Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees

Where have all the stolen bases gone? It’s not worth sending out a search party, but players are stealing fewer bases these days:

Season PA SB SBpPA
2005 186294 2565 0.0138
2006 188071 2767 0.0147
2007 188623 2918 0.0155
2008 187631 2799 0.0149
2009 187079 2970 0.0159
2010 185553 2959 0.0159
2011 185245 3279 0.0177
2012 184179 3229 0.0175
2013 80216 1143 0.0142

Set against the early part of the decade, we don’t have a problem. Set against the last five years, stolen bases are down.

This matters in roto leagues because any of our value judgments were based on the previous stolen base rates. Last year, 23 players stole 30 bags or more. This year, 12 players are on pace to do so.

That means bumping up the value of the stolen base in trade talks. It means that Jacoby Ellsbury is nigh-elite. It means that Juan Pierre and Ben Revere and Alexei Ramirez are roster-able. And, when combined with some power like it is in the case of Jason Kipnis, Coco Crisp, Alex Rios and Hunter Pence, it makes for attractive commodities.

But it also means that lesser speed is now interesting. If 25 is the new 30, you’re looking at value from Leonys Martin, Michael Saunders, Ichiro Suzuki and Lorenzo Cain. Brett Gardner is available in 25% of Yahoo leagues. That doesn’t make sense, even if he won’t steal 45 this year.

And, lastly, it means that alternative strategies are now more viable. In the past, streaming for stolen bases was probably not worth the effort. If you got one steal a week, you might average 24 steals and you’d have a player that wasn’t even top-25 in the category. Too much work. Now that many steals would put you in the top 25, and is viable, especially if none of the names on this list are available to you (at the price you want to spend).

If you’re going to consider streaming for steals, you’ll want to read this research on catchers against the running game from David Hruska at High Heat Stats. The whole thing is worth reading, particularly because he separates out catching platoons from single catchers, but we’ll summarize some for you:

  • Don’t run on the Cardinals (Yadier Molina), Orioles (Matt Wieters), or Diamondbacks (Miguel Montero).
  • There’s a big difference between Pirates’ catchers. Russell Martin is giving up a steal every 19 innings, while Michael McKenry allows one every six innings. You’ll have to check the daily box scores there.
  • The Rays are a team to run on, no matter who is behind the plate. They almost give up a steal per game.
  • The Yankees catchers may not have any stick, but they can kill a running game. You’ll have to play them almost four straight games to get a stolen base out of them.
  • Other good catchers worth targeting: Kurt Suzuki (one every 10.74 innings), Chris Iannetta (9.73), Nick Hundley (11.52), Wellington Castillo (14.21), Jarrod Saltalamacchia (11.37), and Tyler Flowers (14.14).

This strategy might sound a bit onerous, but it doesn’t have to be that bad. You could even just use two moves a week to reap the benefits.

Consider next week. Toronto is in Tampa, so you pick up Rajai Davis (6% owned) on Sunday and play him until Wednesday. You could keep him all week, since Boston is the weekend opponent for the Jays. Or you could take advantage of the Mets taking on the Nationals and pick up Eric Young Jr (1%) for a few games. You’d likely get a stolen base or two out of two part-time players, meaning you’d have a free Ben Revere at the cost of a little waiver wire efforting on a weekly basis.

I might not have made sense in the past, but this is today’s stolen base environment.