Baseball is, for better or worse, an endless sea of statistics. If you want to know how many changeups Max Scherzer threw last year, that information is readily available (442, in case you were wondering). If you’re awake at night wondering how Jose Abreu did against left-handers last season, that’s not hard to find either (no need to Google it—he hit .232). In today’s game, every pitch in every at-bat is closely monitored, recorded and stored in a safe place.
Of course, steals are a bit different. Compared to hitting, pitching and even fielding, the world of stolen bases is relatively uncharted. If a hitter is having a rough time, we can diagnose the problem by pointing to any number of metrics. Maybe Big Papi is pulling the ball too often or Josh Hamilton can’t hit curveballs. But base running isn’t nearly as scientific. Getting a good jump and knowing when to run are good tools but more often than not, it comes down to pure speed. That’s something you either have or you don’t. Let’s dig into the latest Over/Under.
Jose Altuve, 2B, Houston Astros
*Composite Projection: 37
There are so many different factors in baseball but one that’s consistently overlooked is team philosophy. The Astros are a young, scrappy team that likes to take chances. That’s why they’re more aggressive than say the Yankees, a more disciplined team comprised mostly of veterans. Of course, for a ball club to play that way without getting burned, you need to have the right personnel. That’s why Altuve, a trigger-happy leadoff man with absolutely no fear, was born to be an Astro. Only two teams—the Diamondbacks and Reds—attempted more steals than Houston in 2015. The Astros love pushing the envelope and Altuve’s speed allows them to do just that.
When a position player begins to age, steals are usually the first to go. It happened frighteningly fast for Mike Trout. As a rookie, Trout led the league with 49 steals. Three years later that total dropped to 11. There’s no going back for Trout either. He’s a home-run hitter now with a home-run hitter’s body (6’2, 235 pounds).
Fortunately, there’s no chance of that happening with Altuve. He’s swiped at least 33 bases in each of his last four seasons. Altuve is built to run (he’s listed at a highly aerodynamic 5’6/165) but let’s not undersell his ability to get on base (.365 OBP over the last two seasons). Obviously if Altuve maintains a high on base percentage, he’ll have more chances to steal.
What’s a little curious is that Altuve went from stealing 56 bases in 2014 to only 38 last season. Altuve still led the American League, but a 32.1 percent drop-off is hard to ignore. He doubled his home run rate last season (he went from seven to 15), which could account for some of it. Altuve logged 33 steals in 2012 and 35 in 2013, so the number he produced last season is more in line with what he’s done throughout his career. Given those numbers, I’m going to assume that 2014 was an outlier and Altuve is really more of a 30-40 steal guy. I could go either way on this, but my gut says under. Prediction: Under
Charlie Blackmon, OF, Colorado Rockies
Composite Projection: 32
I rode Blackmon to a fantasy championship last year and if he was on your team, you probably did too. He had everything a fantasy owner looks for: speed (43 steals), power (17 HR), value (I drafted him 137th overall), consistency (.291 first half average, .282 in the second half). Obviously you won’t be able to get Blackmon that cheap this year (his ADP is somewhere in the third round) but he’s still a marvelous asset for any fantasy team.
Coors Field certainly had a lot to do with Blackmon’s success (he hit .331 there last season compared to just .238 on the road) but the good news is, he gets to keep playing there. Blackmon’s average hasn’t fluctuated much over the last few years but last year he saw his steal total rise to an unprecedented level. His previous career-high was 28, a respectable number but nowhere near the heights he reached in 2015.
So what gives? Blackmon has only played two full years in the major leagues (he played half a season in 2013), which doesn’t give us a huge sample size to work with. But even in the minors, he wasn’t a prolific base stealer. Blackmon averaged 17.4 steals in five minor league seasons with a career-high of 30. It’s a little baffling Blackmon is just now discovering his base-stealing prowess at age 29 but to each his own, right? Now fantasy owners are left to wonder if last year’s stolen base output was an outlier or a breakthrough that will carry over into the 2016 campaign. I believe the answer lies somewhere in between. While I can’t picture Blackmon topping last year’s total, I see him finishing somewhere in the 35-40 range, which would put him slightly above his projection. Prediction: Over
Lorenzo Cain, OF, Kansas City Royals
Composite Projection: 24
Cain had his fingerprints all over the Royals’ World Series victory, particularly in the regular season when he set career-highs in—well everything. It all came together in his age-29 season: Cain mostly stayed healthy (career-high 551 at-bats), his contact rate (82.9 percent) and situational hitting improved (.316 with runners on base), and most importantly, he found his power stroke (16 HR, .477 slugging percentage). That was enough for Cain to finish third in American League MVP voting behind Josh Donaldson and Mike Trout.
The lone area where Cain didn’t show noticeable growth last season was in the steal department. He finished with 28, the same number he produced in 2014. That was despite logging over 100 more plate appearances than the year before. Cain’s conversion rate was essentially the same—he was caught six times last season compared to only five a year earlier. He’s always been an efficient base stealer, succeeding on 82.9 percent of his attempts. That’s a higher rate of success than last year’s league leaders Dee Gordon (76.4 percent) and Jose Altuve (77.5).
It’s worth noting that Cain spent most of the year batting third. That spot in the order is usually reserved for run producers, not base stealers. That’s not encouraging but this is—Cain went back to his roots with six steals in the playoffs including two in the World Series clincher. Keep in mind Cain has only played 100 games in his career three times, maxing out at 140 last season. Efficiency is nice but so is volume. If Cain plays close to a full schedule this year (we’ll say 150-155 games to be safe), I don’t see any way he’ll fall short of his projection. Prediction: Over
Dee Gordon, 2B, Miami Marlins
Composite Projection: 53
I read something interesting recently. Though I’m not 100 percent buying it, Dustin Pedroia said the reason he hasn’t stolen many bases the last few years is because he’s been hitting in front of David Ortiz. In this scenario, if Pedroia steals second, the pitcher could simply walk Ortiz to set up the double play. This idea carries some weight, even if Pedroia is mostly just deflecting from the fact that he’s old and can’t steal anymore.
Which brings us to Gordon, who hits first in a lineup that features the league’s most feared power hitter, Giancarlo Stanton. The difference, of course, is that Pedroia bats directly in front of Ortiz while Gordon hits two batters before Stanton. But I still wonder if Giancarlo’s presence has any effect on Gordon’s mindset. On some level, attempting to steal seems like an unnecessary risk when Stanton could empty the bases with a homer at any time. Then again, expecting Stanton to homer every at-bat isn’t a great strategy either.
The good news is that Gordon is plenty fast (122 steals over his last two seasons) and also a bit greedy, as evidenced by the 39 times he’s been caught over the last two years. I’ve never played in a league that penalizes you for getting caught, so there’s really no harm in Gordon being adventurous on the base paths. What’s crazy is Gordon may not have hit his ceiling yet. He’s missed a combined 31 games over his last two seasons. It’s not an overwhelming amount of absences but that’s probably about 10-15 steals he’s left on the table. Let’s not forget Gordon is fresh off winning the National League batting title. The dude can rake and that can’t hurt him in his quest for another 50-steal season. Gordon turns 28 in April but I don’t see him slowing down anytime soon. I’m confident he’ll outperform his projection. Prediction: Over
Billy Hamilton, OF, Cincinnati Reds
Composite Projection: 59
It’s important for fantasy owners to realize what Hamilton is. He’s the ultimate novelty, a one-trick pony with game-changing speed and little else. Since 2010, seven players have stolen 50 or more bases in one season (three of them did it twice). The six that weren’t Hamilton combined for a .298 average. Hamilton, on the other hand, is a .242 career hitter. That batting average wouldn’t be quite as egregious if Hamilton chipped in with the occasional home run. Unfortunately, Hamilton’s slight frame doesn’t offer much in the way of power. The 160-pound outfielder has homered just 10 times in 994 at-bats since cracking the majors in 2013. He spent half the 2015 season batting ninth—you know, where the pitcher usually hits. The Reds have vowed to use him in the leadoff spot this year but who knows how long that experiment will last.
None of this paints a very flattering picture of Hamilton. But even with all that working against him, Hamilton still managed 57 steals last season, one less than league leader Dee Gordon, who logged over 200 more at-bats than Hamilton. After being caught on the base paths a league-high 23 times in 2014, Hamilton lowered that number to eight last season while improving his success rate from 70.9 percent to 87.7. He doesn’t get on base, he’s never made much contact, his power is nonexistent, yet year after frustrating year, Hamilton finds himself among the league leaders in stolen bases. That’s because speed trumps everything. Remember, this is a guy who stole 155 bases in the minor leagues one year. Even with a bum shoulder that could make him hesitant to slide head-first, I think Hamilton is a solid bet for 60-plus steals in 2016. Prediction: Over
*Compiled by FantasyPros