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Insider

Mining for stolen bases

5/22/2014

Todd Zola is filling in for Eric Karabell, who is on vacation this week.

Of the standard rotisserie hitting categories, stolen bases offer by far the greatest element of strategy. Granted, the majority of this is tied into how you draft your team. Regardless of how you assembled your squad, the fact remains that one player can influence the category more than a single player can affect the other categories.

To wit, last season there were 2,693 stolen bases and it took only 54 players to account for half of them. In contrast, 102 hitters were necessary to total half of the 4,661 homers swatted in 2013.

Perhaps a better way to illustrate how a single player can impact steals more than home runs is to say the top 25 power hitters averaged 32 homers while the top 25 thieves averaged 33 steals. The averages are virtually the same, but since there are far fewer steals than homers, the ramification of adding a top steals performer likely yields more potential points.

That said, identifying players who can make a difference can be tricky for a couple of reasons. First, steals are as much about opportunity as they are skill. The game situation has to be right in regard to open bases and the score. Second, major league organizations are becoming increasingly more cognizant of the value of an out with respect to run expectancy. Last year’s 2,693 total followed seasons of 3,229 and 3,279. Several teams, most notably the Boston Red Sox, have publicly stated that they’re curtailing running because their current squad doesn’t have players capable of the success rate required to make a stolen base attempt a positive event.

The most telling evidence that clubs are treating outs with more respect is the very strong correlation between the 30 MLB squads’ success rates and attempts. In short, teams that are successful early in the season are continuing to run, while those picking up extra outs on the base paths are red-lighting those that visit first base.

As such, one path to pinpoint potential targets to boost your bags is focusing on the teams presently sporting a success rate at or above the 75 percent generally accepted as the break-even point. History suggests these teams will pick up their pace if their attempts lag behind the league leaders, or maintain an already high number of attempts.

The following five teams make the best targets, as they currently sport success rates of at least 80 percent.

Oakland Athletics (90 percent): The softball-like attack of the Athletics will eventually hit a rough patch, and if the numbers to date are any indication, the Athletics will run more. Oakland has played 46 games and has scored four or fewer runs in 26 of them. In those 26 contests, 26 of their 41 steals have been attempted. Look for Coco Crisp, Craig Gentry and Eric Sogard to be the primary beneficiaries.

New York Yankees (86 percent): The Yankees are buoyed by the duo of Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, who are a combined 22-for-24 (Gardner is perfect in his 11 attempts). Success is often contagious, so look for Brian Roberts (already 4-for-5) and Ichiro Suzuki (more playing time with Carlos Beltran out) to pick up their attempts a bit.

Washington Nationals (83 percent): The Nationals will be an interesting team to test the above theory, since they are currently 27th overall in attempts. Remember, the idea here is by season’s end, teams with the better success rates run more, so in order for the Nationals to fall in line, they’re a good candidate to pick up their pace. Denard Span (6-for-6) and Danny Espinosa (4-for-4) are the chief targets.

Los Angeles Angels (83 percent): The Angels are the only team with a success rate above 80 percent that’s in the top 10 overall in stolen base attempts. Howie Kendrick somewhat surprisingly leads the way with nine steals in 11 tries. With that success rate, Mike Scioscia will continue to give him the go sign. Fresh off the disabled list, Kole Calhoun has double-digit potential. While he’s currently just 2-for-5, Erick Aybar may be given a few more chances to show he can still pilfer a bag or two.

Cleveland Indians (80 percent): Cleveland makes the list despite Michael Bourn checking in at a pedestrian 3-for-6. Michael Brantley may be opening eyes with his nine homers, but he’s also perfect in six stolen base tries. Asdrubal Cabrera is 4-for-5 and is a latent source of steals that shouldn’t cost too much to acquire.

A discussion on 2014 steals would be remiss without mentioning the Detroit Tigers (73 percent). While their success rate is low, they are second overall in attempts, behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers (78 percent). Detroit is now managed by Brad Ausmus, and his proclivity for running is in sharp contrast to the retired Jim Leyland's. The correlation between success and attempts isn’t perfect, so there are teams that aren’t yet in tune with (or care about) the value of an out and its relation to run expectancy. The Tigers appear to be such a club, so even though Rajai Davis and his 14-for-16 leads the way, expect Austin Jackson, Ian Kinsler and Andrew Romine to piggyback on the success of Davis and swipe some bags of their own.

One last note on the subject. For those looking for short-term candidates to pick up a bag or two, especially if you’re in a league with daily transactions or even playing in a one-day league, the key is finding the catchers and pitchers easiest to run on.

At least so far, the easiest catchers to run on are Derek Norris, Miguel Montero, Kurt Suzuki and Welington Castillo. Look for Everth Cabrera to be off to the races, as his San Diego Padres host Castillo and the Chicago Cubs for a four-game set this weekend.

AL Report

No, you weren’t watching a rerun of Tuesday’s game: Edwin Encarnacion hit two more home runs, bringing his May total to 11. The victim was Clay Buchholz, who despite a 6.32 ERA remains in the Red Sox rotation, but he doesn’t have to stay in yours. … The Rays held the Athletics to just one hit. Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, it was a homer by Brandon Moss and proved to be the game winner in a 3-2 Oakland victory. Sean Doolittle picked up the save, his fourth, in his first game as the full-time closer. … Max Scherzer was torched for seven early runs by the Indians, but settled down and went seven frames, allowing his squad to catch, and eventually go-ahead of, the Indians before Joe Nathan blew the save. … Thursday’s scheduled Indians starter, Josh Tomlin, came in for the win, leaving the Tribe in need of an emergency starter. … Despite being bested by Jeremy Guthrie and the Kansas City Royals, Jose Quintana quietly continued his fine season. Some are scared off by Quintana, since he pitches half his games in the hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field. Don’t be. Quintana is for real. … In that game, Alexei Ramirez collected steal No. 8, further assuaging those still concerned last year’s total of 30 was a fluke. … If you still weren’t convinced Jered Weaver was a top fantasy pitcher despite barely throwing 85 mph, perhaps a complete game, two-hitter against Houston will help change your mind. OK, it was just the Astros, but while Weaver is no longer a fantasy ace, he’s a viable SP3.

NL Report

The Reds exchanged stars on the disabled list, activating Jay Bruce while disabling Joey Votto. Bruce’s return will send Skip Schumaker and Chris Heisey back to part-time duty, while Brayan Pena should continue to see the lion’s share of time at first in Votto’s stead. The other fantasy repercussion is Zack Cozart should remain in the two-hole a little while longer, increasing his value a tick. … In a season replete with bizarre injuries, Michael Wacha was hit by a foul ball while sitting in his dugout and had to cut his fine scoreless, two-hit, six-inning effort short. The Cardinals went on to win in 12 innings, buoyed by the return of Jason Motte, who chipped in with 1 1/3 frames of scoreless relief. Trevor Rosenthal’s job is safe, but it looks like Motte, and not Carlos Martinez, would be next in line.

Before I call it a day, I’d like to assure everyone Eric really is on vacation. His absence and the Philadelphia Phillies suddenly needing a fifth starter is purely coincidental. I appreciate the opportunity to fill in for him and am looking forward to my next installment of Under the Microscope for ESPN Insider. For more pithiness, follow me on Twitter @ToddZola.