Entering the 2007 season, all fantasy owners knew that speedy superstars like Jose Reyes, Ichiro Suzuki and Carl Crawford would be near the top of the stolen base leaderboard all year. Most knew that players like Willy Taveras and Coco Crisp would be valuable stolen base sources as well. And those in deeper leagues were very familiar with the speed potential of guys like Chris Duffy, Kazuo Matsui and Nick Punto.
Yet each year there are surprise contributors in the stolen-base category. Often role players whose speed is a known commodity become big-time stolen base producers because of a significant uptick in playing time. The list of fifth outfielders and utility infielders with great speed is a long one, and most fantasy owners know to spend a late-round draft pick or an endgame dollar trolling for that kind of potential. There are also players whose surprise stolen-base production is the result of an increase in opportunities due to a new team, manager or philosophy. And sometimes surprise speed sources just seem to come out of nowhere. This week Will and Adam examine three basestealing surprises of the early-season, and let you know whether these players will maintain their newfound success on the basepaths all year long.
Ian Kinsler, 2B, TEX
Kinsler made a lot of early-season headlines for the nine home runs he hit in April. But he's also one of only 26 players in double figures in stolen bases after swiping only 11 last year. A new 20-steal regular or just a "fast" start?
Will: Unreal. Kinsler showed better than 11-steal speed throughout his minor league career, but his career high was the 19 bases he swiped in 2005 in 530 Triple-A at-bats. He's fast, but not fast enough to be a major factor on the stolen-base leaderboard. The upswing in steals this year is attributable to two things: An increased success rate and more at-bats. Kinsler always has been a good baserunner, succeeding on about 75 percent of his attempts prior to 2007. This year, however, he hasn't been caught at all. Even if his technique is significantly improved it's unlikely that he'll maintain a success rate above 90 percent. Kinsler is also on pace to receive more at-bats this year than the 423 he logged in 2006. Last year he attempted a stolen base every 28 at-bats; this year he's doing so every 20 at-bats. That's an increase, but not as substantial as it seems. Kinsler has the potential to be a 20-steal contributor each year, but that's about his ceiling. Expect his 30-plus steal pace to normalize over the remainder of 2007.
Adam: For Real. While Kinsler is surely going to be less effective on the basepaths, hitting better likely will give him more opportunities to steal, negating the decline in effectiveness. Kinsler, who is hitting just .235 but has a 33-to-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio, hit .286 last season. His current on-base percentage is .326, which, while quite mediocre, is 91 points higher than his batting average. Once his batting average improves, the substantial increase in walks drives his OBP further north. It's also worth noting that, since he's a perfect 10-for-10 in stolen bases so far this year, the Rangers, one would imagine, might be more inclined to let him steal all he wants, or at the very least not curb his current pace.
Shane Victorino, OF, PHI
Sure, it's the first time he's entered the season with a full-time starting job, but Victorino did get 415 at-bats last year and only notched four stolen bases. Now he's fourth in the National League with 17 steals. What gives?
Will: For Real. Victorino always has had better speed skills than he's showed in the majors thus far. He stole 182 bases in 2,677 career minor league at-bats, including 47 in 2001 and 45 in 2002. Victorino's success this year is simply the result of more opportunity, not a change in skills. The Phillies are running much more than they did last year, and Victorino has earned the green light. Also, hitting higher in the order has led to more occasions than last year when Victorino is on first base with second base vacant. Overall, Victorino has the potential to steal around 35 bases annually. It's safe to count on continued success.
Adam: Unreal. Earlier in his career, Victorino did steal a lot of bases, but since 2003 he had attempted 89 stolen bases and successfully nabbed 60. That works out to just 20 out of 30 in a normal season. While I doubt Victorino suddenly will stop stealing bases -- the Phillies' new baserunning coach, Davey Lopes, seems committed to running -- it's important to note that Victorino's career success rate was 72.5 percent; this year, it is at 89.4 percent. A high-volume baserunner can't pick and choose his spots as often, so it is expecting a lot for Victorino to continue the same pace despite what his history suggests. Finally, there's the important fact that Victorino simply is not a good player; he has a career .330 OBP and .716 OPS. The fact that he hits first or second in the lineup is nice, but there's no guarantee he would stay at the top of the order if his mediocrity continues and he slows down a bit on the bases.
Reggie Willits, OF, LAA
Willits wasn't on many fantasy owners' radars in the beginning of the season, but he's played regularly since Garret Anderson first went on the disabled list in late April, and has hit .325 with 14 stolen bases in 154 at-bats. How much of this production is sustainable?
Will: Unreal. Willits' speed is legitimate, and in that sense he's definitely "for real." He's a good athlete who consistently displayed 40-stolen base speed throughout his minor-league career. However, Willits profiles best as a fourth outfielder: No power, good speed, solid defense, willing to take a walk. He hit .302 in four minor-league seasons with a .397 on-base percentage, so his 2007 batting average and on-base production is consistent with his skills. The problem is Willits' lack of power. That's what has prevented the 26-year-old from landing a major-league job thus far, and that's what will get him sent back to the bench (or the minors) the first time he has a prolonged slump. Guys like Willits only have value as regulars when they maintain those .300 averages, and when they slump, they often fall out of favor with impatient managers. Ride Willits while you can, but don't expect him to be an everyday player in the majors for more than a year or two at best.
Adam: Unreal. While I am tempted to claim Willits as legitimate -- manager Mike Scioscia loves speed, Willits likely could get by at any position in the outfield, and the Angels do keep mediocrity in the lineup for seemingly as long as possible -- there are too many roadblocks to have faith in Willits' ability to stay in the lineup. The Angels are loaded with utility-type players -- Maicer Izturis, Chone Figgins and Erick Aybar -- so Willits' only chance is in the outfield. With Juan Rivera, Anderson, Shea Hillenbrand and Robb Quinlan all getting at-bats, Willits needs an injury to remain an everyday player. If Willits does hit .300, it will be difficult to phase him out of an OBP-starved team, but it's a bit of a leap of faith to assume Willits can sustain a .300-plus average for the entire season. When it drops, it will be mighty easy for Scioscia to find time for his other favorites.