ROTISSERIE: A Spring training stat that (still) matters

When Rotisserie Baseball Founding Father Daniel Okrent was devising his new baseball game, he tested several statistical categories to determine which combination came the closest to matching real baseball. In an interview published in USA Today Baseball Weekly in 1999, Okrent said, “I agree that, in reality, stolen bases aren't all that important, but for some peculiar mathematical reason adding them improved the statistical correlation between Rotisserie and real baseball."

Despite the recent decline in stolen bases in the American League, the category is still important (arguably more so) to fantasy players, as now the smaller total is spread across the same number of teams in your league, tightening the competition for points in the standings. One of the tools that has been recommended in the past is analysis of spring training Stolen Base Opportunities (SBO%), against the last three years of regular season MLB team results. This updated article will link back to the original research, in the context of the current stolen base situation.

The Three-Year Model

Using the same approach described by Bill Macey in the original article, here are the comparisons of spring training 2017 SBO% (through games of March 26) with the teams’ average SBO% over the past three years.

AL   ST    ST17 14-16
Tm   SB%   SBO%  SBO%  Diff
===  ===  ===== ===== =====
LAA  69%  21.1%  7.4% 13.7%
BAL  90%  12.1%  4.1%  7.9%
TEX  64%  18.0% 10.3%  7.7%
CHW  62%  14.2%  8.4%  5.9%
TOR  54%  12.1%  6.5%  5.6%
SEA  86%  13.6%  8.2%  5.4%
BOS  60%  10.6%  6.5%  4.1%
NYY  85%  10.2%  7.6%  2.6%
HOU  81%  13.6% 11.6%  2.0%
KC   81%  12.8% 11.5%  1.3%
CLE  60%  10.2%  9.4%  0.8%
OAK  65%   7.0%  6.6%  0.4%
MIN  57%   8.8%  8.7%  0.1%
TAM  63%   7.5%  7.9% -0.4%
DET  82%   7.3%  8.3% -0.9%

NL   ST    ST17 14-16
Tm   SB%   SBO%  SBO%  Diff
===  ===  ===== ===== =====
STL  65%  13.4%  6.0%  7.4%
SD   53%  15.2% 10.5%  4.7%
WAS  78%  12.5%  8.3%  4.2%
COL  67%  12.0%  9.0%  3.1%
SF   63%  10.4%  7.4%  3.0%
ATL  65%  10.4%  7.9%  2.5%
PIT  59%  12.3% 10.0%  2.2%
MIL  57%  13.5% 12.0%  1.5%
CHC  50%   9.0%  7.9%  1.1%
LA   63%   7.5%  8.0% -0.4%
MIA  68%   7.3%  7.7% -0.5%
NYM  43%   5.1%  6.5% -1.4%
ARI  79%   9.2% 10.8% -1.6%
CIN  72%  10.4% 13.1% -2.7%
PHI  90%   7.1%  9.9% -2.8%

The above table indicates a possible shift in American League philosophies, with most teams running more this year in the spring than they have averaged over the past few years. (Of course, BAL probably could not have run any less than they did after a historic low stolen base total in 2016.)  As noted in the original research, teams tend to run more frequently in the spring than they do during the regular season. A look above at the spring stolen base success rates (SB%) against an 80% standard bears this out, and suggests that many of these teams may be less aggressive on the basepaths once the regular season starts (for fear of "running into outs"). Here BAL, SEA, NYY and WAS look like particularly good bets to continue running more in the 2017 regular season than in the recent past, based on their spring training success.

Comparing Spring Training to Regular Season

The table above also shows a very wide range of spring training SBO% values, so it seems we should also look at how well the model correlated to the actual results in 2016, as we extrapolate to 2017.

AL     ST16   2016   ST17
Tm     SBO%   SBO%   SBO%
===   =====  =====  =====
LAA   13.6%   7.5%  21.1%
TEX   16.5%   9.7%  18.0%
CHW   10.3%   8.0%  14.2%
HOU   11.0%  10.4%  13.6%
SEA   13.0%   5.7%  13.6%
KC     9.1%  11.2%  12.8%
TOR    9.7%   5.3%  12.1%
BAL    8.6%   2.4%  12.1%
Avg   10.0%   7.5%  11.9%
BOS    8.1%   6.8%  10.6%
CLE   12.9%  11.4%  10.2%
NYY    9.4%   6.7%  10.2%
MIN    9.5%   8.8%   8.8%
TAM    4.3%   7.8%   7.5%
DET    7.8%   5.9%   7.3%
OAK    6.4%   5.5%   7.0%

NL     ST16   2016   ST17
Tm     SBO%   SBO%   SBO%
===   =====  =====  =====
SD     7.8%  13.4%  15.2%
MIL   14.1%  16.5%  13.5%
STL   16.0%   4.4%  13.4%
WAS   13.1%  11.1%  12.5%
PIT   12.5%  10.2%  12.3%
COL    9.8%   7.1%  12.0%
ATL    5.4%   7.5%  10.4%
SF     8.6%   7.4%  10.4%
CIN   14.2%  13.8%  10.4%
Avg   10.9%   9.1%  10.4%
ARI   13.4%  11.9%   9.2%
CHC   14.6%   6.5%   9.0%
LA     7.9%   5.0%   7.5%
MIA    6.5%   6.7%   7.3%
PHI   11.2%  10.8%   7.1%
NYM    8.8%   4.3%   5.1%

Teams that ran more in the 2016 regular season than they did in 2016 spring training, and are now running more in 2017 spring training than they did in 2016 spring training, seem to be good bets to target for steals. KC and TAM in the American League, and SD, ATL and MIA fit this scenario, and players on these teams could have additional stolen base upside. Note that in the AL, every team except CLE, MIN and DET ran more in spring training 2017 than in spring 2016, another sign that the stolen base gap between the leagues could narrow in 2017.

A few other interesting comparisons appear. SEA, STL and CHC ran a great deal in 2016 spring training, and then essentially stopped running in the regular season. Both STL and CHC ran less in 2017 spring training as well, so there may be a philosophical shift on those teams that could suppress some of their 2017 running. On the other hand, SEA continued to run in spring training this year just as they did last year, perhaps validating the expectation that new acquisitions Jarrod Dyson (OF, SEA) and Jean Segura (SS, SEA) will demonstrate the stated change of philosophy toward speed in the Pacific Northwest.

Finally, ARI shows the biggest drop in spring training SBO% from 2016 to 2017, reflecting the non-running minor league tendencies of new ARI manager Torey Lovullo. This should come as no surprise to those who attended the March 2017 First Pitch Forums and augurs stolen base declines in the desert, most notably for Paul Goldschmidt (1B, ARI), who has not yet attempted a stolen base in 2017 spring training.

Looking at a Player Level

It can be instructive to take a deeper look at the teams showing the biggest SBO% increases in Spring Training versus the recent three years, to see if the gains are coming from new acquisitions or from organic growth across the roster, as we try to determine if the increase will hold into the regular season. Here is a brief look at the top 2017 SBO% spring training gainers.

LAA: 11 players with at least two SB so far, led by new arrivals Cameron Maybin (OF, LAA), Ben Revere (OF, LAA) and Eric Young Jr. (OF, LAA) with four each. However, several of those other players are unlikely to stick on the major league roster.

BAL:  Led by Rule 5 draftee Aneury Tavarez (OF, BAL) with eight steals, new arrival Craig Gentry (OF, BAL) with seven, and returnee Joey Rickard (OF, BAL) with five. All are likely bench or late inning replacements that could run when called upon.

TEX: 12 steals by Delino Deshields Jr. (OF, TEX) pictured above, with multiple paths to playing time highlighted in this related essay.

CHW: Rookie Jacob May (OF, CHW) has four steals, then a large group with two each. May was only successful 70% of the time in the minors during 2015-16, so temper expectations.

TOR: Lots of guys with one or two steals; expect no major changes in organizational philosophy.

SEA: Six players with three or more steals each, including the afore-mentioned Dyson and Segura plus new arrivals Mitch Haniger (OF, SEA) and Taylor Motter (UT, SEA).

STL: Bench OF Thomas Pham (OF, STL) leads with four spring steals; Cuban signee Jose Adolis Garcia (OF, STL) has three, and new arrival Dexter Fowler (OF, STL) has two, demonstrating the overall deceleration in STL.

SD: Holdovers Wil Myers (1B, SD), Travis Jankowski (OF, SD) & Cory Spangenberg (2B, SD) combine for eight steals total, then lots of names with single steals. Allen Cordoba (SD, SS) also has three steals, but has not played above low Single-A ball.

WAS: Trea Turner (2B, WAS) and Michael Taylor (OF, WAS) each have six steals, while new arrival Adam Eaton (OF, WAS), ticketed for a lower spot in the lineup, has two to date.

A few of the teams above (LAA, CHW, STL) have padded their increased spring training SBO% with players unlikely to see significant stolen base attempts in the majors this year. However, those off-season signings in Anaheim along with the named players in BAL, TEX, SEA, and WAS can be counted on to deliver steals corresponding to their playing time allotment, and other players on those same teams could also chip in with a few extra if the team opportunities are spread around further.

Stolen bases continue to matter in fantasy baseball, and are one of the few stats where organizational and managerial decisions have significant impact. This analysis has hopefully provided some targeted situations for you to explore and exploit while seeking an edge in this tightened category in your upcoming drafts. 

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.