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Grey Matter

Make sure you spend wisely when going for steals

Posted: Thursday March 31, 2005 3:39PM; Updated: Thursday March 31, 2005 4:47PM
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By Jason Grey, Special to SI.com

Carl Crawford
Carl Crawford hit .296 and scored 104 runs, in addition to swiping 59 bases in '04.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

One of my articles last season talked about the concept of getting burned by guys who have the majority of their value tied up in stolen bases.

We discussed the relative merits of Carl Crawford vs. Alex Sanchez, and why Crawford needed to be treated as a different kind of player, because he was on a different development curve. So while most pundits were playing it safe and saying to watch Crawford's performance levels regress to the mean (because that is a statistically low-risk thing to do when it comes to projections, and because his low OBP was giving people pause), I projected 60+ SBs and a $40+ season. I was off by one from my low stolen-base target, but he earned $41 in AL 4x4 and $43 in AL 5x5. At the same time the recommendation was not to buy Sanchez, and he wound up earning $15 because of injury.

It's natural to have skittish feelings about a certain group of players. Some people don't like to draft what they perceive to be one-category players. Some people don't like to spend a lot of money on starting pitching. Some people aren't fond of purchasing closers. The reasoning behind all of these is the same: they've been burned for big bucks before.

Personally, when I play, I tend to eschew saves at the draft unless they come at the right price. It all comes down to the risk/reward or price/performance ratio. Often, the money that a top closer goes for precludes his chances of making a profit, while exposing you to a large downside risk if he gets hurt. Obviously, there are some top closers who are bankable. But I find it's often more advantageous to go after the second- or third-tier guys and hope one works out, because you have to pay through the nose for the top-level guys, who, like stolen base specialists, are essentially one-category players. Sure, that one category is worth the same as every other category. But your expenditure in chasing that one category can have an adverse effect on your competitiveness elsewhere.

I started thinking about this more and more as it related to stolen-base specialists. Why wouldn't the same theory apply there? Would it not be better to be middle-of-the pack-competitive in stolen bases, by seeking out players that grab 10 bags or so here and there? It would seem that the marginal cost of each stolen base would make it a more economically feasible way of trying to be competitive in that category. After all, if I am hesitant to pursue one-category players in the pitching half of equation, doesn't it make sense on the hitting side, as well? Sure, you miss out on the Carl Crawfords by doing this, just as you miss out on the Eric Gagne's by eschewing closers. But you also don't have to suffer through the Gerald Youngs, Alex Coles, Roger Cedenos, a 2003 Andy Fox or a 2004 Alex Sanchez in doing so.

One leg injury (Sanchez) is all it takes for your investment to go down the tubes. Even if we're talking about players whose worth isn't tied up solely in stolen bases, like Ichiro, infield hits comprise a huge portion of batting average. A leg injury doesn't affect just steals, but also the ability to get on base. Sanchez, who has hit .287 and .322 the last two years, respectively, would be around the Mendoza line if his infield hits were removed from the equation. We're talking a complete destruction of any value; unlike a power hitter who can suffer an injury yet still be marginally effective, and make some contribution. If these stolen-base specialists suffer problems that reduce their speed significantly, they cease to contribute, period.

Look at Desi Relaford, a 20 stolen-base man in 2003, who suffered an early hamstring injury and went 5 for 9 in steals last season.

You might think by now that you know where the conclusion of this article is heading, and you'd be wrong. I am not afraid to continue to put my money into stolen-base specialists, whether they be a one-category player like Scott Podsednik; a one-and-a-half category player like Crawford, or a two-and-a-half category player like Ichiro or Juan Pierre.

And the key to the reason why was mentioned earlier in this article: price/performance ratio.

The thing is, everything I just said, owners are thinking. Why am I taking the risk when there are so many other guys who contribute across the board?

Unlike closers, where the top guys go for top dollar, there are enough people skittish enough about stolen-base specialists, that their price in an auction still puts you in a good position to earn a profit, or their draft position falls low enough that you're getting first-round value in the third round. You'll take that any day of the week. It always amazes me how far some of these specialists fall in straight drafts.

You already know Crawford's earnings from last year, and Pierre and Podsednik both earned more than $40. And you better believe that those guys were turning profits in most every league they were in. Even Sanchez, who was a $20-$25 player, still earned $15, so it wasn't as bad ad it could have been when he got hurt. Sure, every now and then you'll get burned (only 25 percent of hitters increase their stolen base totals each year), but you just get back up off the ground, chalk it up to the fact it happens sometimes, just like your ace pitcher getting hurt, and do it again, if the price is right.

The draft positions I see these types of guys going in and the prices I have seen them go for in preseason auctions indicate these players are still ripe for profit potential. Yes, the risks are higher, but you need to get profits somewhere if you want to win, and the Beltrans, and Abreus of the world are tough to turn a profit on. If you can deal with the higher level of risk here, and minimize it in other areas of your roster, you'll be in good shape.

The bottom line is that when Crawford, Pierre, and Podsednik are all projected to be in the Top 25 of dollar value earners in 12-team mixed play, the profit potential is too good to ignore.

Jason Grey is the publisher of Mastersball.com, a site dedicated to fantasy analysis, insight and opinion, and is a two-time Tout Wars Experts League champion.

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