Jonathan Bales is the author of Fantasy Baseball for Smart People—a 197-page book created to help you win playing daily fantasy baseball on DraftKings.
Stolen bases are the most overlooked stat in daily fantasy baseball. I think the reason for that is because they’re somewhat isolated from other stats. When a player hits a home run, he gets points for the homer, the RBI, and the run scored. Meanwhile, a stolen base is the only way other than a run that a batter can score points when he isn’t at the plate.
Further, the type of players who steal bases—generally speedsters who often don’t hit for a lot of power—can be limited in certain ways. There’s an opportunity cost that comes with seeking stolen bases from most players; you get the stolen base upside, but you’re potentially losing the opportunity for upside with power numbers. That’s not always the case, but a general rule of thumb.
The question is simply whether or not it’s worth it to pay for stolen bases over power, and in many instances, I think it is. DraftKings awards five points per stolen base, which is the same as a double.
In terms of frequency, there are typically around the same number of 30-plus-steal players as there are 30-plus-home-run players each season. There are also a handful of players in the league—Dee Gordon, Billy Hamilton, Jose Altuve, and Jacoby Ellsbury, for example—who have serious upside when it comes to steals because they’re all a threat to top 60 stolen bases in a given season. Those are the types of players who can really increase the upside of your lineup.
One of the things that we can’t forget about steals is that they come in addition to other stats. For a player to steal a bag, he needs to get on base. Unless he reaches via an error, he’s going to get points for reaching base. If a player singles and steals second, it’s actually as many points as you get for a triple on DraftKings.
Predicting Stolen Bases
Predicting stolen bases can be difficult. They’re low-frequency events that, although consistent over large samples, are volatile from game to game. It’s simply a challenge to predict whether or not a player will steal a bag in a given night.
You might think that the handedness of the opposing pitcher would play a massive role in predicting stolen bases. Here’s a look at the number of steals per plate appearance since 2000 versus lefties and righties.
Overall, batters are about 23 percent more likely to steal a bag versus right-handed pitching. I think that’s an important number, but not necessarily a deal-breaker when it comes to rostering base-stealers. For one, the catcher has a lot to do with whether or not a runner gets thrown out. You can increase your base-stealers’ stolen base probability versus southpaws by understanding how he works in tandem with the catcher.
Second, you can only realistically predict the handedness of the opposing pitcher when it comes to the starter; a base-stealer might face a lefty for five or six innings before relief comes in. Because of that uncertainty, I don’t think there’s any reason to always avoid base-stealers against southpaws.
Ultimately, though, I think the most important aspect of predicting steals is simply getting access to players who have the ability to not only steal bags, but to get on base with regularity. In 2014, Altuve’s stolen base upside was so outstanding because he’s not only an excellent base-stealer, but also because he got on base so regularly. Predicting steals can be challenging, but predicting on-base percentage isn’t as tough. I’d prefer a base-stealer who takes off slightly less often but gets on base all the time versus the reverse—a player who attempts steals a lot, but can’t manage to get on base.
Remember, there are “hidden” points with steals; a prerequisite of acquiring those points is also generating points simply for getting on base.
There’s only one way for a batter to lose points on DraftKings: getting caught stealing. You lose two points every time your runner gets thrown out trying to steal, so that needs to be factored into your stolen base projections. While DraftKings isn’t an efficiency site in terms of actual batting, it is when it comes to steals; caught stealing percentages matter.
That means we should value certain types of base-stealers differently. Ellsbury, for example, might not steal as many bags as Hamilton, but Ellsbury also rarely gets caught stealing. In 2014, for example, Ellsbury stole 39 bases to Hamilton’s 56. However, Ellsbury got caught only five times, while Hamilton led the league by getting caught 23 times. In terms of overall production, Ellsbury was a whole lot closer to Hamilton in terms of fantasy points than the bulk steals suggest. While the bulk steals matter most, you can’t ignore caught stealing percentages.
The Real Value of Steals
So we’ve talked about why steals can be valuable in a vacuum, but the real reason that any stat can offer value is that it is underpriced on DraftKings. And for the most part, I think that steals, at times, can come cheaply when it comes to player salaries.
Everybody and their brother wants power. And it’s certainly important to give yourself access to home runs, but they don’t often come at a discount. In terms of strict dollars per point, you can make a great argument that steals are more valuable because you can acquire certain base-stealers at a cheap price.
Even though stolen bases can fluctuate a lot for each individual player, the long-term trends always win out; if you’re giving yourself exposure to players with stolen base upside, the steals will eventually come.
The final point I’ll make is that targeting pure base-stealers is probably best reserved for tournaments. In cash games, you want to increase the floor of your lineup as much as possible, which is difficult if you’re allocating a large percentage of your cap to a player who relies on a stat that he’s unlikely to record in any individual game. Used appropriately in tournaments, though, batters with a high probability of stealing bags can be a game-changer.
Continue Reading MLB Training Camp
MLB Hall of Fame – Lesson 01 – Advanced Pitching Stats
MLB Hall of Fame – Lesson 02 – Advanced Batting Stats
MLB Hall of Fame – Lesson 03 – Stacking Strategy
MLB Hall of Fame – Lesson 04 – Value of Stolen Bases