2023 Fantasy Baseball Trends: Stolen Bases are Back

by Ryan Kirksey
How Rule Changes Affect Stolen Bases for Fantasy Baseball

Welcome to the first installment of the 2023 Fantasy Baseball Trends column. Before the season starts in a couple of days, we are looking at why stolen bases are back and what to expect in fantasy for the coveted stat.

Let's dig into 2023 Fantasy Baseball Trends: Stolen Bases are Back!

We all know that Major League Baseball implemented significant changes to the game ahead of the 2023 baseball season. So far, we have heard (and seen) a lot of anecdotal evidence about the pitch clock and its impact on hitters and pitchers. We have seen batters reacting positively to the ban on infield shifts, only to have teams creatively find ways to get around it. There also appears to be a turning of the tide in a very specific aspect of the fantasy game: stolen bases.

The combination of slightly bigger bases for 2023 plus a new rule that limits pick-off attempts to two per base runner has allowed teams to test the theory that stolen bases will be easier to come by in 2023. We will examine what is different about these

How do these rule changes affect our fantasy baseball planning for 2023? Let's look at some data and find out.

2023 Fantasy Baseball Spring Training Trends: Stolen Bases are Back

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I would like to start off with a very simple chart. This table shows the number of teams that had at least 30 successful stolen base attempts during Spring Training for the last 10 years.

This season, 10 teams have at least 30 successful stolen bases during Spring Training, a number we have not seen in MLB for at least 10 years. In fact, you have to go back to 2009 to find a season where there are at least nine teams with 30 stolen bases during Spring. MLB has kept Spring Training data since 2006 and 2023 is the first instance of 10 teams achieving at least 30 stolen bases.

To give you some more context, three teams this Spring Training (the Giants, Reds, and Athletics) have more steals than the Minnesota Twins had during the entire 2022 season. Teams like the Yankees, Cubs, and Rays, all with young, speedy players also populate the top ranks of steals this spring.

The 10 teams especially stand out against the last three seasons when there was a combined one team that reached that threshold in the past three Spring Trainings combined.

Why are these teams stealing more this spring than ever before? It is directly correlated to the rules put in place by Major League Baseball.

What Specific Changes Will Lead to More Stolen Bases in 2023?

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Back in December, our incomparable Dap Scout wrote a comprehensive piece about all of the rule changes and how each one of them could impact the stolen base totals in 2023. He cites work by J.J. Cooper that looks at the specific changes that also happened in the Minor Leagues thanks to increased base sizes and limited pick-off rules. That research found that teams were stealing more bases overall, but the success rate was not significantly changed by the larger target for base stealers.

What are those rules and how does it impact batters moving forward? There are a lot of ways.

Specifically, first, second and third base are now 18 inches square instead of 15 inches square. That's a 20% increase meaning almost two inches on each side of the base for a runner to grab. The distance between first and second base, therefore, is reduced by 4.5 inches (3 inches on the field side of first base and 1.5 inches all the way around second base). While the prompt here from MLB was about player safety, they know it will entice teams to steal more, adding some action back into the games that have become so focused on the three true outcomes.

In addition, pitchers get two step-offs or pick-offs per batter. Any additional attempt results in a balk. Imagine then if a pitcher uses their two "disengagements" and is forced to throw a pitch next. The runner on first or second can get a huge jump from the second a pitcher begins their wind-up.

What Does This Mean for Our Fantasy Teams?

What we saw in the minor leagues jives with what we saw in Spring Training this season.  A lot of rookies and near-rookies found themselves near the top of the stolen base charts this spring. Players like Zac Veen, Anthony Volpe, and Bryce Johnson were getting long looks from the big clubs to see if they were ready.

We also saw players steal a lot of bases who you might expect to steal a lot of bases. Corbin Carroll, Jose Siri, Esteury Ruiz, and CJ Abrams all were within the top-20 base stealers over the last five weeks. What you don't see are players like Spencer Torkelson, for example, attempting a lot of steals. Among first basemen, Torkelson had the seventh-highest sprint speed at the position last season but attempted just one steal (and was caught that one time). Wouldn't he be a good candidate to give a few steals a try?

We did not see a trend emerge where teams deployed their borderline fast guys to try a bunch of steals to see if they could now make it. Rather, they just told their excellent speedsters to try and steal even more. With a couple of small advantages working in their favor, the best base stealers around should get more green lights while the non-stealers and borderline cases will likely stay close to the bag if the spring evidence holds.

Conclusion

You can keep drafting the Trea Turners, Jake McCarthys and Cedric Mullins of the world with confidence that they will steal as many, if not more, bases in 2023. But I would not recommend grabbing a guy like Carlos Correa or Paul Goldschmidt just because they have had strong stolen base seasons in the past and you think that those days are returning.

The rich in stolen bases are about to get richer, so it's even more essential than ever to find a place on your roster for one or more of them. Stolen bases are back and they might be here to stay this time.


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