The 2018 MLB season has come to a close and this year’s stolen base leader is Whit Merrifield with 45 stolen bases. That doesn’t sound very exciting! 45 steals doesn’t seem like a lot for an MLB leader. This is actually the lowest lead total since Luis Aparicio and Maury Wills tied for the league lead with 40 stolen bases in 1963. That is a span of 55 seasons that covers 4 of them being shorten by a labor strike. What is happening with the stolen base in the MLB? Is it becoming a lost art, is there not enough speed in the league, or does baseball’s new wave of analytics and sabermetrics have role to play in this?
Going into this season, the favorites to be named stolen base king were either Billy Hamilton of the Cincinnati Reds, Dee Gordon of the Seattle Mariners, or Trea Turner of the Washington Nationals. Dee Gordon has lead the MLB in steals in 3 of the last 4 seasons, and could very well have 4 in a row if it wasn’t for his suspension in 2016 for a PED violation. He posted a total of 64, 58, and 60 steals in those three season he lead the league. Billy Hamilton has had 4 consecutive seasons of 56 + steals. Although he has never lead the MLB in steals, he has posted a very consistent 56, 57, 58, and 59 steals over the last 4 years. Trea Turner had two partial seasons in 2016 and 2017 where he was on pace for 70 + steals on a full season projection in each of them. Turner had 33 steals in 73 games in ’16 and 46 steals in 98 games in ’17. So what happened to this trio of base stealers?
In 2018 the steal attempts for this trio of favorites dropped nearly in half as shown by the graphic below
Dee Gordon finished the 2018 season with 30 stolen bases in 141 games including 0 steals in the final 20 games. He had the same total of 30 steals in 2016 where he played only 79 games. Billy Hamilton set a career high in games played this year with 153, yet he set a low of only 34 stolen bases. Trea Turner, who was on pace for 70 + steal for a full season in each of the last 2 years, played a full 162 games but only managed 43 steals. He finished with less steals than last year while playing 64 more games! In the end, Whit Merrifield has seeming won the steals title by default. All credit to Merrifield for his 45 steals this year, but his rate of 0.35 steal attempts per game this year if a far cry from the ~ 0.50 we have been used to over the past few years.
The fact is, is that the MLB is starting to trend this way. Steal attempts are trending down, while successful steal attempts are trending up.
This would lend us to believe that the advanced analytics in baseball is playing a role in the stolen base. We cannot claim that speed no longer exists in the league, or that catcher’s arm strength and accuracy is getting better. Teams are being more selective on when they chose to steal and the success rate is increasing. Baseball fans and media outlets have criticized analytics for taking some excitement out of the game and this seems to be one of those areas.
Fantasy Impact of the Stolen Base
Those Fantasy baseball players out there that drafted Dee Gordon or Billy Hamilton this year were left thoroughly disappointed. Let’s face it, you drafted these guys strictly for their steals as you’re trying to capture the low hanging fruit category of stolen bases in your rotisserie league. Trea Turner, however, panned out to have a very good season with 103 runs scored and 19 home runs to go along with his 43 steals. In today’s game, even one speed demon player can win you a category by themselves in the steals department.
So who is on our radar for next season in steals? We have to start with Kansas City Royal’s new middle infielder Adalberto Mondesi. The son of former Rookie of the Year Raul Mondesi finished the season on an absolute tear! He was a regular starter for the Royals in the second half of the season and posted 24 steals to go along with his 11 home runs in his final 47 games. In total, he finish the year with 32 steals in 75 games played, which is a pace of 69 for a full season. If he keeps this up next year, he will be a fantasy stud! Aside from the aforementioned Gordon, Hamilton, Turner, and Merrifield, other guys to keep an eye on are Pittsburg Pirates’ Starling Marte, Tampa Bay Rays’ Mallex Smith, and Cleveland Indian’s Greg Allen. StatJacks will be posting 2019 stat projections prior to the 2019 MLB season.