For readers who tune in to watch MLB games regularly, the phrase “small ball is dead” is becoming more and more the cliche. Managers do not feel the need to run as much, there is a decreasing rate of sacrifice bunts, and above all, no more hit-and-run as a primary offensive tactic. While many factors have led to this shift in baseball strategy, at the end of the day, there are plenty of other factors that have changed the game. Overall, there are more runs, more power, and more well-rounded players. While philosophical conversations about baseball are fun, what matters for fantasy owners is how this changes the fabric of personal drafts strategies.
In this light, this article takes on the question of “should you punt steals?” By “punt” we mean, avoid drafting, and instead prioritize other categories, at the expense of steals. This is mostly for roto leagues but steals count for points as well, so some applicability for all owners.
With that said, read along with the Rotoballer team as we help you prepare for drafts entering the 2019 season. Read other articles to review different strategies to help you win your leagues, and gain that edge by getting in on strategy, new and old.
The Relative Value of the Steal
In 2018, 139 batters qualified for the batting title, meaning that they averaged 3.1 PAs per game their team played. While this artificially limits out some players, it also provides a stable baseline for players who were on the field for the entire year. Players who missed weeks due to injury, or are not playing every day, did not break this threshold and require more nuanced player evaluations to gauge value. While some of those names will appear later in this piece, for the time being, the core of the data set comes from this group of players.
Of the 139 players listed, the average hitter batted .265, hit 20 homers, drove in 73 runs, scored 77 runs, and stole nine bases. To put a finer bow on it, only 24 players qualified for the batting title and stole over 20 bases in 2018. Compare this to 40 players with more than 25 homers, and 50 batters with more than 80 RBI. This means that steals are coming from fewer sources, or are coming from players that are not playing enough to qualify for the batting title.
Only 47 qualified hitters stole 11 or more bases, and even more surprisingly, 13 qualified hitters stole zero bases. For comparison, in 2014, 146 players qualified for the batting title, and the average was ten steals over the campaign. That same year, homers were down to 15, runs to 70, and RBIs to 67. Only 21 stole over 20 bases, and 17 stole zero bags.
So then, based on these two samples, steals are down a fraction, but overall production is up. This makes sense as if fewer managers are running, those who play on teams that do run will see their numbers jump in comparison. Also, with younger players, there is just more speed, so the outfielder who might steal is now 23 and should run a bit more than his veteran teammate.
Draft Stock of the Rabbit
The infamous “rabbit” still dominates fantasy projections, meaning that steals still are on the minds of fantasy analysts. To forward a formal definition of the “rabbit,” by this we mean: “a player who does nothing but steal bases and might hurt other statistical areas.” Billy Hamilton always springs to mind, but others have been added to that list. For this sample, the set was expanded to non-qualifying batters, but players who stole more than 20 bases. While this is admittingly an arbitrary cut-off point, Adam Engel’s 16 steals did not seem to qualify him for the category, even with regular playing time, and a below average batting line.
Based on this, 10 players fit the profile of primarily being a steals threat, but perhaps, a liability elsewhere in scoring categories. They were: Jonathan Villar, Billy Hamilton, Dee Gordon, Ender Inciarte, Tim Anderson, Amed Rosario, Ian Desmond, Adalberto Mondesi, Michael Taylor, and Delino DeShields. This set offered, on average, 27 steals with a .248 batting average. The surprising piece was that players like Ian Desmond also fit into the grouping with his steals output, and a declining batting average, but would not be considered a speedster. And, owners are not drafting Desmond for his speed, but he still makes the list, showing the state of the position.
Readers might be questioning this definition of the rabbit, as often these are players with crazy steals lines, making them worth the lack of batting average. This is where things get a bit interesting for comparisons. Seven players stole 33 bases or above in 2018, with the order as follows: Whit Merrifield, Trea Turner, Mallex Smith, Jonathan Villar, Jose Ramirez, Billy Hamilton, and Starling Marte. Ramirez is an elite fantasy option without the steals, and Merrifield is emerging as one of the most well-rounded fantasy assets as well. Smith might be a rabbit but also hit close to .300 with 65 runs. Turner hit 19 homers and scored 103 runs. This list demonstrates that the steal-heavy player does not appear without other assets or fantasy options. Even Hamilton dropped down the list with only 34 steals, making his .236 batting line even worse in comparison.
Going back to the gang of 10 from the top of this section, those players, or the modern-day rabbit, have a current ADP of 177, with only Mondesi going in the top 100. Taking him out, the ADP falls to 193. Hamilton, on his own, is being drafted at 176. In 2017 he was averaging 59, and his fellow rabbit, Dee Gordon, was going at 31. Gordon this year has slotted in at 112. This means that steals are theoretically cheaper this upcoming draft season, or there are fewer reaches needed to add a stop steals threat.
So then returning to the central question of this piece, it is hard to prioritize steals, or punt them for that sense, when the “rabbit” might not be a viable draftable category anymore. Even for owners who want to add Hamilton, they do not need to take him before the mid-teens in standard drafts, and at that point, he is just an OF3, so not a real extra value. At the same time, punting steals makes no sense when there is no incentive to reach for steals. Punting in this world would be drafting power hitters for the sake of ignoring steals, but even those players have value. Edwin Encarnacion, for example, is only projected for two steals in 2019, but the 30 homers ease that. And, his replacement in Cleveland, Jake Bauers, is projected for a 20/20 season, adding a new way to add speed in drafts, without losing power.
Running a Mock
To investigate the relative value of the steal based on draft slot this next section will run a mock draft, taking the ADP as they currently stand. This would be a team that took the players, regardless of position, where they are presently being drafted. This exercise assumed a 12-team league, mixed leagues eligibility, and standard roto scoring. Our draft will slot this team at the sixth pick for a solid, average squad. Also included are the estimate steals according to Steamer.
1.6 J.D. Martinez (OF, BOS) - 4
2.19 Trevor Story (SS, COL) - 19
3.30 Juan Soto (OF, WAS) - 7
4.43 Rhys Hoskins (OF, PHI) - 6
5.54 James Paxton (SP, NYY) - N/A
6.67 David Dahl (OF, COL) - 12
7.78 Jose Berrios (SP, MIN) - N/A
8.91 Brad Hand (RP, CLE) - N/A
9.102 Jonathan Villar (2B, BAL) - 30
10.115 Luis Castillo (SP, CIN) - N/A
Admittingly, some of these players are slotted into their current ADPs based on the value of speed that they bring, but still, this exercise offers a valuable idea on whether owners need to reach for speed, or can look to current ranking. With that, of the six batters, drafted, the average for steals was 13 per player, with a total of 78 total steals. This means that not moving from the current draft ranking, this team would be above average concerning speed, compared to qualified batters from 2018.
And yet, looking to these players, only Villar is a potential “rabbit,” with other like Story and Dahl being appealing without speed and more for power and runs. Also, this pitching staff is strong, and prioritizing speed might have hurt that push. Villar is perhaps the best option for owners targeting speed, but again, is projected to chip in 15 homers and 70 runs to compliment 35 steals. And, even in drafts where the ADP is up based on players potentially targeting speed, this mock team got him in the ninth round.
Punting steals is not a valuable strategy on its own, as there are plenty of options that can help boost steals category scoring without selling out for those options. When there are fewer steals in general, but more players are adding double-digit steals, adding well-rounded players still seem to be the option. This means that without looking to add steals, owners can end up in the middle of the pack with a mixture of players who will add eight or more over the season, which is the new average. Again, to punt steals means to intentionally look away from players with speed, but if speed is only valued with the other categories, this means purposely avoiding well-rounded players.
Second, when players like Hamilton are dropping in mocks, this means that owners can add speed on the cheap, and also aim to end in the middle of the steals table. You also do not need to avoid drafting a second starting pitcher in the fourth round just to add speed. Not targeting steals, but also not punting steals, can let owners move to a more balanced draft and value players for multiple category contributions.
Third, with the recent trend of younger players starting earlier, adding a hitter like Mondesi mid-season can also add to the speed totals on a team. With many prospects appearing later in the year, adding those names and stashing them until after they are called-up seems to be another way to add reasonable speed to boost stats.
Punting steals is much harder when there is little value being assigned to speed-only players, so this would mean passing on players that can help elsewhere. For example, Christian Yelich is a top player, who also stole 22 bases, meaning he can help any team. Without being too blunt, the rabbit is dead in fantasy baseball.
While every strategy should be taken within league context, at the end of the day, based on research for this article, it does not seem that punting steals is a valuable strategy due to the relative value of steals in current drafts. While it might sound like the easy answer, the ideal way to approach steals seems to be a middle path, with no direct focus on adding steals, but no attempt to ignore them as well.
More 2019 Fantasy Baseball Advice