Which players should keep stealing bases (and which will disappoint) in 2020 fantasy baseball?

Fred Zinkie
Yahoo Fantasy Contributor

After looking at the repeatability of elite power seasons, we are now going to turn our attention to the speedsters. Stolen bases are becoming a rare commodity in fantasy circles, meaning that many roto teams will succeed or fail on whether or not their projected speedsters meet or exceed expectations.

With this in mind, I looked at the follow-up seasons to the 74 times that a player stole at least 35 bases in a campaign from 2009-18 (I couldn’t use 2019, as they do not have a follow-up year to measure). These 74 campaigns covered a total of 39 players.

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For those who would like to see the full data, it can be found HERE. And here’s Part One of our series, focusing on homers.

Back to the bags. The results of this study were slightly surprising. The average player dipped by 13.9 steals the following year, while the median was a dip of 14 swipes.

Here are some fun facts regarding this large group:

· Rajai Davis appeared on the list a remarkable five times, while Michael Bourn, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Billy Hamilton each popped up four times. Ellsbury had the highest single-season total when he swiped 70 bases in 2009 and the largest year-over-year drop when he recorded 63 fewer swipes in an injury-plagued 2010 season.

· There were just 11 occasions when a player recorded a season of at least 35 steals and then raised his total the following year. And of those 11 occasions, six were an increase of just three or less. Jose Altuve in 2013 was the only player in the 10-year sample to boost his total by more than 10 after swiping at least 35 steals the previous season.

· There were actually 75 seasons with 35 steals from 2009-18, but one had to be thrown out. Scott Podsednik somehow managed to hit .297 with 35 steals as a member of the Royals and Dodgers in 2010 and then spend all of 2011 in the Minors before reappearing for a swan song with the Red Sox in 2012.

· Showing the volatility of steals, there were 15 occasions when a player achieved his 30-steals season by boosting his total by at least 30. There were even five occasions where a player boosted his steals total by more than 40 and two seasons in which a player made a jump of more than 50. This is an excellent reminder that great base stealers sometimes arrive on the scene quickly or rebound nicely from disappointing years.

Conclusions

Should readers simply project all speedy studs to experience a 14-steal drop the following season? Of course not. Each player still needs to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis.

One takeaway was that fantasy managers should never predict an increase after a strong steals season. In the current steals-scarce landscape, managers are chasing fool’s gold if they expect someone who is among the league leaders to be even better the following year.

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The biggest finding revolved around the year-over-year data that led into the season with at least 35 steals. There were 20 occasions where a player increased his year-over-year steals total by 25 or more. And in the year following those increases, the average drop in steals was 17.6. This means, on many of the occasions in which a player made a massive steals leap, he gave back much of that progress the following season. On the flip side, in 35 of the 74 seasons, the player produced a steals total that was within 15 of his mark in the previous campaign. And those players on average saw a steal reduction of 10.5 the following year. Although a reduction of 10.5 is hardly reassuring, it is notably better than the reduction experienced by those who are coming off a season with a massive jump.

How should we use this data in 2020?

With steals dwindling across baseball, we are going to see fewer players making massive year-over-year improvements. That being said, we need to be skeptical of a repeat performance from the rare players who pull off that feat. Elvis Andrus surged to 31 steals (his highest mark since 2013) after recording just five swipes in an injury plagued 2018 season. He will likely experience a major decline no matter how many games are played in 2020.

A stolen base decline is in the works for Elvis Andrus. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Many managers are high on Kolten Wong, but history suggests that his 18-steal jump to a career-best of 24 is likely unsustainable. And although Jon Berti (17 steals in 2019) seems like cheap speed, he may not have the plate skills to stay in the lineup. Conversely, Trea Turner, Mallex Smith, Jonathan Villar, Starling Marte, and Trevor Story are among the 2020 options who seem the most stable after experiencing little change from 2018 to 19.

My biggest conclusion is to target balanced contributors in the early rounds. A 45-homer player is going to leave you wanting more if he experiences the typical decline of 10 long balls. And similarly, you will be disappointed with an elite base-stealer if his year-over-year swipes total drops by 14. Instead, find the players who have sizable (but not necessarily elite) totals in both homers and steals.

Those players still have room to improve in either category, and they are less likely to experience massive drops since they are already closer to their floor. The balanced contributor is more valuable than ever before.

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