Speedy OF: More Valuable Than Ever

It wasn’t too long ago that fantasy managers had several speedsters to choose from, particularly in the outfield.  That time is over for now. There are many potential causes — SB leaders from other positions, trying to avoid leg injuries, teams running less as an overall strategy — the fact is that the stolen base is rarer now than it has been in the last ten years. I want to look at the decrease, as well as some of the outfielders I feel are worthy of rostering after the popular names are off the board.

Recent Stolen Base History

The last two years should be obvious enough evidence of the fact that teams are running less often. Take a look at the top-10 MLB players in stolen bases. It’s true that in almost every season, there will be at least one guy with crazy wheels. Dee Gordon (58 SB in 2015, 64 SB in 2014) and Billy Hamilton (57, 56) have been the top two names in recent years. When going over the last ten seasons, the lowest MLB leader was Mike Trout’s 49 steals in 2012. In those ten years, past leaders include Trout, Jacoby Ellsbury (twice), Michael Bourn, Juan Pierre, and Wily Taveras — all outfielders.

But what about the bottom of the top-10? If there’s always a burner, then the depth of stolen bases is more visible at the #10 rank. As it turns out, over the last ten years, 2015 is the lowest total at the #10 slot, with 26 stolen bases. There were 31 SB at #10 in 2014 and 2009. To get to 30 SB as the #10, you have to go back to 2003, and then all the way back to 1994, a strike-shortened year. Ben Revere reached 31 stolen bases in 2015, which was good enough for #6. In the last ten years, he would have made the top-10 only twice, and both times he’d have tied for #10.

FanGraphs shows 30 players who reached 20 stolen bases in 2015. There were 39 players in 2014, 40 in 2013, 48 in 2012, and 50 in 2011. Noticing a trend yet? As it turns out, in 2015 there were 21 OF who reached 20 steals, so two-thirds of the speedsters came from the large OF player pool. But the drop-off trend still applies. In 2014 there were 26 OF with 20+ SB, in 2013 there were 29, in 2012 there were 31, and in 2011 there were 33. When going back just five years, we’ve lost one-third of the 20+ stolen base pool for outfielders.

What This Means For Your Draft

I’ve never been a fan of prioritizing speed, and part of the reason was that it used to be plentiful. You could always find some speed at the end of the draft to bolster your team numbers. Heck, even part-timers like Scott Podsednik and Rajai Davis could steal 35 bases with fewer than 400 AB. Now, however, the stolen base is becoming as rare as the home run. I’ll grant that 2015 saw some players in the 10-19 SB range who didn’t play a full season, and so they should likely add to the total of 20+ SB players in 2016. Aaron Hicks, Cesar Hernandez, and George Springer are three examples. Still, they won’t jump the total up to the number from five to ten years ago.

This means we need to start placing higher value on players who seemed less stellar just five years ago. In 2007 if you’d showed me a player who hit .280 with little pop but 75 runs and 25 stolen bases, I would have yawned and said that’s endgame material. For 2007 ranks (using PA qualifiers for BA only), 75 R was #107, 25 SB was #26, and .280 was #87. But all offense, even batting average and runs, is becoming harder to find, and in 2015 those ranks are much higher: 75 R was #61, 25 SB was #12, and .280 was #51.

Players with speed and a good BA floor aren’t bench fodder anymore. They deserve to start on your team, and they’ll help you more than they have in the last ten years. You need to focus on drafting a few of them, and because they’re still mostly available in the outfield, that’s where I’ll be taking them in 2016. Now, let’s get started with some lesser-known targets. Again, they won’t be as popular as Hamilton and Ellsbury, but they’ll add plenty of value.

The More Public Targets

I want to briefly touch on guys who already played a (nearly) full year and so are a bit more familiar to most fantasy managers. Adam Eaton exploded with power in 2015, but I can’t see it holding up. However, his has great speed despite not yet breaking 20 steals. Delino DeShields broke 25 stolen bases in just 425 AB, and the Rangers already traded away one outfielder, so he should get plenty of playing time in 2016. The same goes for Billy Burns and Kevin Pillar. Pillar will play due to his glove, and he’s more well-known because of that. Burns has one of the higher batting average floors for this group of players, so give him a bump up in your priority list.

Anthony Gose has some name recognition as a former big prospect, and he cracked 20 steals. The rest of his game is still a work in progress, but again, the new offensive era means we shouldn’t ignore him. Kevin Kiermaier got a lot of playing time in 2015, and he has the speed to reach 20 stolen bases, but with a likely crowded outfield in Tampa, it’s not a certainty. Like Kiermaier, Eddie Rosario showed some pop and is already on people’s radar. There’s some untapped speed potential there, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he reached 30 stolen bases one year.

The Deep Targets
Here are the names that half your league won’t recognize immediately, if at all.

Ender Inciarte – He reached 21 stolen bases in 2015, and he played enough that his .303 batting average was a great help. His near elite contact rate will ensure his average stays that high. As I said above, it’s time to adjust our expectations of this type of value. Even with no power, he helps in runs and is well above average in batting average and stolen bases. He’s Ben Revere Lite; less speed, but the potential for 30+ SB. However, given how little people value Revere, you can get Inciarte even cheaper and reap the reward.

Odubel Herrera – Herrera doesn’t have the high contact rate that Inciarte does, but he improved it in the second half, so there could be some growth there to support his BA. Otherwise, he’s more likely to hit .275 than .300 in 2016. He also doesn’t walk much, but he barely spent any time at or above Double-A, so maybe he can develop that skill. As he stands right now, 20+ SB and 75+ R should be a lock with a full season.

Aaron Altherr – The Phillies are in upheaval regarding their roster, so anyone with potential has a chance to shine there. Altherr displays good power and speed, but the BA will likely remain low. His contact rate is the lowest of the deep targets, but he posted a 10% BB% in 2015, so he’s not a complete free swinger. The power/speed combo could result in a 15/20 year as early as 2016 with full-time AB.

Tommy Pham – You have to wonder whether he’ll get enough playing time, but he has the speed to reach 20 SB if injuries pop up again in the Cardinal outfield. He’s really only a good option in very deep or NL-only leagues, because he’s more likely to bounce between the minors and the majors during the season, and most fantasy managers want at least a consistent MLB presence on their bench.

Leonys Martin – He’s already reached 30 SB in the past, but after a crowded outfield in Texas, plus a bad 2015 from him, he’s been shipped to Seattle. Presumably he was traded to start, and so he could see a return to 30 SB at a reduced cost. His value will depend on whether he can reverse his LD% slide and get back to an above average BABIP.

Abraham Almonte – With Michael Brantley missing the start of 2016, Almonte will get a chance to further cement himself in the everyday lineup. Like Altherr, he offers more power than most of the options here, with a league average HR/FB. The down side is that although he can run, he’s not blazing fast, so he may barely reach 20 SB. Still, if you combine that with 15+ HR and a BA that won’t hurt your team, he could make for a nice speculation pick.

 

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Kevin Jebens
Fantasy baseball player since 2000; winning leagues ranging from 12-team H2H to 18-team experts 5x5. Has written for various baseball blogs, including the 2013 Bleed Cubbie Blue Annual.
Kevin Jebens

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