Speed took off in the 1970s (in multiple ways…). The AL went to 162 games in 1961 and the NL followed suit the next year so looking at things since 1962, we saw a surge in stolen bases around 1973 when they cracked 2,000 for the first time at 2,034. They surged over 3,000 in 1976 and essentially held that floor every year until 2002 save a couple exceptions (2,982 in ’79 and 2,924 in ’00) and the strike years of 1981, 1994, and 1995 (which still almost got there at 2,932). There was a 353-base drop in 2002 to 2,750 and since then only 2011 (3,279) and 2012 (3,229) have been over 3,00. There was another big drop after 2012, going down 536 bases to 2,693 and that has ushered in this current drought of premium speed.
Since 2011, we’ve seen a precipitous drop in 20+ SB players going from 50 that year to just 28 in 2018, which tied 2016 for the lowest in this eight-year period. Interestingly, we actually saw a spike in 30-SB players last year, going from six to 11. Meanwhile, the 40-SB pool has been steadily low since 2014. Here’s a year-by-year since 2011: 8, 6, 8, 4, 3, 5, 3, and 3. One of the biggest issues with the 30-SB guys is that they are all expensive. Of those 11 from 2018, just one has an ADP outside the top 115 and it’s Billy Hamilton, who is already on the rise. He’s seen his ADP jump 20 spots over the winter, up to 152 since January 1st in NFBC leagues.
The dearth of premium speed doesn’t mean you have to push these top base stealers up, but rather that you can lower your expectations for speed across your roster and still compete in the category. I remember during the major home run boon a few years ago, there were some people saying they’d just wait on power and get it late because of the 20-25 HR guys available deeper in drafts. But with so many homers flying out of parks, you need more per roster spot so that 20-25 HR guy in the 20th round isn’t necessarily giving you any sort of edge.
My approach to speed is going to be the same it’s been in recent years: accumulate across the roster. I’m a sucker for power-speed outfielders so I’ll probably have my speed anchor (20-25 SBs) come from that pool and then get knick-knack contributions here and there around the roster. A potential avenue to do this would be to gather some SBs from unexpected areas. That brings up to the primary topic of this piece: potential SB contributors in unexpected spots, namely catcher and first base.
Those are easily the two slowest positions on the diamond, so we don’t really expect to get any SBs out of those spots, but that doesn’t mean we can’t supplement our speed in those spots. So, let’s take a look at some of the faster guys at those positions – catcher today, first base tomorrow – who might hook you up with 7-10 SBs at catcher or 10-15 SBs at 1B this year. (I still mention Realmuto today and the premium SB guys at 1B tomorrow just so I don’t get comments wondering where they are)
J.T. Realmuto is the fastest catcher in the league with a 28.6 ft/second sprint speed and aided him to SB totals of 8, 12, and 8 from 2015-17. Interestingly enough, the year that he truly got the respect he deserved in drafts as a premium catcher (last year), he went just 3-for-5 on the bases but popped 21 HR with a 126 wRC+ so he was still awesome.
Onto the potential speed gems…
Jorge Alfaro was second to Realmuto in sprint speed last year at 28.3 and did nab three stolen bases in as many tries over his 377 PA. He peaked as high as 18 in the 2013 across two levels (including 16-for-19 at A-ball that year), but only had 39 with a 67% success rate in 2651 minor league PA. The speed also helped Alfaro leg out 11 infield hits, 4th-most among catchers though the three ahead of him had many more plate appearances. Alfaro’s swing-and-miss (37% K) is a major flaw in his game, but we haven’t seen the best of him yet and if the Phillies allow to run a bit, that could include 6-7 SBs.
The move of Russell Martin to LA clears a full-time path for Danny Jansen in Toronto, which has no doubt raised his stock, but I wonder how many drafters realize they could garner some sneaky SBs here. He slotted fourth in sprint speed at 27.9 ft/sec and while he didn’t attempt any steals in his 95 MLB PA last year, he did go 5-for-6 in Triple-A. He’s logged 17 SBs at an 85% success rate in 1505 MiLB PA. He walked (11%) almost as much as he struck out (12%) in the minors and has emerging pop so there’s tons to like here even if the speed doesn’t come through this year.
Martin’s arrival in LA undercut one of the position’s speedsters as Austin Barnes (27.4 ft/sec) will again fight for playing time, though if he can play more like 2017 (142 wRC+) than 2018 (77), the time will come. He had 4 SBs in each campaign, but last year’s likely didn’t make a fantasy impact because he was so bad otherwise.
Willson Contreras (27.6 ft/sec) disappointed last year, dropping 22 points off his wRC+ to a league average 100, but he still chipped in four steals and even hit five triples to showcase his speed. He’s an interesting bounce back candidate for the bat alone, but his 9 SB are in 2017-18 are also tied for 3rd-most at the position, adding a little extra value.
Boston is home to two sneaky SB backstops, one of whom isn’t even that fast from a sprint speed perspective. Christian Vazquez sits at 25.3 ft/sec, good for 32nd among the 56 catchers with 50 measured opportunities, but that hasn’t stopped from netting 11 SBs over the last two seasons, tied with Realmuto for 2nd at the position. Blake Swihart was 7th in sprint speed (27.1 ft/sec) and finished second at the position with 6 SB, accumulated in just 207 PA. Unfortunately, he managed just a 64 wRC+ and will struggle to find playing time without major improvements.
I’d remiss if I didn’t mention that Yadier Molina of all people paces the position with 13 SBs over the last two seasons despite being tied for the worst sprint speed at the position (22.9 ft/sec). Of course, given that utter lack of speed, it’s hard to feel great about projecting him to continue his stealing ways. Plus, he’s going into his age-36 season and was just 4-for-7 last year. The 9 SB surge in 2017 came out of nowhere (he had 10 in 2097 PA the four years before) and almost certainly won’t be repeated again. That said, he does have at least 3 SB in nine of the last 10 seasons.
We’ll see if Tom Murphy can carve out a share of time behind the dish in Colorado and not only take advantage of that wonderful hitting environment but also chip in 5-6 SBs with 28.0 ft/sec sprint speed (third at the position last year). He did go 4-for-6 in 264 PA last year at Triple-A, but he’s just 1-for-2 in 210 disjointed MLB PA spread out over the last four seasons.