During the past three MLB seasons, stolen bases have leveled off at the lowest per-game rate — 0.52 — since the mid-1970s. The closest three-year stretch since then was 2003-05, a boring time in baseball when meatheads mashed home runs under the influence of various chemicals, causing managers to shut down running games and wait for the longball.
Vince Coleman doesn’t like it. And neither to our fake teams’ stolen base tallies at the end of the year.
This doesn’t mean we need to go out and draft Dee Gordon or Billy Hamilton and coast on the category. The opposite strategy — 30 here, 20 there — will get us where we need to be without taking dramatic hits elsewhere. If all else is equal — or you’re left with the inevitable snap decision after someone snipes your dude — queue these guys up and get some stolen bases in the mix without sacrificing other stats.
In 2018, around half the managers in a 12-team league are going to exit the first round with an elite talent who kickstarts the stolen base category. ESPN’s early rankings list among the first nine picks Mike Trout (22 stolen bases in 2017), Jose Altuve (32), Paul Goldschmidt (18), Mookie Betts (26), Charlie Blackmon (14) and Trea Turner (46). These totals are surely low for Trout and Turner, who both missed time in 2016. Blackmon is two years removed from stealing 43.
Byron Buxton (29) and Whit Merrifield (34): These are MLB’s top two candidates to raise last year’s respectable totals to elite levels. Buxton is a generational talent who slashed .300/.347/.546 in 228 second half plate appearances, producing 11 home runs, 33 RBI and 13 steals. The former No. 2 overall pick was successful on 29-of-30 attempts on the season. Merrifield quietly put up one of the best home run plus steals totals in the game last year with 19 and 34, respectively. With a full season atop the Royals’ lineup, K.C.’s table setter could easily turn in a 20/30 season with a solid average and lots of runs.
Lorenzo Cain (26) and Tommy Pham (25): Let’s see where the free-agent Cain ends up next season — the underrated center fielder is fresh off an 86/15/49/26 line in his age 31 season. He’s priced just outside the top 100. The 29-year-old Pham was a late bloomer, but his 2017 per-game stats were off the charts: He went 95/23/73/25 in only 128 games. His OPS was .931!
Starling Marte (21) and A.J. Pollock (20): Both have 40-plus steal upside with double digit power. Even if Pollock misses time (again) he’ll contribute elite per-game numbers. Questions is: How far do their ADPs fall?
Multi-cat & middle infield:
Francisco Lindor (15 stolen bases in 2017) and Jean Segura (22): Segura at the 7/8 turn is a better deal than Lindor at the 2/3, but you’re drafting upside either way: Lindor is entering the season off a 99/33/89/15 season at age 23. Segura’s somewhat disappointing 2017 still helped on a per-game basis, and he’s one year removed from hitting 20 home runs and stealing 33.
Chris Taylor (17) and Eduardo Nunez (24): Taylor is enjoying life atop the Dodgers’ lineup, headed to the World Series as we read and write. There’s a ton of upside here — the hard-hitting leadoff man stole bases at an 81 percent clip this year, and his .850 OPS ranked just outside the top 20 in all of baseball. Nunez wasn’t able to repeat his career 2016 campaign but still kicked in a .313 average with 24 bags while fighting through injuries. The dynamic utility man stole 40 a year ago and his defensive versatility is good for real teams and fake teams.
Priced too high:
Dee Gordon (60) and Billy Hamilton (59): Gordon is tempting but risky considering his PED history and reliance on an elite batting average. Hamilton is virtually unusable unless you’re playing 4×4 or a league that values infield pop ups.
Jose Ramirez (17), Elvis Andrus (25) and and Andrew Benintendi (20): Ramirez and Andrus are too expensive coming off career years — let others be tempted by their unrepeatable power (Andrus) and speed (Ramirez) totals. A fifth round pick is a high price to pay for Benintendi’s 20/20 rookie season.
Priced too high honorable mention: Brian Dozier, Will Myers, Christian Yelich, Rougned Odor.