Stolen Bases Harder to Find in the OF

Everyone remembers the glory days of super-speedy, light-hitting outfielders who could net you 30+ stolen bases. However, as sabermetrics permeates not only the front office but the manager’s playbook, a lot of teams are running less often. Also, some of the speedsters from the glory days 5-10 years ago are aging and so aren’t running much anymore (see Coco Crisp), or they are part-timers who only net 300 AB (see Jarrod Dyson). The fact remains that the stolen base is becoming a bit harder to find, and though #3 or #4 outfielder types used to fill the role of a speedster, that’s not the case anymore. Take a look at the data of 20+ SB and even just 15+ SB over the last several years, with a minimum 300 PA.

Year 20+ SB 15+ SB
2016 18 28
2015 20 33
2014 22 36
2013 26 32
2012 28 37
2011 29 37
2010 27 37

In fantasy, 15 stolen bases isn’t an overly high bar, and from 2010-14 the number of outfielders was pretty steady. However, the last two years have dropped. What’s worse, the number of outfielders who can net 20 steals is on a six-year decline. Even if you want to give the benefit of the doubt to rookie call-ups and other partial-season options, I dropped the minimum PA to 150, and the same six-year decline holds up for 20+ steals; there are simply a few more players (0-4 in any given year) that reach the threshold.

That’s mostly parallel with the sport as a whole, and it’s not just an outfield problem, but it does make it harder to value outfielders simply on their speed, because they aren’t as common as they used to be. However, if you’re going to trawl for stolen bases, here are some outfielders to consider in 2017. I broke them down into two groups, full-timers from 2016 and players with less than 400 PA that warrant speculation.

2016 Full-Timers

I have to at least touch on Billy Hamilton. The good news is that his batting average rebounded from 2015, and he even made some strides in his walk rate (6% in 2014-15, 8% in 2016). However, three years of 50+ stolen bases seems to indicate that’s what he is, and the days of dreaming about 100 swiped bags are over. If he manages to get over 550 at bats again, maybe he’ll hit 70 stolen bases one year, but he’s really just a one-trick pony, and most fantasy leagues have evolved past overvaluing that kind of player.

I considered Odubel Herrera a solid investment pre-2016, and he didn’t disappoint. He showed more power than I’d expected, but he stole fewer bags than I’d hoped for. Still, 25 steals is quite solid, and there’s room for improvement. The red flags to watch out for include a decline in contact and walk rate in the second half, as well as a success rate that’s less than ideal. He also struggled against lefties, so there’s a chance he’ll lose a little playing time once in a while. Even so, a full season gives him a floor of 25 stolen bases, and 35 is possible if he fixes his flaws.

Hernan Perez played more third base than outfield in 2016, but in the future he projects more as a 2B or OF guy. He posted great speed scores, and the Brewers let him run in 2016. The issues I have with him are the same as Hamilton: he doesn’t walk and his contact rate isn’t amazing. No walks means fewer chances to run, and his contact rate and batted ball profile aren’t ideal for a typical high stolen base guy. Then again, he displayed at least league average power, so like Herrera, he’s not a one-trick pony. I could see him reaching 40+ stolen bases in 2017, but there’s also a small chance that he’s a bust if he loses his pop and doesn’t improve his BB%.

Remember when Melvin Upton Jr. was valuable? It’s been a while, but he became relevant again in 2016. His power and batting average have been all over the place for several seasons, but his speed scores have been steadily strong. With enough playing time he should be able to keep netting 20 stolen bases. However, the rest of his game is so risky that it’s not really worth the gamble. He still has an awful contact rate, and his walk rate is on a three-year decline. He hit more grounders (49%) than in the previous seven years, and his speed doesn’t help him in those instances (infield hit rate has dropped for four years). I suppose if he enters 2017 as a full-time starter, he’ll reach 20 stolen bases again, but remember that 2013-14 wasn’t too long ago.

For years, Chris Owings had some sleeper status as a potential prospect breakout. However, his game never really came together until 2016. He seems to have given up on trying to hit for power and lifting the ball, because he hit more grounders and improved his contact rate. That helped improve his batting average, and he needs that in order to be successful as a speedster because he doesn’t walk (4% in 2016). His metrics don’t really indicate some great breakout on the horizon, so 2016 may be a best-case scenario for projections: 450 AB will guarantee 20+ steals, but that’s all you can set in stone.



Half-season Speculators

Travis Jankowski has one of the two classic profiles of a speedster. Some hitters have elite contact and slap the ball on the ground. Others get on base by drawing a lot of walks. Jankowski is the latter, with an 11% walk rate. He struggled greatly with contact rate to start the year, but then he made great strides, improving every month and ending the season with a 70% rate. If he keeps improving his approach, he hits enough grounders to benefit from both speedster profiles, and I could see him as a 50+ stolen base guy as early as next season.

Jarrod Dyson is entering 2017 as a likely starter for the Royals. That alone is going to raise his value because until now he’s always been a part-time player. He put up a career best contact rate, and his walk rate was solid (8%). He’s in his early 30s, and his speed metrics came down a little in 2016, but overall I still expect him to have a full green light. Even 400 AB (which would be a career high), plus pinch running as he always does, could net 40 stolen bases next year.

Jose Peraza primarily played shortstop for the Reds in 2016, but if Cozart is healthy (and not traded), then Peraza will be looking at time in the outfield. His profile is most like Ben Revere, which is a good thing in my book. He could hit for a high average due to making a lot of contact, he hits the ball on the ground and uses his wheels, and he hits quite a few line drives to keep his BABIP well above average. He doesn’t walk (like Revere), but a higher batting average floor helps mitigate that negative. His speed scores are solid and the Reds let him run, so full playing time means 40 SB potential.

There are a lot of variables to Mallex Smith. From month to month, he was all over in batting average (but usually bad). His speed was obvious all season, and that’s what you’d be buying for 2017. Before his injury his contact improved each month, and he had a good walk rate in his limited time in 2016. It’s entirely possible he nets 30+ stolen bases next year, but the problem is that the rest of his offensive game doesn’t seem ready, or at least doesn’t project to be strong. It’s empty speed here, and these days that’s something you want to avoid.

Keon Broxton showed tremendous potential in power and speed, with 9 HR and 23 SB in just 207 AB. I’m a bit skeptical about the power, which primarily came in the last two months of the season, but the speed metrics indicate his stolen bases are legit. A 15% walk rate is great in boosting his chances, too. However, I simply can’t recommend him as anything more than an endgame pick because of his 65% contact rate. His game could fall apart quickly if he doesn’t rein in his plate discipline (14% swinging strike rate). He got by well enough in 2016, and 35 stolen bases is a possibility, but more major league exposure may break him. Personally, I need to see him perform well early in 2017 before I invest.

 

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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.