There are certain players you can count on for steals year after year. Over the past few seasons, you could draft Jose Reyes, Juan Pierre or Brian Roberts knowing that 30 steals was a lock, and you would have a good chance at much more. Overall, drafting for steals is a risky proposition, and you take a chance of getting burned by one-dimensional players like Corey Patterson or Jerry Owens if they hit a slump.
Only 10 of the top 20 major leaguers in steals from 2007 made the top 20 again in 2008. Of the 11 who didn't repeat the feat, six did not exceed even 15 swipes, even though all had at least 28 steals just the season before. (My math isn't as bad as it appears. There was a tie for 20th place in '07.)
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In nearly every case, the reason for a player's decreasing stolen base production stemmed from one of three sources. Some players, like Felipe Lopez and Russell Martin, cut back on their stolen base attempts, in all likelihood, because they just aren't very efficient base stealers. While we don't know for sure that this was the reason for both players' dropoff in steals, it was probably more than coincidence that Lopez and Martin had the worst stolen base success rates for all players with at least 20 steals in 2007. Still others, including Eric Byrnes, Carl Crawford and Julio Lugo, could blame their diminished output on injuries and time lost on the disabled list. Finally, there were players who didn't steal as many bases because they spent significant time on the bench (i.e., Coco Crisp) or in the minors (i.e., Jerry Owens).
Looking ahead to the coming season, we can brace ourselves for falling stolen base totals -- or attempt to avoid them altogether -- by identifying the players in each of the three risk categories. This is not to say that these players will be unhelpful with stolen bases; in fact, several could still provide 20 steals or more. Rather a player's inclusion in this analysis signals that they will probably steal fewer bases in 2009, and your expectations should be adjusted accordingly.
|Carlos Gomez has speed to burn, but he doesn't have a starting job locked up just yet. (US Presswire)|
Injury Risks: It's almost a certainty that someone from last year's stolen base leaderboard will sustain an injury this season, but it's hard to know who. Perhaps it's because steals are a young player's category or because chronically injured players aren't likely to be good sources for steals in the first place. Few probably saw the injuries to Byrnes, Crawford and Lugo last season, so it's anybody's guess as to who will be victimized this year. Johnny Damon is the only 20-plus stolen base club member from 2008 who seems like even a moderate injury risk, given his age and the fact that he has missed at least 19 games in each of the last two seasons.
Playing Time Risks: Unless the Dodgers can manage to move his contract to a team that will make him a regular, Juan Pierre stands to lose more steals than anyone in the majors. Michael Bourn doesn't have Manny Ramirez, or anyone else, taking his job away just yet, but his own difficulties with getting on base could threaten his hold on a starting role, not to mention his steals total. Reggie Abercrombie isn't exactly an on-base machine himself, but if the Astros grow frustrated with Bourn, they may be tempted to give the more powerful Abercrombie a try. Rajai Davis should boast a higher batting average and on-base percentage than either Bourn or Abercrombie, but unfortunately, he plays for the A's instead of the 'Stros. In '08, he nabbed an incredible 29 steals in just 214 at-bats. In a crowded Oakland outfield, he will struggle to get that many reps again.
As the centerpiece of the Johan Santana trade, you would expect the Twins to keep giving Carlos Gomez every chance to hold onto his starting job. However, after a rookie season in which his batting eye regressed badly, the Twins could lose patience if he doesn't show progress early. Gomez faces stiff competition in a crowded Minnesota outfield. Ron Gardenhire has the luxury of turning to one of them and letting Gomez ease back into a larger role. If he does show improved power and contact skills, he would be a threat to steal 40 bases, but Gomez' prolonged struggles in '08 give us reason to view him and his stolen base potential skeptically in '09.
There is one other factor that could affect the fortunes of last year's top stealers: managerial change. Of last year's top 20 in stolen bases, only three players have new managers this year. Both Willy Taveras and Matt Holliday leave the stewardship of Clint Hurdle, who has been on the conservative side when it comes to baserunning. Then again, Taveras had 75 attempts last year, and it's hard to imagine him having more chances under the more freewheeling Dusty Baker. Holliday, on the other hand, goes to the steals-averse regime of Billy Beane and Bob Geren, so his emergence as a 20-plus stolen base threat could be short-lived. Ichiro Suzuki also gets a new skipper, but only time will tell whether rookie manager Don Wakamatsu will keep him on his steady diet of 40 to 50 attempts per season.
| Runs Created per 27 Outs (RC/27) -- An estimate of how many runs a lineup would produce per 27 outs if a particular player occupied each spot in the order; ex. the RC/27 for Miguel Cabrera would predict the productivity of a lineup where Cabrera (or his statistical equal) batted in all nine spots; created by Bill James |
Component ERA (ERC) -- An estimate of a what a pitcher's ERA would be if it were based solely on actual pitching performance; created by Bill James
Base Hits per Balls in Play (BABIP) -- The percentage of balls in play (at bats minus strikeouts and home runs) that are base hits; research by Voros McCracken and others has established that this rate is largely random and has a norm of approximately 30%
Isolated Power -- The difference between slugging percentage and batting average; created by Branch Rickey and Allan Roth
Walk Rate -- Walks / (at bats + walks)
Whiff Rate -- Strikeouts / at bats
Al Melchior was recently a Fantasy columnist and data analyst for Baseball HQ and will be providing advice columns for CBSSports.com. Click here to send him a question. Please put "Melchior" in the subject field.