capital this year. Daniel Murphy stole 23 bases as recently as 2013, so don't be too shocked if he rebounds at least into double digits in 2016.
I'm never a big advocate of punting any category in a competitive 4x4 or 5x5 league, as it puts too much pressure on your performance in the remaining categories, but if steals continue to trend down it's possible you'll find yourself in a position where it makes sense. If all the big-name thieves are locked up as keepers, you may have little choice but to focus your attention and budget elsewhere, at least in the short term. The one good thing about declining league-wide totals, however, is that is makes it easier to pick up a few points in the category even if you don't actively pursue it. Getting 10-15 steals from a handful of players up and down your roster can still land you enough to avoid the basement, and even three or four standings points could be crucial for your title chances if you're rocking the remaining categories. Pursuing this strategy makes it an optimal time to add players like Murphy, above, who won't have much base-stealing factored into their market price but could still make a contribution. Other players who aren't projected to be big sources of SBs but could surprise include Eugenio Suarez (just four steals in 97 major league games last year, but he did nick double-digits in each of the preceding two seasons scattered across multiple levels, and he grabbed 21 in Low-A in 2012), Ian Desmond (just 13 steals last year after four straight seasons of 20-plus) and Hunter Pence (his injuries last year were to his arms, not his legs).