Theft Falls To Historic Lows

Stealing bases continue to be less and less of a priority as baseball evolves in its current iteration but regardless, they remain an equal part of the equation in most rotisserie setups. This makes it more important than ever to find extra ways to find speed in the margins.

With 2021 in the books, I wanted to spend some time on stolen bases, so I’ll start with speed trends, both overall and team-by-team. And then finish up today looking at how some of the 2022 free-agent class might be affected by where they end up signing. In the next piece, I’ll move on to if the value of stolen bases in fantasy has changed and whether we should adjust how we draft for them going forward.

Before we get started, though, will everyone please bow their heads in a moment of silence for baseball thievery, as we’ll begin with a reading of the obituary.

The mortal wounds struck to stolen bases weren’t caused by a decline in skills, as the league, as a whole, is better than ever in terms of successfully stealing. In fact, the 75.6% success rate in 2021 was the second-highest mark since 1937 – the highest was 75.2%, all the way back in 2020. No, it’s a lack of trying that’s at the root of the stolen base dying.

Since 1920 (the year that failed attempts started being tracked every season), major league baseball has averaged less than two stolen base attempts per 100 plate appearances in 52 of 102 seasons. Of those 52, 42 came over the 48 years between 1926 and 1973 (with the other six seasons only barely breaking the two-attempt threshold) – a period I’m confident in affectionately referring to as the “dead bag” era.

Since this unofficial era ended in 1973, only ten seasons have averaged fewer than two attempts per 100 PA, and seven of them have come since 2015, with 2013 (2.00) and 2014 (2.07) only barely crossing the mark. But after decreasing in every year except 2020, the rate of attempts fell to new depths in 2021 – 1.60 attempts per 100 PA is the lowest rate since 1964 and 2898 attempts were over 200 fewer than in 2019 and over 500 fewer than in 2018.

Our most recent dead bag era coincides with the most prolific home run hitting in baseball history, as hitters have put more of a priority on big contact over getting lots of contact, while MLB has put more and more of a priority on the juiciness of their balls. In terms of home runs per PA, the top six rates over the past century have come in the past six seasons, a .244 AVG is tied for the third-lowest since 1920, and a league-wide 23.2% K% is down slightly from the major-league record 23.4% K% set all the way back in 2020.

With more home runs being hit than ever and more players favoring a power-(and whiff) heavy approach, it’s not surprising that more teams see stolen base attempts as a risk they’re not willing to take as often.

When it comes to stolen base proclivity, league averages are one thing but team-by-team is another, as team rates can vary according to talent, as well the organizational philosophy. So, let’s drill down further and look at the team-by-team trends since 2010.

Below are the percentile ranks for attempts per-PA by team, ordered by 2021 results:

As you look at the chart above, keep in mind the factors that can drive change, whether changes in manager/philosophy or changes in personnel. Did Oakland and Washington change philosophy or did they respectively add and lose Starling Marte and Trea Turner? Are the Cubs numbers more due to changes in personnel or changes in the manager? Will more Twins break double-digits in 2022 than Byron Buxton breaks bones and/or ligaments? Would I watch a pay-per-view footrace between Miguel Sano and our lord Astudillo*?

*Yes

I find information like this quite useful in fantasy, as we continue careening down the overall stolen base slide. Not for the burners, though, as the top group of thieves are generally going to do as they tend to do. But for everyone else, I want to know where their team generally is at in terms of how they like to run. Not necessarily to find a glut of under-the-radar speed but more to just know who is more likely to end up with more of the so-called “random” stolen bases, ones stolen based more on a team’s willingness to take advantage of opportunities more than a player’s raw speed. Who doesn’t love more random stolen bases?

It’s less about predicting stolen bases and more about having another piece of information when it comes to deciding between players of similar value. And setting yourself up for success by knowing which teams have a recent track record of aggressiveness on the basepaths. Or knowing which free agents could have the value of their fringe speed change depending on where they sign.

To get an idea of speed on the current market, here are the 2022 free agents who stole at least five bases in 2021. Included are their stolen base totals from 2017-2021, 2021 sprint speed, and current age.

2022 Free Agents
Player Age 2021 Spd 2021 SB 2020 SB 2019 SB 2018 SB 2017 SB
Starling Marte 32 28.4 47 10 25 33 21
Trevor Story 28 28.7 20 15 23 27 7
Javier Báez 28 28.6 18 3 11 21 10
Marcus Semien 30 28.6 15 4 10 14 12
Tommy Pham 33 27.8 14 6 25 15 25
Jonathan Villar 30 27.3 14 16 40 35 23
Chris Taylor 30 28.8 13 3 8 9 17
Mark Canha 32 27.8 12 4 3 1 2
Eddie Rosario 29 27.1 11 3 3 8 9
Kris Bryant 29 27.9 10 0 4 2 7
Jarrod Dyson 36 27.8 10 6 30 16 28
Josh Harrison 33 26.7 9 1 4 3 12
Billy Hamilton 30 29.5 9 6 22 34 59
Matt Duffy 30 26.4 8 0 0 12 0
Freddie Freeman 31 26.9 8 2 6 10 8
Charlie Culberson 32 28.1 7 0 0 4 0
Leury García 30 28.4 6 0 15 12 8
Corey Dickerson 32 27.2 6 1 1 8 4
Anthony Rizzo 31 25.2 6 3 5 6 10
Jose Iglesias 31 28.3 5 0 6 15 7
Brock Holt 33 26.1 5 1 1 7 2

It doesn’t matter where Starling Marte signs because any team that tries to stifle his proven track record of theft would be acting irrationally. Though going to one of the more aggressive teams would obviously make him that much more appealing, even as he enters his age-33 season. I mean, does it seem like Marte is slowing down after stealing 30 bases in 33 attempts in the second half?

Trevor Story is in a similar position as Marte, albeit a few levels of theft below, in that a team would be making a mistake if they didn’t let him run as he has in the past. Story’s highest rate of attempts since 2018 is 0.69 attempts per 10 PA in 2020, with the three other seasons coming in between 0.44 and 0.50 attempts per 10 PA. I expect it to be in a similar range regardless of where Story writes himself into and that likely means 20-25 SB again.

Javier Báez is more interesting as he’s been up and down on his stolen base totals, as well as his rate of attempts, but has also spent most of his time with the Cubs, who stayed near the bottom of the league in attempts while under manager Joe Maddon. But Chicago has increased its attempts since David Ross took the helm, finishing 2020 in the 50th percentile and 2021 in the 80th. And Báez finished 2021 with 18 SB, the second-highest total of his career, with 13 of those coming with Cubs.

Báez did steal five bases as a Met (who have recently stayed steadily near the bottom third of the league in attempt rates) but three of those came on four attempts in one three-game stretch. In his other 45 games with New York, Báez stole just two bases in three attempts. If he eventually signs with a team that has shown recent aggression, Báez could get back over 20 SB and challenge his career-high.

Eddie Rosario is someone else I find extremely interesting, after finishing with 11 SB in 2021 and a 0.34 attempts per 10 PA that was his highest mark since 0.036 in his 2015 rookie season.

Rosario struggled in the first half (.295 wOBA, 86 wRC+), hitting just seven home runs in 306 PA but bounced back in the second, running a .375 wOBA and hitting seven home runs in just 106 PA.

In terms of his general production, I’ll take the second half improvements and larger body of work that Rosario has shown over a bad first half (and abdominal strain) and will be in again in 2022 on what I see as a pretty high floor, independent of destination. But if he signs with an attempt-happy team, I’m bumping up his previous 10 SB limit and his overall value accordingly. And after a disappointing 2021 campaign (after around a top-100 ADP), Rosario’s value will likely be very depressed, making him a solid target for cheaper outfielders.

Not to play fantasy GM for real life but doesn’t it feel like Leury García belongs in Kansas City? A cheap, super UT that can bounce around and then absolutely give you mediocre production for the 100 games that Adalberto Mondesi will inevitably miss.

García only stole six bases in 2021 but was a sneaky source for a little speed in 2018 ( 12 SB in 275 PA) and 2019 (15 SB in 618 PA). If he manages to wrangle something near a full-time job on the right team (a big if), García could be that sneaky source again. And if he’s a Royal, I feel like all in the universe will be just a little more right. Especially if we get that footrace.

 





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CreamyNicklaus Gaut__AL Recent comment authors
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Just a correction about Eddie Rosario: he made 11 of his 14 SB attempts this season with Cleveland, not MIN or ATL.