Speed is known to peak early in a player’s baseball development, with the highest stolen base totals of a player’s career arriving during his early 20s. This causes a significant amount of turnover amongst the yearly SB leaderboard, as it’s rare for a player to maintain elite speed for very long. However, there are always specimens who manage to steal a healthy dose into their 30s but eventually, everyone succumbs to father time. Jacoby Ellsbury is the latest player to drop off from elite SB status after being a mainstay on yearly lists in the past. For 2016, these are the 10 players most likely to lead the league in stolen bases.
10. Jarrod Dyson (Kansas City Royals)
Expected to finally land a full-time starting gig following the departure of Ben Zobrist to free agency, Jarrod Dyson has as much upside as anybody in the league when it comes to stealing bases. Dyson has stolen 96 bases over the last three seasons, despite sporadic playing time and a woeful on-base percentage (OBP) when he does get a chance to play. With a full season of at-bats, Dyson realistically has a 60-SB pace as a precedent set over his yearly data. Unfortunately, Dyson suffered an oblique strain during Spring Training and is poised to miss a large chunk of April. When he returns, it’s possible that young Reymond Fuentes may have played well enough to force a platoon in right field. Manager Ned Yost has declined the opportunity for more playing time for Dyson in the past and it should not be assumed that Dyson is guaranteed those starts this time around. Plate discipline may be too much for him to overcome, but if Dyson ever gets a full season of plate appearances, his stolen base total would likely impress.
9. Starling Marte (Pittsburgh Pirates)
Starling Marte remains in his prime and should still have at least one more season of elite base running totals. In fact, he would place significantly higher on this list if it weren’t for the current makeup of the Pirates impacting projections for Marte’s final season line. With the Pirates inclined to bat Andrew McCutchen second in the batting order, Starling Marte has been asked to bat cleanup, which is the role he’s likely best suited for at this point. With the departure of Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates don’t really have a true slugger in the middle of their lineup. In response, they have smartly decided to place their highest OBP players at the top of the lineup and allow Marte to drive in runs while batting cleanup. While this is likely a wash for his overall fantasy value, if he continues to bat cleanup, Marte will not run as often as he has in the past.
8. Charlie Blackmon (Colorado Rockies)
After stealing 43 bases last season, Blackmon won’t be sneaking up on anybody this season and is now certainly viewed as one of the biggest SB threats in the game. The 29 year-old still has some doubters, and his age puts him right on the bubble of potentially losing his elite speed, but the smart money remains on him having at least one more monster SB season. Blackmon is allowed to run wild for the rebuilding Rockies; he has the green light on the base paths at any opportunity he wishes, thus making him a near-guarantee for 25 SB. Whether he can fulfill his upside and reach 50 SB is the question, but with that safe floor comes a great certainty that he will be among the SB leaders for 2016 when all is said and done.
7. Delino DeShields (Texas Rangers)
Delino DeShields burst onto the scene in 2015, stealing 25 bases despite only receiving 425 at-bats. Now locked in as the Rangers’ everyday center fielder and leadoff hitter, DeShields has legitimate 50 SB upside. In fact, there’s no telling how high DeShields’ upside truly is since he stole 101 bases back in the minors during 2012. If one thing is certain, it’s that DeShields has blazing speed, something that is now extremely scarce in the Major Leagues. That being said, DeShields seems to be undervalued this fantasy season, with many owners still discarding him due to his Rule 5 origins. Surely, the Astros are kicking themselves for exposing DeShields to that Rule 5 draft, as DeShields has the potential for major growth on top of an already impressive rookie season. DeShields is set to have the green light and be allowed to make plays, where he will get to show off his amazing speed.
6. Jonathan Villar (Milwaukee Brewers)
A trendy sleeper this season, Jonathan Villar has 50 SB potential if given regular playing time. After flaming out in spectacular fashion with the Houston Astros, Milwaukee acquired the talented Villar in an underrated move. Trading for an inexpensive player such as Villar is a great example of a risk worth taking, as he has shown to have a very scarce tool called speed. There’s no doubting Villar’s speed, as most in the industry — including his detractors — agree that 50 steals are possible (and even likely) if Villar is given full playing time. However, the concern for Villar lies with with top prospect Orlando Arcia arriving in Milwaukee this summer. However, even if Arcia does get called up, this concern is overblown, as Villar could easily shift to third base where the underwhelming Aaron Hill resides, or to center field where a messy platoon currently exists. As long as Villar continues to produce, he will stay in the lineup.
5. Ben Revere (Washington Nationals)
Ben Revere has averaged over 30 stolen bases since becoming a Major League regular with the Twins in 2011. That’s an incredible streak, as longevity in elite stolen base numbers is often difficult for any player to maintain. Revere is only 27-years-old, meaning he should be expected to continue posting elite SB totals for several more seasons. When his career is over, Revere could very well be discussed as one of the best base stealers of his generation. That’s very high praise for a player that continues to have many detractors but fortunately, the statistics back up his propensity for stealing bases. With a career-high 49 stolen bases in 2014, there should be no doubting Revere’s ability to steal. Washington is a great home for him and it’s very possible Revere breaks the 50 SB barrier this season after years of consistently high totals.
4. Billy Burns (Oakland Athletics)
The speedy Billy Burns arrived as a full-time player in Oakland last summer and posted a tantalizing 26 stolen bases. Assured regular playing time this season as well as the leadoff spot should help Burns run wild for a team that will be forced to manufacture runs. Oakland’s offense is not the deepest in the league and also lacks top-end power, meaning the Athletics will be looking to run early and run often. Not many players in the league will have as many opportunities as Burns to run this season, and he is well up to the task after posting prodigious SB totals in the minors. In 2014, Burns stole 51 bases in 91 games at one level in the minors and in 2013 he stole 54 at the same rate. It’s not a pipe dream that Burns could explode and hit his potential of 60 SB. While he is riskier than others, there are very few players that carry his upside for leading the league in SB.
3. Jose Altuve (Houston Astros)
Jose Altuve has recently become more of a five-tool threat and one of the overall best players in the league rather than a speed specialist. However, Altuve can still burn up the base paths with the best of them. Only 25-years-old, Altuve’s 2014 campaign that included 56 SB may still have further room for growth and a 60 SB campaign is well within reach. Altuve gets on base at a far superior clip than his speed peers, giving him upside in a counting statistic such as stolen bases. Since Altuve is on the bases more often than others, he has more opportunities to run and less risk in his SB totals. Altuve is a force atop an impressive, young Astros lineup. There are very few (if any) players more exciting than the diminutive second baseman. Altuve is set to light the base paths on fire this season and has an excellent opportunity to lead the league in stolen bases.
2. Dee Gordon (Miami Marlins)
“Sweet Dee” broke out in a big way during 2014 with 64 SB and followed that up with a 2015 campaign that saw growth in many areas, albeit a slight drop in stolen bases with a still highly impressive count of 58. Those 58 steals led the entire league last season and Gordon is looking to repeat his feat as the SB leader. With his contact rate rising and his OBP following, Gordon is improving as a player. With improved plate discipline arrives further opportunities on the bases for steals. Gordon’s legs appear set for another 60 SB season and if his maturity continues beyond expectations, fans may be looking at a truly special season. Gordon has the talent to steal an almost limitless amount of bases; even 80 SB would not be absurd. For someone whose SB floor is also very safe, it’s no wonder he’s considered one of the best active stolen base threats in the Majors.
1. Billy Hamilton (Cincinnati Reds)
Billy Hamilton is the fastest player in the Major Leagues. He also hasn’t been able to hit a lick in the Majors, possessing a career .288 OBP through 1090 plate appearances. That total remains a small sample size as it represents less than two full years’ worth of data; however, it is generally safe to begin making assumptions about a player after that amount of plate appearances. Therefore, there’s a chance Billy Hamilton is not an everyday Major League player. Taking the focus away from his hitting, his base running is clearly extraordinary. Hamilton has averaged 56.5 SB the past two seasons despite seemingly never getting on base, and last season’s impressive 57 SB arrived in only 114 games. Even if Hamilton is unable to develop at the plate, he astoundingly remains the top candidate to lead the Majors in stolen bases. If Hamilton is ever able to simply approach league-average production at the plate, there is a realistic possibility the MLB could have its first 100 SB campaign since Vince Coleman’s 109 steals in 1987.