Fantasy Baseball: The current state of stolen bases through seven weeks

The 2023 MLB season will go down as the year when a bunch of rules changed, with many of those rule changes made explicitly to add more stolen bases to the game. Mission accomplished. Teams are averaging .70 steals per game through about seven weeks, the highest mark since 1999. It’s a sizable jump from recent years; the per-team average lagged between .46 and .52 over the previous eight seasons.

Of course, most offensive things are up — batting average has a five-point jump, OBP has increased by nine points, slugging is up 14 points, and there’s been a modest power jump, too. To be fair, some of those stats need to be reevaluated once the season is over, once the summer effect on baseball and offense can be measured.

Today, though, we’re going to focus on the steals. Who’s running more, who’s running less? What’s the story on the bases? Let’s count down some stolen base winners and stolen base losers.

Stolen base winners

Wander Franco, Rays

Tampa Bay is the story of the year through roughly a quarter of the season, and Franco’s breakout is at the forefront. He’s currently the No. 9 player in 5x5 banked value, posting a .292-26-7-23-14 line. The first four stats come as no surprise — we’ve often thought of Franco as a potential batting champion, and he was always going to have power upside. But after watching Franco steal just 10 bases in his first 153 games, it’s a jolt to see him at 14 swipes through his first 43 starts this year.

Tampa Bay was 11th in steals last year. This year, the Rays are second. They don’t take what the defense gives them; they take what they want. Six players on the roster have four or more steals.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates might be able to stick in this NL Central race all season, and I’m thrilled about it. It has been too long, Pittsburgh. The Pirates have one winning record in the past seven years. They’ve lost more than 100 games in two straight seasons.

The Bucs offense isn’t fueling this resurgence; the Pirates are just 21st in runs and 15th in OPS. But Pittsburgh is trying to run to daylight. The Pirates lead the majors in steals (50) and times caught stealing (17).

The levels of success are all over the map. Bryan Reynolds (6-for-6) is picking his spots well, and even 37-year-old Carlos Santana is 4-for-4 as a thief. Ji Hwan Bae is still learning how to use his elite speed, but a 14-for-18 ledger is good enough for him to keep the green light.

Flipside, Ke’Bryan Hayes (6-for-11) is helping fantasy managers with his running but not the Pirates. Rodolfo Castro and Connor Joe are both under 50% when they go for a base.

Esteury Ruiz, Athletics

For the most part, there’s no "there, there" when you look at the Oakland lineup card. The Athletics are near the bottom in most offensive categories. Start with runs (26th), average (26th), OPS (23rd) — oh, it’s too depressing.

But the A’s do have a pair of top-40 fantasy players. Brent Rooker has been a glorious post-hype story, and then there’s Ruiz, who’s taking control of the leadoff spot.

Ruiz is batting .277, a plus average, and 19 runs is passable, though not great. He isn't a power guy (one homer), though he has been timely with his hitting, driving in 22 runs. But the true driver of his value is the 20 steals. A river runs through it.

Ruiz’s minor-league profile was always interesting: .285/.363/.457 with 243 steals in 521 games. This looks like a story that’s going to stick. It’s sad to see Oakland in the process of losing its team, but at least Ruiz and Rooker give you a couple of reasons to stop by the park one more time.

Stolen base losers

Texas Rangers

I’m not here to criticize the Rangers. They’re second in the majors in runs, a fun team. Marcus Semien was a third-round steal. Jonah Heim is having a breakout season. Imagine how much fun things could get when Corey Seager returns.

But the Rangers aren’t running like last year. Texas ranked first in steals last season; this year, they’re an ordinary 16th.

Semien is doing his part, as he always does. He’s 7-for-8. I love talking about this guy. Check his stats over the past calendar year: .277-125-33-125-30. Pretty, pretty good.

Adolis Garcia is the player to watch. Last year, he conked 27 homers and stole 25 bases, offsetting a low walk rate and an ordinary .250 average. This year, the pop has been tremendous (13 homers, .541 slugging, MLB-leading 46 RBI), but he has attempted only three stolen bases (all successful). Perhaps new manager Bruce Bochy wants his team to whack the ball around the park, not run around the bases.

Philadelphia Phillies

Among NL clubs, the Phillies are the biggest fallers in stolen-base rank. Last year, they were fifth in the majors in steals; this year, they’re 16th.

New acquisition Trea Turner has always been a pick-your-spots steals guy; he’s perfect this year on a modest five attempts. Kyle Schwarber took teams by surprise last year (10-for-11); this year, he hasn’t run once. And don’t blame the puny average. Schwarber’s OBP is down only 17 points. So often with stolen bases, it’s the will, not the skill.

At least catcher J.T. Realmuto runs the bases like a non-catcher. He’s 7-for-9, which helps make up for poor run production; even with a .304 average, he’s merely the C7 at the moment. Bryce Harper takes pride in his running and already has two bags; he swiped 24 combined the past two seasons. I still see a lot of upside with this offense.

Minnesota Twins

Maybe there wasn’t much to lose here, but I wanted to mention the Twins, who do not care for the running game. Last year, they ranked dead last in the majors. This year, they’re 29th. Target Field is not a sprinter’s track.

Just six years back, Byron Buxton was one of the most electric runners around. He stole 29 bases on 30 attempts that year. Buxton is more of a pick-your-spots guy these days; he has been caught only once in three years, but that has come with a modest 19 bags. He’s 4-for-4 this year. The Twins know how important it is to keep Buxton healthy; heck, he has been DH-only the entire season. Keep your franchise player in bubble wrap.

Maybe category juice can push Michael Taylor into the fantasy discussion. The average, no, it’s not pretty. He’s batting .231, and the .286 OBP looks even worse. But Taylor does have five homers and six steals, and his excellent defense helps offset the loss of Buxton’s glove.

And that’s about it for the fantasy-relevant Minnesota running game. Willi Castro has five bags, but he can’t hit at all. Jorge Polanco has one steal. The rest of the roster is stuck on zero, parked on first base.