Fantasy baseball has always assigned more importance to the running game than its real life counterpart. Rotisserie leagues set steals as equally valuable to home runs, despite the fact that the latter are a guaranteed run on the board. As homers go up and steals decline, some are arguing that steals should be more of a priority on Draft Day than power.
If you plan to spend on speed, two names immediately come to mind: Jonathan Villar and Billy Hamilton. Villar stole 62 bags to go with a triple slash line of .285/.369/.457 and 19 homers in a breakout 2016. Hamilton finally started looking like a hitter, posting a .260/.321/.343 line with his 58 swipes. Both are leaving draft boards early on, but are they a good use of that selection? Let's investigate!
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The Fantasy Jury is Out
Jonathan Villar (MIL SS/3B) ADP: 30.3
Fantasy owners always knew Villar was a SB candidate, but last year went well beyond his assumed ceiling. His .285 average and 19 homers would play from a middle infielder even without the 62 swipes. His 18 CS last year gave him a strong success rate of roughly 78 percent, so steals seem like a given this year. With his current ADP however, something else will have to come with it to justify the cost.
Villar's solid batting average was the result of a .373 BABIP, a number that seems inflated even if we ignore his .268 career BABIP on ground balls in favor of last year's .313 rate. The prior year's .300 BABIP seems like a fair projection moving forward given his speed. His performance on line drives is almost certain to drop (.728 BABIP last year vs. .694 career), and his 24.1 percent FB rate was actually slightly higher than 2015's 23 percent rate. Villar has the skills to support his .347 career BABIP, but that could take his average too low to be a huge fantasy asset.
Optimists may point to his .165 BABIP on fly balls in 2016 (career .195) as a source of positive regression to offset some of the negative regression forecasted above. They're probably right, but it will hurt Villar's value. His 19 big flies were the result of a HR/FB surge to 19.6 percent, nearly double the previous year's rate of 10 percent. This removed all of Villar's well struck flies from his BABIP, a problem that will be rectified when they start staying in the yard. He did not pull any more flies than he used to (16.5 percent vs. 17.7 percent career), so the HR/FB figures to head south. There is just no way Villar is a 20 HR bat with a 24.1 percent FB percent.
There is hope for improvement in Villar's 25.6 percent K rate, as his eye is plus (24.1 percent O-Swing%) while his SwStr% (10.6 percent) is only slightly higher than average. His 42 games at 3B give him eligibility there in all formats, and he figures to add second base early in the season if his nine games there are not enough to qualify in your format. Still, he is very expensive and only steals seem like a given. I can't endorse him at this price.
Billy Hamilton (OF, CIN) ADP: 66.3
Unlike many speedsters, Hamilton actually gains value if your league uses Net Steals. He was only caught eight times last year with 58 successes, giving him more Net Steals (50) than most players' raw SB totals. Sadly, he may not have so many opportunities in 2017. Sure he's fast, but no one can sustain a .368 BABIP on ground balls. His career .302 BABIP on grounders seems like a much more reasonable projection, sending Hamilton's .260 average back to painful levels in fantasy.
Hamilton also posted a career worst 20.2 percent K rate. Advanced metrics did not support it, as his eye improved slightly (27.6 percent O-Swing% in 2015 to 25.3 percent last year) while his SwStr% increase (7.2 percent to 7.8 percent) was mostly the result of a career low 67.1 O-Contact%. Contact on pitches outside of the strike zone is usually weak anyway, so a swinging strike may be a better outcome.
Hamilton's biggest problem may be his teammate Jose Peraza. Brandon Phillips has finally been moved, giving Peraza a place to play. Peraza is nearly as fast as Hamilton and has shown signs of being a competent singles hitter at the MLB level, making him a more attractive leadoff option than Hamilton's pure speed profile. Hamilton's rosiest projections always include a boatload of runs scored from hitting at the top of the lineup, but the Reds now have a better option for the role.
Hamilton's 3.6 percent HR/FB despite calling The Great American Bandbox home is the punchline of a joke, so he can really only help in steals, average, and runs. Peraza might take the runs, dooming Hamilton to the bottom of the lineup. His average will be bad if he doesn't hit .360+ on ground balls. That makes him a pure speed play who goes 100+ picks before comparable players like Jarrod Dyson and Travis Jankowski. Seems like a poor use of resources to me.