ROTISSERIE: Securing stolen bases can be hit or miss

This article appeared in the May 15 issue of Sports Weekly.

Let’s face it. It doesn’t pay to steal.

Aside from the legal troubles that could result in everyday life, the practice of larceny on the baseball diamond is also fraught with danger. In their search for even the slightest statistical edge, MLB teams have come to a similar conclusion and have put up a stop sign for all but the best basestealers. This season, teams have averaged less than one stolen base every other game. If that pace holds up, it will be the lowest since 1971—when teams averaged 0.46 steals per game.

The value of advancing an extra base isn’t worth the risk, especially in the current home-run-heavy environment. But despite their reduced impact in the game today, stolen bases still mean a great deal in fantasy leagues.

Before the season started, I wrote that the scarcity of steals would make speed-only guys such as Billy Hamilton and Dee Gordon much more valuable fantasy players than they are in real life. Now midway through May, a pair of American League shortstops have shown how valuable speed can be when it’s combined with any kind of production in the other categories.

Adalberto Mondesi of the Kansas City Royals may have been one of this season’s most polarizing players in fantasy drafts. He stole 32 bases and hit 14 homers in just 75 games a year ago, but an overly aggressive plate approach (27% strikeout rate, 4% walk rate) raised warning flags about his ability to get on base consistently in a full-time role.

Through the first quarter of the 2019 season, not much has changed. Mondesi continues to swing at just about everything—and he leads the majors with 13 stolen bases. But here’s where things get interesting. He’s not only contributing in the power department with five homers, but he also fourth in the American League (and tied for ninth in the majors) with 33 RBI. As a result, Mondesi’s $35 Roto value (according to ranks him fifth among all hitters.

Just ahead of Mondesi at $38 is another fleet-footed free-swinger, Tim Anderson of the Chicago White Sox. A look at Anderson’s underlying metrics shows he has almost the same batted-ball mix and minuscule walk rate he did last season. However, Anderson has cut his strikeout rate, while at the same time displaying more power (8 HR, .535 slugging percentage). And here’s the kicker: thanks to an 86-point increase in his batting average on balls in play (BABIP), he’s hitting .331—good for eighth in the majors, right behind elite contact guys Michael Brantley and DJ LeMahieu.

Who needs to walk when you’re this productive?

“I don’t care. I just don’t care,” Anderson recently told USA TODAY. “People are going to say what they want to say. If I hit, they won’t say I need to walk.”

All those factors have combined with a 12-for-13 performance in stolen base attempts to put Anderson behind only Cody Bellinger ($50) and Christian Yelich ($43) in overall Roto value, and tied for first in the AL with George Springer ($38).

If you drafted them for the steals and anything else was gravy, Mondesi and Anderson have given you an entire Thanksgiving Day dinner’s worth of production.

Flat tires

On the other end of the spectrum, two prominent one-category speedsters have been spectacular flops.

Mallex Smith and Delino DeShields began the week tied for sixth in stolen bases with eight apiece, but neither one will be increasing his total anytime soon. They represent the worst-case scenario when drafting specifically for steals. Despite solid walk rates above 10%, Smith was hitting .165 and DeShields .182 when they were recently demoted to the minors.

On draft day, Anderson (average draft position: 134) vs. Smith (ADP: 107) looked like a tossup for speed-seekers. Seven weeks later, the decision looks like a potential game-changer. To put the difference in perspective, let’s look at the 15-team LABR Mixed standings, where Smith was a late pick in the eighth round and Anderson went early in the 10th. Had the team with Smith opted instead for Anderson, it would have resulted in a gain of 14.5 standings points—including six points in batting average and 3.5 points in runs scored through the end of April, when Smith was sent to the minors.

Speed without power

While we’re talking stolen bases, here’s an interesting comparison of the two players just behind Mondesi and Anderson in steals with 10. They had nearly identical stat lines in several categories to begin the week—with one major exception:

Player A: .304 average, 3 HR, 14 runs, 10 SB, 19 RBI, 84% contact rate

Player B: .199 average, 3 HR, 14 runs, 10 SB, 11 RBI, 83% contact rate

Although the numbers show similar results, the two players are quite different. Player A is a speed-first slap hitter who’s sporting a .336 BABIP. His NFBC ADP this spring was 108. One behind Mallex Smith, in fact. Player B is a 5-category threat whose .218 BABIP is one of the worst among qualified hitters. His ADP was 5.

By now, you’ve probably figured out A is Dee Gordon and B is Jose Ramirez.

Fantasy owners have to be pleased with Gordon, who’s delivered steals as expected, along with a minor power bonus. He’s been worth $26 in 5x5 mixed leagues. Ramirez, on the other hand, has been a huge disappointment, despite the steals providing the bulk of his $17 value. With last season’s second-half slump apparently carrying over into 2019, is it time to panic?

The underlying numbers urge patience. Ramirez’s batted ball mix is exactly the same as it was last year, when he hit .270 with 39 homers. Although the results are far different, his expected power index (which Baseball HQ calculates based on how hard a batter hits the ball, not the result) is exactly where it was last year: 20% above the major league average.

The glaring difference is in Ramirez’s home run-to-fly ball ratio, which is a mere 5%—compared to 17% last season. With a renewed home-run fever permeating throughout the majors this season, it’s stunning Ramirez hasn’t joined the party. With a little better luck on contact—combined with some warmer weather in Cleveland—Ramirez should get his power game up to speed in short order.

The chance to acquire him at a discount may disappear quickly, so in this particular instance... you have the green light to steal.

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.