Finding stolen bases late

Will minor league wonder Billy Hamilton get into the mix late in the season?

Updated: August 22, 2012, 4:10 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

It's not often that a minor leaguer gets the headliner's billing in "Hit Parade," but what Cincinnati Reds prospect Billy Hamilton has done this season warrants such press.

Hit Parade

In case you missed it -- and you might have if you're not an avid follower of minor league baseball -- Hamilton set the single-season stolen base record for a player in any professional league on Tuesday night, swiping four bags in the first game of a doubleheader for Double-A Pensacola, to give him 147 for the season. That shattered Vince Coleman's 29-year-old record of 145, set for Class A Macon back in 1983. Hamilton's prowess on the base paths is nothing short of remarkable; here is how he compares to some of the single-season all-time bests, both major league (on the left) and minor league (on the right):

It's fitting that Hamilton is bringing the stolen base back into the headlines because, if you hadn't noticed, the steal is -- at least somewhat -- back in vogue, both the rate of attempts and success rates in the category up since the beginning of 2011. This season's 73.7 percent success rate is the highest in any season since 2007's 74.4, and it's the second best seasonal number since 1950 (73.8 percent). Meanwhile, calculating steals attempts as a rate per times on base, the rates in both 2011 and 2012 represent the highest since back in the 1990s.

Imagine how much those numbers might shift if Hamilton indeed is promoted in September, even if only to serve in a pinch-running role?

It was the June 28 edition of "Relief Efforts" that focused on the rising rate of strikeouts for closers, and how that impacted the closer market, specifically low-K pitchers like Jonathan Broxton and Brett Myers. With steals somewhat on the rise, it's becoming more important to adjust your strategy in the category in Rotisserie, just as you might have reassessed your closers back then.

[+] EnlargeMike Trout
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesMike Trout's stolen bases are a huge reason he's the top player in fantasy this year.

To wit: A zero-stolen base player, as measured by this season's Player Rater, rates a minus-0.64 in the category, and remember, we've got a little less than one-quarter of the season left to play (meaning that number could conceivably drop). Last season that player was worth minus-0.61, and in 2010 he was worth minus-0.57. Meanwhile, this year's leader in the category, Mike Trout, scores a 5.26. The 2011 leader, to compare, scored a 6.53, and the leader in 2010 scored 7.44.

That's not to say that Trout's contributions are overrated and his expectations should be tempered, not by a long shot. The point is that his performance in that singular category hasn't carried quite the weight that it might have a year or two ago, being that the replacement level in stolen bases has risen. These facts also illustrate that the drain of a slow, clunky runner, a zero-steal lock, on your fantasy team is increasing, and you can no longer casually ignore the category. The upshot: Speedsters like Trout, who contribute in other categories, are becoming all the more important in Rotisserie leagues.

That in mind, let's help you, the fantasy owner, with your stretch-run steals strategy. Listed below are some overvalued and undervalued picks for steals, broken down by a variety of categories. This is not an all-encompassing list of everyone who steals bases -- that'd take hours for you to sift through. It is merely a discussion of players who might warrant reassessment looking forward.

The obvious: Trout, Michael Bourn, Rajai Davis, Shane Victorino, Jose Reyes, Coco Crisp, Jimmy Rollins, Jose Altuve and Jacoby Ellsbury, naturally, all rank among the most attractive sources of steals.

Underrated

Ben Revere: That he remains available in 14.8 percent of ESPN leagues is somewhat inexplicable, the only logical guess as to the reason being either: (A) People are gun-shy considering he has batted .217 with only one stolen bases in his past 10 games, or (B) Revere's owners might look at the 117-game sample of his 2011 and see an image of a one-category contributor (34 steals, .267/.310/.309 triple-slash line, 56 runs). The truth, however, is that the larger picture of Revere is a player with skills somewhat similar to -- and arguably greater than -- teammate Denard Span's: Revere, this season, has a .346 on-base percentage (Span's is .351); Revere has 29 steals (Span had 26 in a season as recently as 2010); and Revere sported .326/.383/.404 lifetime minor league triple-slash rates (Span's were .286/.355/.356 and he has .285/.359/.389 rates so far in the majors).

Will Venable: The reason he flies beneath the radar in so many leagues -- he's spoken for in only 1.5 percent of ESPN leagues -- is that Venable, simply put, is a platoon major leaguer. He's a lifetime .213/.293/.276 hitter against left-handers, .216/.310/.333 this season. The Padres, however, use Venable properly, which diminishes his batting-average risk, and as a result of that he's a much easier player to mix and match appropriately. He's well worth slotting in during his road games, or against teams with weak-armed catchers, and it's not too difficult to pick the matchups to avoid (the opposites).

Erick Aybar: If he's still available in your league, consider this your final opportunity to scoop him up. He remains out there in more than 30 percent of ESPN leagues, despite his having batted .400 (20-for-50) with three home runs, seven RBIs and four stolen bases in 13 games in the month of August. Aybar is one of these players who isn't only worth your consideration because of his speed; it's that he's tremendously underrated in terms of everything else, too. He has a .188 well-hit average since the All-Star break, considerably higher than his .166 mark from 2009 to 2012 combined; and he has eight extra-base hits in 23 games, after only 31 in 81 contests before the break. Aybar has the power to hit one out on occasion, he's a safe batting-average source and he's one of the best base stealing shortstops around.

Overrated

Drew Stubbs: As a player who has in both of his full big league seasons (2010-11) managed at least 15 home runs and 30 stolen bases, Stubbs might strike you as a multi-category dynamo. He's also on pace for 18 homers and 37 steals, giving him three such seasons in a row. But this isn't a matter of his final seasonal line; it's the up-and-down experience of owning him in order to get all of those 18 homers and 37 steals onto your score sheet. Stubbs is notoriously streaky, his steals contributions the one "bankable" asset during his cold spells, but consider this: This August he has six steals in 19 games … but also a .203 batting average and one home run. And in a 23-game stretch in May, he stole six bases in 23 games … but also batted .186 with four RBIs. The sum of Stubbs' contributions probably warrants his inclusion on any fantasy roster all year, but owning him means accepting the aggravation of his painfully poor cold spells.

Emilio Bonifacio: Injuries seem to be catching up to him, as he left Tuesday's game early with a knee issue and twice before this season he has been on the disabled list with a thumb problem. Since Bonifacio's first DL stint -- meaning between his two stints as well as since his return on Aug. 19 -- he's a .245 hitter with a .297 on-base percentage, so his 10 steals on 12 tries is a bit overzealous pace for a player who has been on base via hit, walk or hit batsman only 30 times during that span. Remember, what made Bonifacio one of 2011's biggest breakthroughs was his rising walk rate; he had a 9.2 percent walk rate last season. He has a 6.8 percent walk rate since his first DL stint, by comparison.

Carlos Gomez: He has been a boon to fantasy owners who scooped him up during his recent hot spell, which began approximately at the beginning of July and has extended into this month. But now, looking closer at Gomez's statistics, it's time to temper expectations looking forward. Sure, he has three home runs in 18 games in the month of August. But he also has a .294 on-base percentage and only four steals, and his 4.4 percent walk rate is awfully low for a player whom some felt might be reaching a breakthrough point in his career. Gomez is still one of the more free-swinging players in baseball, his 38 percent chase rate since the All-Star break 11th highest among qualified hitters, and that makes him a high-risk candidate in the batting-average category as well as a player unlikely to get on base consistently … potentially limiting his number of stolen-base chances.

The dicey speedster

Juan Pierre: He's fourth in the majors in steals (31) and is batting .307, making him look awfully similar to the Pierre of his prime years. In addition, after being relegated mostly to a bench role immediately following the trades of Victorino and Hunter Pence, Pierre returned to a semi-regular role following the injury to Nate Schierholtz (broken big toe), starting seven of the Phillies' past 11 games. Still, that's not the portrait of a regular, at least not to quite the levels of playing time he received before the All-Star break (25 starts in the Phillies' final 34 first-half games). Pierre also has two playing time risk factors: We don't yet know if he has snuck through waivers, perhaps making him a trade candidate into a backup role elsewhere, and Schierholtz, whom the Phillies had counted on auditioning for a 2013 spot down the stretch, hasn't yet been declared out for the year.

And what of Hamilton himself?

Certainly you've heard the whispers that the Reds might promote Hamilton in September, if not to take over as the starting shortstop (unlikely), at least to serve as a pinch runner (possible). Hamilton's absence from the 40-man roster keeps such chatter in the "rumors" column, but he might be an asset manager Dusty Baker would enjoy down the stretch. Examining Baker's 2011, his Reds finished among the upper half in the majors in stolen base attempts (15th, 147), and had the second most runners put in motion (226), an odd level of reliance upon speed considering the Reds had only one player manage more than 15 steals (Stubbs, 40) and lacked much in the way of speedsters on the entire roster.

Let's examine Hamilton from a per-game steals rate perspective. He has averaged 1.23 steals per game played thus far in the minor leagues, and 1.16 per team games. There are 12 games remaining in Pensacola's schedule, meaning he'd steal 14 more bases there at his current pace per team games, giving him 161 total in the minor leagues. There are then 26 scheduled Reds games from Sept. 4, the day after Pensacola's schedule ends, and the conclusion of the regular season. If he played regularly and stole bases at the same rate, he'd swipe 30 in a month's time at the major league level. Thirty!

Still, that's assuming Hamilton is recalled that day and steals at anywhere near the pace he was on in the minors, which is highly unlikely. In a 10-team, mixed redraft league, that makes Hamilton potentially a premature pickup. After all, the history of "designated pinch runners" isn't lengthy, with Herb Washington of the 1974 Oakland Athletics the most notable example (29 steals, 0 plate appearances). Perhaps the most relevant recent example is that of Jarrod Dyson, who made 12 of his 26 appearances in 2011 as a pinch runner and stole 11 bases despite 53 PAs.

NL-only owners might want to stash Hamilton now in the event he does get promoted, being that he plays the thinner shortstop position. But fantasy owners should set their expectations in the 10-game, 10-PA, 6-8 steal range, with anything more than that considered gravy.

Three up

Ryan Howard, Philadelphia Phillies: The arrow is certainly pointing upward as it pertains to Howard's value, and it's not only because he sports .254/.331/.492 triple-slash rates, eight home runs and 23 RBIs in 34 games since the All-Star break. It's more about his improving health, illustrated by his 31 starts in 36 team games during that span (and 16 in the Phillies' past 18). Compare Howard's season-to-date rate statistics and he's not far off his past-year performances; he has .226 isolated power (.250 from 2009 to 2012 combined), a 28.6 home run/fly ball percentage (20.8 percent from 2009 to 2012) and 55 percent combined rate of fly balls and line drives (61 percent from 2009 to 2012). The homer/fly ball percentage shows that Howard has been a tad fortunate in the home run department, and his .173 well-hit average isn't quite up to his usual standards (.261 from 2009 to 2012). But Howard's stats are excellent considering his lengthy rehabilitation, and he has an outstanding track record in the month of September, with .306/.422/.649 lifetime triple-slash rates in the month (.290/.417/.522 in 2011).

Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins: Go ahead and say it, he doesn't play any more games at either Coors Field or Chase Field this season, and those are the two venues at which he's a combined 10-for-25 (.400 AVG) with five home runs in his past six games. Still, credit him for his power, specifically those five homers. Per Hittrackeronline.com, he has hit them an average of 451 feet, a total of 2,255 feet and every one of them would've cleared the fences in all 30 big league ballparks. Stanton has his light-tower power back, and it makes him an excellent bet to finish among the top 25 hitters from this point forward.

Nick Swisher, New York Yankees: He's a .364/.462/.655 hitter with four home runs, 14 RBIs and 14 runs scored in his past 14 games, and before you declare the usual "small sample caveat," be aware that it came during a period of the Yankees' schedule that wasn't exactly easy from a competitive angle. Swisher is trending upward at a key time both in the real and fantasy game, and with other injuries to Yankees hitters he has snuck in as the No. 2 man in the lineup on all 14 occasions. Here's the kicker: He's playing for a new contract, so it's not unthinkable he's kicking up his game as he seeks a big winter payday.

Three down

Brett Lawrie, Toronto Blue Jays: Setbacks with his rib injury cast doubts upon his fantasy prospects the remainder of the year, and I'll admit that I seriously considered removing him from my Top 125 overall. Per the Blue Jays' official website, the team hasn't dismissed the possibility that his season might be finished. "We haven't come to that point in time yet," said manager John Farrell. "The most important thing is for him to get back to being symptom-free and to progress from there. But we can't rule anything out at this point."

Brian McCann, Atlanta Braves: He has played 14 games in the month of August, has 54 PAs and 44 at-bats … and has but six hits, all singles, for a .136 batting average. What further evidence do you need that his shoulder injury, which has cost him five of 20 Braves games in the month, is hampering his hitting? McCann has a .167 well-hit average and 19.0 percent strikeout rate in August; those compare unfavorably to his .265 and 16.2 percent rates from 2009 to 2012 combined.

David Ortiz, Boston Red Sox: Without a definitive timetable on his return from an Achilles injury and the Red Sox's season slipping further from their grasp by the day, Ortiz's fantasy ceiling continues to lower. He has resumed taking batting practice and might be within days of activation, but at this point he has been sidelined for 37 days and there's still the risk of a setback. Expect the Red Sox to take a conservative approach, and with them in jeopardy of being a non-factor in the wild-card race -- some might argue they already are -- they might even consider shutting Ortiz down for the year if he missteps.

New position eligibility

The following players have become eligible at new positions -- it's 10 games to qualify at a new spot -- in ESPN standard leagues during the past week: Luis Cruz (3B), Marwin Gonzalez (3B), Jeff Keppinger (1B), Manny Machado (3B), Donnie Murphy (3B), Yamaico Navarro (OF), Jean Segura (SS), Nick Swisher (1B), Ryan Wheeler (3B).

Nearing new position eligibility

The following players are within two games of earning new position eligibility: Jeff Baker (8 games played at 2B), Yuniesky Betancourt (8 games played at 3B), Steve Clevenger (9 games played at 1B), Jason Donald (8 games played at SS), Yan Gomes (8 games played at 3B), Adeiny Hechavarria (9 games played at 3B), Elliot Johnson (9 games played at 2B), Munenori Kawasaki (8 games played at 2B), Jayson Nix (8 games played at 2B), Drew Sutton (8 games played at 2B), Chad Tracy (9 games played at 1B), Mark Trumbo (8 games played at 3B), Justin Turner (8 games played at SS), Omar Vizquel (9 games played at SS), Brett Wallace (8 games played at 3B), Ben Zobrist (9 games played at SS).

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