Are Basestealers Undervalued in Fantasy Baseball?

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Last year we heard rumblings of players and fans alike thinking the ball was juiced, as homers skyrocketed.

We have also begun to hear teams mention over the years that outs on the basepaths might not be worth the risk of a stolen base. Then again, maybe it’s just my bias as an Orioles’ fan who follows a team that was first in homers and last in stolen bases?

Let’s take a look at the numbers to see.

Editor's note: Be sure to also check out our 2017 fantasy baseball rankings dashboard. It's already loaded up with tons of great rankings articles and draft analysis. Aside from our tiered staff rankings for every position, we also go deep on MLB prospect rankings, impact rookies for 2017, and dynasty/keeper rankings as well. Bookmark the page, and win your drafts.

 

Recent Statistical Trends

AVG AVG HRS AVG RUNS AVG RBIS AVG SBS
2012 .254 164 701 667 108
2013 .253 155 675 642 90
2014 .251 140 659 625 92
2015 .254 164 688 655 84
2016 .255 187 725 692 85
AVG .253 162 690 656 92

 

Reviewing the chart, my hunch is right. Homers and run production are up, while steals are down. In 2012, there were approximately 52 percent more homers than stolen bases. In 2016, there were 120 percent more homers than stolen bases. The homers went up, as did the runs and RBIs, and the stolen bases went down. Each stolen base has thus jumped immensely in fantasy value. Have fantasy baseballers failed to account for this changing environment?

The first step in addressing this question will be doing a mathematical analysis. In layman’s terms, we will calculate how far above or below average each player is in each of the five categories, combine those results to give the player a total ranking, and see how his draft position compares to the ranking. In technical terms, we will normalize each of the five categories, take a z-score for each player in each category, and combine them to give an average z-score per player, and then sort the players.

To do this, we will use Fangraphs’ Steamer Projections for 2017, Rotoballer’s Average Draft Position Rankings (available for premium members), and use calculations on the top 549 batters. One problem with the approach is that it will not adjust for positional value, but it will give us an idea nonetheless.

The following is a chart of the top 20 players in MLB in stolen bases in 2016:

2016 2017 Steamer Projections 2017 ADP 2017 z-score rank Difference
Jonathan Villar 62 46 20 24 -4
Billy Hamilton 58 56 53 55 -2
Starling Marte 47 31 24 19 +5
Rajai Davis 43 23 NR 188 ++++
Eduardo Nunez 40 25 115 102 +13
Hernan Perez 34 18 160 187 -27
Jean Segura 33 25 50 48 +2
Trea Turner 33 39 11 7 +4
Paul Goldschmidt 32 18 7 9 -2
Jarrod Dyson 30 30 331 172 +159
Dee Gordon 30 38 47 90 -43
Mike Trout 30 20 1 1 0
Jose Altuve 30 28 3 5 -2
Travis Jankowski 30 28 285 185 +100
Wil Myers 28 17 54 50 +4
Melvin Upton Jr. 27 11 311 272 +39
Mookie Betts 26 21 2 2 0
Odubel Herrera 25 20 121 69 +53
Elvis Andrus 24 22 158 89 +69
Leonys Martin 24 18 239 170 +69

 

Reviewing the chart, it does not appear that there is much value to be had by chasing stolen bases early. I would have expected for Jonathan Villar and Billy Hamilton to be undervalued by this calculation, but it actually appears that they both are going too high. The best values appear to be late: Rajai Davis (188th but undrafted), Jarrod Dyson (172nd but picked 332nd), Travis Jankowski (185th but ranked 285th). Moreover, these players were likely undrafted last year, and outperformed these ranks last year, so maybe the value is identifying the next Rajai Davis or Jarrod Dyson on the waiver wire.

In leagues with shallow benches, it may be tougher to carry these players, like Davis and Dyson, who may platoon. In those leagues, you may want to target the mid-round values who play everyday, such as Odubel Herrera or Elvis Andrus. Of course, this all depends on your projections of how many bases they will steal; if you disagree with Steamer, you disagree with the value.

And therein lies the rub. Whereas we are used to seeing the high draft picks and big names atop the home run, run, and RBI lists each year, that is not always the case with stolen bases. Those seem to be more variable year to year, and thus a big risk to spend on early. A better approach may be to focus in the mid rounds on everyday players who you think will compile steals, but also to keep a keen eye to the waiver wire or late round steal fliers.

 

Conclusion

While stolen bases seem to be properly valued early in the draft, they appear to be undervalued in the mid-to-late rounds. In leagues with shallow benches, targeting everyday players in the mid-rounds who excel at stealing bases appears to provide the best value. In leagues with deep benches, accumulating platoon players late who are major basestealers is the better strategy. However, given the variability in stolen bases from year to year, it is important to identify who you think might be the next big basestealer and draft them, and to keep a keen eye on the waiver wire for basestealers. This approach provides better value in my opinion than the sometimes-popular approach of “punting” steals or of paying big for steals early.



2017 Fantasy Baseball Rankings