With the bullpens thoroughly reviewed, it’s time to focus our attention on base thieves. This week, we’ll look in on the American League. Next week, we’ll break down the National League. If you’re interested in hunting down relievers, check out writeups for the AL West, NL West, AL Central, NL Central, AL East, and NL East. You can also check out The All Bullpen Audit for a (slightly outdated) high level review of every bullpen.
I will be referencing Statcast sprint speed percentiles on BaseballSavant.com. Here is a sample from the first player we’ll discuss below. It’s worth noting that speed isn’t everything. It helps to be among the fastest players, but a true thief also needs great reads and a willingness to run. Some plodders will annually nab 10 bags just by picking and choosing the right spots. Superstars sometimes cut down on their running to avoid injury. Only six percent of position players are faster than Mike Trout, but his steals have still plummeted in recent years in response to other injuries. Sprint speed informs stolen base expectations in much the same way as swinging strike rate indicates susceptibility to strikeouts. In both cases, there are plenty of exceptions in either direction.
American League East
Toronto Blue Jays
This is a young, exciting offense supplemented by athletic veterans. Bichette is expected by many to lead the club in steals by a healthy margin even though he isn’t the fastest. By Statcast, he’s only a 70th percentile runner. Projection systems call for between 20 and 30 steals, and he was on pace for 30 attempts last season. He’s a dangerous early draft pick because so much of his fantasy use case is tied up in these steals. Any nagging lower body injury or slump on the bags could convince him it’s better to let his teammates do the heavy lifting for him.
Biggio has the same sprint speed as Bichette, but he seems a little less willing to run. In 695 career plate appearances, he’s attempted only 20 steals. He’s a perfect 20-for-20, evincing the same efficiency as his much-vaunted plate discipline. Hernandez is the fastest regular on the club by sprint speed, and he showed an increased willingness to run last year. Few players feature more volatile projections – the outcomes could range from a part-timer with pop to second-round, five-category production. Semien tends to supply a steady diet of 10 steals.
Dark horse thief: Josh Palacios
The Jays don’t have a whole lot of position player depth outside of the Major League roster. Palacios could be one of the first call ups if the club is dealt multiple injuries in the outfield. He’s a high-effort grinder who lacks standout traits but pieces it all together with baseball intelligence. Part of that is an ability to swipe 10 to 20 bases per 600 plate appearances.
Honorable mention: George Springer
As an organization, the Astros tend to constrain steal attempts. When you have a lineup like they did, you don’t risk taking the bat out of anyone’s hands. Springer’s sprint speed still ranks in the 82nd percentile, and he might feel a little friskier with a new club. He typically takes a half dozen bags but has the speed to triple that should he choose to try.
You might have noted the absence of Lourdes Gurriel, a below average runner who nevertheless could steal 10 bases through sheer doggedness.
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Tampa Bay Rays
Arozarena’s 2020 breakout is one for the legends. After a spicy 76 plate appearance season, he eviscerated the competition in the postseason. He’s among the fastest players in the league, but hasn’t shown much interest in running. Even in the lower levels of the minors, he rarely exceeded a 30-steal pace. He has the ability to take up to 40 bags, but I’m only expecting about 15 steals.
By comparison, Margot, Kiermaier, and Wendle have to use their speed to make their influence felt. Margot was among the most prolific runners last year on a per-attempt basis. He netted 12 steals in 16 attempts across just 159 plate appearances. Technically, he’s very slightly slower than Arozarena. Kiermaier is one of the few speedier players, but a combination of low on base percentage and frequent injuries hold him back. A Margot-Kiermaier handedness platoon is likely, eating into their fantasy value. Wendle is pure grit. Most players with his skill set wouldn’t succeed in Triple-A let alone the Majors. He makes it work and is in line for regular play early in the season.
Dark horse thieves: Vidal Brujan, Taylor Walls, Wander Franco
While everyone is holding their breaths for Franco’s debut, it’s worth noting he’s not on the 40-man roster. Brujan and Walls are, and they’re also in contention for an Opening Day roster spot. Brujan is a true thief with enough physicality and pop to be a fantasy monster. Ten home runs, 40 steals, and a high average are within his reach. Walls has less power but makes up for it by hitting more fly balls. He could also push 10 home runs, 20 to 30 steals, and a decent average over a full season. Franco profiles as better than both players in every facet except stolen bases where he may only contribute around 10 to 20 thefts a season.
Outfielder Josh Lowe could also land in the Majors this season. He too is on the 40-man roster. His is a low-average, moderate-OBP profile with 20 home run and 15-to-30 steal potential.
Honorable mention: Austin Meadows
Meadows reportedly never fully recovered from a COVID case prior to last season. If true, it’s a tidy explanation for his many failures – one of which was a sharp decrease in speed from 28.2 to 26.5 feet per second. It’s uncommon for healthy, young players to decline this much in one season. He’s looked good at the plate this spring and could be fully back to form.
Boston Red Sox
Mountainous piles of injuries seem to be sapping Cordero’s speed. Once one of the most dynamic power and speed combos, he was a merely above average runner last season. Perhaps he can rebound. A case of COVID has slowed his spring. He’s expected to miss a week or more of the regular season. Bogaerts reliably takes 10 bases without showing any aptitude for growth. Alex Verdugo has capacity for 10 steals too.
Dark horse thief: Jeter Downs
The Red Sox haven’t done much to plug second base. They signed utility man and lefty masher Enrique Hernandez. Marwin Gonzalez and Christian Arroyo are also hanging around the roster. Downs isn’t yet on the 40-man roster, but it’s increasingly clear he’s the Red Sox second baseman of the future. He’s one of those players whose baseball acumen helps his middling talents to play way up – much like a certain former Red Sox second baseman. Part of that is potential for 10 to 20 steals despite league average speed.
New York Yankees
Honorable mention: Aaron Hicks
With the possible exception of Hicks, the Yankees really aren’t built to run. Even Hicks has lost a step as he’s aged. Since he’s talented at reaching base, a large quantity of opportunities could translate to 10 or more swipes. It’s safer to bet the under.
Rebuilding clubs usually find themselves strapped with a few speedy players. That’s not the case in Baltimore where only Mullins projects as a potential base thief. He’s a sneaky fantasy sleeper who finally demonstrated a willingness to use his speed last season. His reads aren’t always great, but he should attempt at least 25 steals per 600 plate appearances. His main competition for playing time is Hays who also has 10 steal speed.
Dark horse thief: Jahmai Jones
A former Angels prospect, Jones should have plenty of opportunities in the Majors this season. He profiles as a future league average player – something the Orioles lack at most positions. Only Yolmer Sanchez and Pat Valaika stand in his way at second base. Jones isn’t a pure burner, but he should exceed 10 steals per full season.
Chicago White Sox
The White Sox have one of the most athletic teams in the league. Robert is the fastest of their many athletic regulars with a 96th percentile sprint speed. Anderson isn’t far behind with 92nd percentile speed. Madrigal and Eaton are merely above average. Robert could push 40 steals in a best outcome, although it’s likelier he settles around 20 thefts. He’s dealing with a minor abdominal issue which could slow him early in the season. With the exception of 2018, Anderson has proven reticent about using his wheels. With the lineup stronger than ever, I expect a career-low rate of attempts. Then again, throwback manager Tony La Russa could set him loose as a means of distracting pitchers against Yasmani Grandal, Jose Abreu, Eloy Jimenez, and the like.
A big plot point to watch is where Anderson, Robert, Eaton, and Madrigal bat in the lineup. Presently, it looks like Anderson and Robert will bat first and second with the others down in the order. It could flip around throughout the season based on whoever is hot or healthy. They’re all quality top-of-the-order candidates.
Dark horse thief: Adam Engel
Engel could find a regular role early in the season if Andrew Vaughn doesn’t make the club (he’s negotiating an extension) and Jimenez is used as the regular designated hitter. Engel is one of the five fastest players in the league – only Tim Locastro and Roman Quinn outpaced him last season. Like Anderson, he underutilizes his speed on the bases. He’s just 28-for-40 in 1,140 career plate appearances.
Honorable mention: Yoan Moncada
If the White Sox star third baseman can marry the walk rate he posted last season with the exit velocities he featured in his breakout 2019 campaign, he’ll be well on his way to an MVP-caliber season. Along the way, he’ll probably steal just shy of 10 bases. He has lost a step since his speed-peak in 2018, and it had nothing to do with COVID.
Kansas City Royals
Mondesi regularly leads the league in stolen base attempts per opportunity while Merrifield also enjoys a frequent scamper on the bases. Joining Kansas City could help Benintendi and Taylor to blossom, although it feels too late for the latter. Benintendi was a below average runner last season while Taylor has lost a step since his peak.
Dark horse thief: Edward Olivares, Lucius Fox, Nick Heath
The Royals have a number of prospects who have a reputation for running wild. The three listed here are on the 40-man roster and should have Major League opportunities this season. Olivares has the traits of a league average center fielder, a position which is currently something of a void on the active roster. He pairs 95th percentile sprint speed with frequent steal attempts and just enough pop to matter. We could see Fox shove Nicky Lopez aside if the latter continues to flail. Heath is a depth play who could fill the same role as the guy below.
Honorable mention: Jarrod Dyson
Dyson was a late-offseason signing for the Royals. At this stage of his career, he’s a defensive replacement and pinch runner who will give the club just enough depth for Olivares and others to receive more minor league reps before they’re called upon.
Ramirez is a first-round draft pick for a reason – few players are likelier to deliver a 25/25 campaign. He does this without elite speed, relying on jumps to make up for merely above average wheels. The other stolen base options leave a little something to be desired in other categories. They’ll likely all bat near the bottom of the order. Rosario and Gimenez are burners who still have to prove they have enough of a bat to merit a regular role. Mercado’s future is uncertain too. He’s coming off a truly miserable 2020 season. He’s also only one season removed from a 15/15 performance in just 482 plate appearances.
Dark horse thieves: Bradley Zimmer, Daniel Johnson
There is plenty of uncertainty in the Indians outfield where only Eddie Rosario is a consistent presence. If the likes of Josh Naylor, Mercado, and Rosario falter, the door will be opened to Zimmer and Johnson. Zimmer looks slow to the eye but can seriously cover ground with his loping stride. Once a touted prospect, he’s missed most of the last three years to injuries. Johnson is seriously fast but never posted big stolen base totals in the minors. He projects as a fourth or fifth outfielder.
Grossman is a journeyman “veteran presence” who stole eight bases in nine attempts last season (192 plate appearances). As I recall, he frequently had advantageous baserunning matchups. That probably won’t be the case this season. Reyes is a 20-steal threat over a full season, but it looks like he’ll be used in a part-time role.
Baddoo is a Rule 5 pick who has impressed in Spring Training. The 22-year-old features an interesting combination of patience, power, and speed, but it’ll be an uphill battle to regular action. Hill is on the 40-man roster which could help him get a look later in the season. He projects for around 25 steals a season with league average pop. It’s an open question if he’ll ever make enough contact to use these traits.
Castro attempted just one steal last season, unsuccessfully. However, he has a history of running in the minors. Nothing prolific but it's enough to expect 10 to 15 steals over a full season. He's a breakout candidate after demonstrating decent power last season. The likeliest outcome is a below average hitting utility guy.
Honorable mention: Niko Goodrum
To get through 162 games, a good utility fielder is a helpful addition. Goodrum may fail to crack the Opening Day lineup or play on a regular basis early on, but I’d still bet on him exceeding 500 plate appearances. With his many eligibilities and modest power-speed ability, he’ll make for a good waiver wire streamer.
Primary thieves: Byron Buxton
With the exception of Buxton, this is a club built for classic station-to-station baseball. Even Buxton doesn’t run as much as his speed could allow – which is probably a good thing because he’s exceptionally fragile. While I tend to think the “Injury Prone” label is overused on position players, Buxton’s migraines and post-concussion-like symptoms seem to intervene every season.
Honorable mention: Andrelton Simmons
From 2016 through 2019, Simmons stole at least 10 bases. He’s generally an efficient base thief despite below average speed. It makes sense. He’s also a sensational fielder in large part due to his anticipatory talents.
Although any of Seattle’s non-catchers can take a base, only Moore is a safe bet to truly contribute to the category. He was eager to run at every opportunity last season despite only 71st percentile speed. The AL West features several exploitable catchers. His many eligibilities and projection for 20 home runs and 25 stolen bases has bolstered his draft stock. There is some risk he completely flames out, but I’m optimistic he’ll provide a valuable if bumpy ride for his fantasy managers.
Crawford is an average runner, but he seems to have an ingrained desire to provide old fashioned counting stats – a better quality for fantasy purposes than reality. The Mariners probable leadoff hitter has steadily improved at the plate. I have him penciled in for another growth year: about 12 home runs, 12 steals, and a .260/.345/.400 triple-slash.
When prospects are traded frequently, it’s usually a sign of an issue. With Trammell, it’s that his best-case scenario is rather like Brett Gardner… before the power showed up. Like Gardner, Trammell also has sneaky pop, but it’s not yet developed for game purposes. This would be wonderful if he was a center fielder, but he fits better in left field where there tend to be expectations for power. Since Seattle has two top outfield prospects (Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez), it behooves them to evaluate Trammell as soon as possible. He’s helped matters by playing well this spring.
As for Haggerty, he’s a utility man with 92nd percentile wheels and a minor league track record of solid on base skills.
Honorable mention: Mitch Haniger
Once considered a potential source of both power and speed, Haniger’s fleetness was already in fast decline before he lost most of two seasons to… various… injuries. The Mariners scratched him from the lineup once this spring because the field was wet. He’ll be handled carefully.
Taveras is a prospective leadoff hitter with an as-yet unrefined plate approach. If all breaks right, he might bat .240 with 12 home runs and 25 stolen bases. There are worse ways to spend a late draft pick. Kiner-Falefa ran at a 25-steal pace last season and has the wheels to back it up. He’s a valuable and unusual utility man who seems miscast as a starting shortstop. Solak profiles as a high OBP hitter without a true defensive home. He might find his way to 12 or more steals through sheer volume of opportunity.
Dark horse thieves: Anderson Tejeda
If either of Kiner-Falefa or Solak fail to merit a full-time role, Tejeda might be next in line. He has above average power and speed with a giant hole in his bat. A full season could yield a 20/20 performance albeit with something like a .220/.290/.400 triple slash.
I love a good old school speedster. Straw fits the description to a T. Although he was missing a step in 2020, he was still a 91st percentile runner. A bigger impediment to playing time is his wet noodle bat. Across 224 career plate appearances he has just 11 extra base hits. Houston lacks an established alternative in center field, making him an excellent late-round pick for empty steals. Just don’t plan to start him on a regular basis or you will ruin your home run and run production categories.
Tucker remains one of the most dynamic fantasy prospects, and he’s priced as such. Through 340 career plate appearances, he has an above average batting line with 13 home runs and 14 steals. That’s just shy of a 25/25 pace. There’s upside for 30/30 seasons in his future. His best attribute is an ability to make consistently hard contact.
In terms of speed, Altuve hasn’t lost anything. It’s his willingness to run that has suffered from past injuries. There is evidence that tiny players can age suddenly and dramatically. He sold out for power in 2019 which hid some red flags in his hitting profile. Those were on full display last season. Is this the middle of the end for Altuve, or does he have another chapter in his career?
Dark horse thieves: Chas McCormick
According to a friend at Baseball America, McCormick could probably handle the defensive requirements of center field. That’s probably not entirely true of Tucker, the other emergency center fielder on the 40-man roster. McCormick isn’t destined for a regular role by any means, but the soon-to-be 26-year-old does have a blend of roughly average traits and the baseball acumen necessary to get the most out of them. Included in that is 10 or more steal potential.
Los Angeles Angels
As mentioned near the top of this article, Trout is among the top six percent in sprint speed. Ohtani isn’t too far behind him with 93rd percentile wheels. They both have reasons to underutilize their baserunning ability. Trout has been hampered by minor injuries in recent seasons. Running might not be worth the risk for a player of his importance to the team. Ohtani is still pursuing a two-way dream which could be one injury away from shattering.
Dark horse thieves: Jo Adell, Brandon Marsh
I guess these aren’t really “dark horses.” They’re two of the most anticipated prospects. Adell is a racecar built for extreme power and speed but perhaps lacking in consistency. As a hitter, his maximum exit velocities place him among the upper crust in terms of raw pop. He’s 97th percentile as a runner. Alas, he might reach base under 30 percent of the time if and when he returns to the Majors this season. Marsh isn’t nearly as robust. What he lacks in ludicrous ceiling, he makes up for with a higher floor. That could earn him a look before Adell.
Honorable mention: Luis Rengifo
Much like Goodrum in Detroit, Rengifo is going to get his share of playing time simply because teams need utility guys. He doesn’t have any standout traits, but he will likely run at a 10-steal pace. In a pinch, look for him off the waiver wire.
Contrary to their name, this is a slow-footed club. Only Laureano can be expected to cross the 10-steal threshold. Even he only has 76th percentile speed. Despite this particular shortcoming, he should be considered an upside play due to his five-category potential. Andrus is a below average runner who might not be willing to forget his heyday as a 30-steal bandit. He never was especially quick – at least not since Statcast started compiling data in 2015 – a I suppose a rebound of sorts is possible. Of greater concern is his utterly punchless bat.