2021 Fantasy Baseball Stolen Base Targets

by Tyler Thompson
Who Benefits Most From Banning the Shift in 2023?

I'm happy to present the 2021 Fantasy Baseball Stolen Base Targets that I have been personally targeting in my drafts/leagues.

There is no worse feeling in your rotisserie draft rooms than knowing you are behind on a key category. Usually, that's saves for me as I can never psyche myself up to take relievers early. However, stolen bases can freak people out too upon realizing that those top-tier picks aren't really speed-threats. You then find yourself scrambling to try and make up for steals rather than improving your team as a whole. This overreaction can really help you botch a draft.

To combat this, I've concocted a fairly simple strategy. Instead of drafting that big-name empty-steals guy and hoping it magically fixes the problem, I've found it more plausible to snag two-or-three guys with above-average stolen base opportunities. If you pick the right guys, you'll also not suffer in the other categories.

Rather than my normal rambling, allow me to offer my strategy, prerequisites, and six targets of mine when I'm falling behind on steals. All projections below are provided by Steamer projections. All average draft position (ADP) figures come from NFBC.

2021 Fantasy Baseball Stolen Base Targets

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The Process

While I don't always come up with perfect hypotheses, it's important to fail in order to create iterations to the final product. Or at least that's what the little voice in my head tells me. Here are each of the routes I took to finalize my stolen base targets for the 2021 draft season:

  • Team Context: For starters, I wanted to analyze the teams here and see if there were any trends. I did this by looking at stolen base (SB) attempts per game, baserunning (BsR) metrics, sprint speed, and the winning percentage of each team in 2019 and 2020. Then, I plotted them each against each other to see what was up. I will say, I didn't find any trends that were perfect here. In general, though, teams that had higher team BsR numbers did have higher SB attempts per game. If the team had a losing record in addition to this, attempts also went up.
  • Category Comparison: It seems like everyone and their dog tells you "home runs (HR) can be found anywhere". But, is this true? Well, it depends on relativity. I compared home runs to stolen bases among the top 200 hitters by ADP and found that both homers and steals had similar trendlines. However, the lower quartile (25th percentile) for homers was 15 while it was 3 for steals. And, because home runs are more correlated to runs/RBI than stolen bases, this tells me that you could be digging yourself a deeper hole if you're aiming for empty steals in the middle rounds.
  • Definition: Finally, how do I define a "stolen base target"? While everyone sees that and thinks "25+ steal guy", I find that unrealistic. Like I said before, I believe in getting multiple above-average guys for SB while not losing sight of my other categories. So, let's set a realistic goal of 15 stolen bases, which is above the upper quartile (11) for the top 200 hitters by ADP. I also wanted to focus on players outside of the top 100 by ADP.

Alright, I think I've covered everything. Let's meet our contestants!

The Targets

Byron Buxton, OF, Minnesota Twins

110.553125180.258/0.31230.0 fps (99th)

Buxton is a wild card in drafts because of his high range of outcomes. One can see that clearly just from his first 432 games in six years.

In those first six years, Buxton has produced one steal every 24 plate appearances (PA), which is fantastic for fantasy. That's a 25-SB pace for a 600-PA season. I don't think we need to worry about his SB opportunities decreasing either. The guy is a 99th percentile runner with an 87% success rate on stealing bases. Minnesota's not going to take that out of his game. I would expect 20 steals to be his floor in a full season. His elite defense in centerfield also keeps him on the field.

The two key factors are durability and plate discipline. There has been news out of camp that he's bulked up over the offseason. Perhaps that will help him conquer those past durability issues. I also don't want to take too much stock into the "best shape of their life" narratives. Since I'm not sure projecting injuries is in my wheelhouse, I'm going to project ~130 games to be safe. While he's only surpassed 100 games in a season once, there have been some weird cases and I want to believe he can make it happen this year.

Those missed games do lead to some wonky data for his BB/K/BABIP ratios over his career. In 2020, he ranked in the 85th percentile or better in exit velocity, hard-hit percentage, barrel percentage, and expected slugging percentage, but ran a BABIP of just 0.241. A 39-game sample will do that to ya! I would expect that BABIP to improve back closer to the 0.290 to 0.320 range, giving him a batting average higher than most projections would venture to say. That walk rate is crucial though. If he can return to his career rate of 6.1% with his annual K% improvements, we could see a lovely OBP jump (thus, more opportunities for steals).

TL;DR I'm loving Buxton outside the top 100 picks with his team context, power-speed upside, and potential to cut his ADP in half going into 2022. That ADP might be a little high for a high-risk, high-reward asset, but shooters shoot!

Tommy Pham, OF, San Diego Padres

137.256520150.267/0.36428.2 fps (84th)

One of my favorite names on this list, Pham has a huge opportunity to bounce back to his 20/20 ways here in 2021. I don't believe this will take as much convincing as Buxton did either.

In a down year, Pham put up a 0.312 OBP in 31 games in 2020. That's right around the projected OBP for all the other players in the article. He hasn't had a month with an OBP below 0.312 since May of 2018. There's nothing in his career splits that tell me that anything's wrong either. I'm chalking the 2020 season up to a bad month of baseball (well, bad for him). Steamer projections are right there with me, projecting a 0.364 OBP (!) with a healthy 0.812 SLG.

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Oh, by the way, the Padres love to run. They were 2nd in stolen base attempts per game despite having a mediocre team BsR. Additionally, according to RosterResource, Pham is slotted in the 5-hole at the moment which is actually a nice spot in the lineup for steals. I've read multiple books that have tested this theory and also always keep this interesting article in the back of my mind from a few years ago. I could also see the Padres flipping Pham and Trent Grisham based on the handedness of the pitcher, which could give Pham a boost in a lefty-heavy division.

Honestly, there's not much more to say here. I believe Pham to be a fantastic buy low at his current ADP and return more value than many hitters ahead of him with similar profiles.

Andres Gimenez, SS, Cleveland Baseball Team

168.949412210.259/0.31328.9 fps (94th)

Here's where the convincing will start to get trickier.

I actually like whoever wins the playing time between Gimenez and Amed Rosario as the stolen base target here. Right now, the edge seems to be given to Gimenez as Rosario has already started trying out at other positions at spring training camp. Gimenez is also getting drafted as if he's going to get everyday at-bats as seen by that 169 ADP.

Gimenez is fearless on the basepaths, almost to a fault. While I do like the willingness to run, Cleveland may try to be selective with his opportunities in 2021. Many people point to Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor as a positive for Gimenez, but they were efficient runners. Both successfully converted steals at an 80% clip. Gimenez, on the other hand, had 93 steals in 139 attempts across all minor league levels, good for a 67% success rate. He was 8 for 9 on SB attempts last year in just 132 plate appearances, though, so maybe he's just a 22-year-old figuring it out? This will be an interesting development because he can absolutely fly with that 94th percentile sprint speed.

The rest of his profile is good enough to throw into your middle infielder spot if necessary. There's double-digit HR pop in the bat along with an AVG/OBP that doesn't kill you. I'd call him a medium-risk, medium-reward kind of player that has a fine ADP. If he can add 20+ steals, look out!

Leody Taveras, OF, Texas Rangers

197.852011190.246/0.31329.1 fps (96th)

The news out there is trying to scare you into thinking that Eli White is battling Taveras for reps. However, the Rangers want Taveras in centerfield with his great defensive play and should have a secure job to start the year at least. This has a similar feel to Gimenez for me where Taveras will get the first nod and they'll go from there. This does have shades of Delino DeShields from a few years ago, but there are many reasons to like Taveras at his ADP.

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I think most of the projection systems make sense. The key factor for Taveras will be that K-rate. I think it'll be lower than the 32% like it was in the shortened 2020 season. But, how much lower? The projection systems out there have him for a 23% to 25% strikeout rate, which would be honestly great for me. Something scares me about that though because that's a pretty stark change. Overall, if he can keep that BB/K greater than 0.35, holy moly I'm in.

I also believe the projections are low on his SB potential. He's only got a slightly higher minor league success rate than Gimenez, but he's on a team that should be running wild in 2021. The team context here includes a likely losing record and rank of 4th in SB attempts per game in 2020 (1st in 2019). Let them fly, Texas!

All things considered, Taveras is a perfectly fine option at his ADP although he does give me a little more worry than the other options I've mentioned.

Raimel Tapia, OF, Colorado Rockies

239.155710140.276/0.32328.2 fps (82nd)

This isn't a sexy pick and I know I'll get some eye-rolls here, but Tapia could be an underrated player coming into 2021.

The narrative has been "he's sacrificing power for average". What I'm wondering aloud is, if it was a concerted effort and he succeeded, why couldn't he also make strides this year to improve that ISO/SLG and really take that next step? He's entering his age-27 season in the best hitting environment in baseball. The projections like him to go 10/15 with a slash that will help your ratios. If you squint though, there is a little more juice to squeeze here.

As mentioned with Taveras, the Rockies also fall into the category of "good team context" with their likely losing record and frequency of steals (6th in 2020). Tapia had eight steals in just 51 games last year after collecting just nine steals in his 138 games in 2019 (career success rate of 78%). Plus, as the projected leadoff hitter, the opportunity for steals should be high and the runs should easily follow. What we are looking for here is for Tapia to continue that improved BB/K and O-Swing% while also recapturing that ISO of ~0.140 from 2019.

What I'm trying to say here is that you can do worse with an ADP of 240. You're potentially getting three-category production with AVG/OBP, SB, and runs. I'd be interested in him as a fifth outfielder or platoon at the utility spot. Plus, the draft capital is such that you can monitor his play early and drop him for a higher upside play early on if needed.

Nick Senzel, OF, Cincinnati Reds

253.752117150.253/0.31929.3 fps (97th)

If you are skeptical about Buxton but like the skill set, give Senzel a strong look! With an ADP that's about 12 rounds later than Buxton's, this pick could ooze value right out of the gate. Senzel is my other option for "favorite" on this list with Pham considering the potential and ADP.

Right now, the Reds have labeled Senzel as their full-time centerfielder. While that can sound a little fishy, remember that Senzel has also played a variety of positions coming up through the minors (notably 2B and 3B). Hell, the Reds are even considering moving Eugenio Suarez to shortstop just for poops/gigs. The Reds don't care how the fielding lineup looks, they just want to hit! As long as Senzel hits, he plays.

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So let's talk about that. His play has mostly suffered due to injuries, which makes the Buxton comparison even more reasonable. It's tough to evaluate his major league career on just 127 games anyway, let alone adding in the injury history. I'm also not willing to label him "injury-prone" coming into his age-25 season. Let's play along here a little bit then and imagine a 140 game season. Using his career stats, that's a 15 HR and 18 SB pace, which constitutes a nice floor for fantasy value. On the upside, I'm comfortable saying he could put up a 25/20 type of season with a useful triple-slash as well.

I like Senzel a few rounds before his ADP, which is low because of the offseason noise. I'm not willing to be an ADP-watcher here; I want to have a quick draw on Senzel in the mid-teen rounds.

The Wildcard

Jarren Durran, OF, Boston Red Sox

I won't list his projections off here - most have him playing just 30 to 60 games. However, looking at the Steamer600 projections, which gives stats for each player assuming they have 600 plate appearances, Durran's outlook looks pretty tasty for fantasy with 9 HR and 25 SB to go along with a 0.265/0.316/0.388 triple-slash. While the power isn't great, this is a free agent pickup or late-round flier in your deeper leagues so it's not as impactful. That stat-line would certainly be comparable to the aforementioned Andres Gimenez and we see where he's getting drafted.

Now, I'm not saying he's going to have 600 plate appearances. Quite the contrary, in fact. But, Boston may be willing to give the guy a try sooner rather than later though considering they aren't really deep with outfield options. Oh, and by the way, he's absolutely raking this spring and not making it easy for Boston to send him down. He's certainly a name to keep on your radar if you're looking for an SB boost mid-year! (Here's another article from our site discussing Duran's potential.)

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