It has been 15 years since the last 40-40 season by Alfonso Soriano. Since then, baseball has seen an uptick in home runs by stolen bases are becoming more and more a thing of the past. Long gone are the days of 100 stolen base seasons. Now if a team steals 100 bases in a year it’s seen as a risk. Maybe there is some truth to the idea that stolen bases don’t always lead to more value on the basepaths but in the 2019 season, seven of the top 10 teams in stolen bases were also in the top 10 in FanGraphs’ BsR value. Expand that out to 2015 from 2019, there were six teams in the top 10 in stolen bases also in the top 10 of BsR. There were also three teams, worth negative value on basepaths during that time in the top 10.
Stolen bases are devalued by Major League baseball teams, but are worth more now in fantasy baseball than ever before. Every baseball fan eagerly awaits to see the next 40-40 season. With potential changes in the baseball, home runs may go down but not at drastic levels. Keeping open the possibility of someone joining the club this year. To try and figure out which players are most likely to achieve this feat, I asked two simple questions. Does the player have the power to hit enough home runs, and the stolen base efficiency to be allowed to steal that many bases? With that in mind, here are five candidates to join the 40-40 club this year.
Ronald Acuña Jr.
If you were to ask most fantasy experts and baseball fans which player is most likely to join the 40-40 club, Ronald Acuña Jr. is likely at the top of that list. He was a few stolen bases shy of the feat back in 2019, hitting 41 home runs and stealing 37 bases. Acuña was caught stealing 9 times, giving him an 80% success rate on the year. Since 2018, he’s had an SB% of exactly 80%. That is the number teams are using as a baseline to allow players to steal. Individual teams might be more or less risk-averse than that.
Acuña stole fewer bases on a rate basis in 2020 but that might have been because of some struggles early and health reasons. Including the postseason, he stole 11 bases on the year and was only caught once. His sprint speed is in the top 3% of the league and has shown a willingness to run in the past. Most projections put him around 30 steals for the year but he can outdo those projections.
Those same projections put Acuña around 40 home runs. The new ball will possibly create some regression in the home run ability across the league. Since his debut, Acuña has hit 81 home runs, only three of them have been hit under 100 mph, with 20 of his home runs falling between 100 to 105 mph exit velocities. All this means to say is that if the ball is going to be deadened in 2021, it should not affect Acuña as much as it could affect other players as he hits the ball hard and hits the ball hard often. He has a lot of power and of all the names listed, I feel he is the most likely to join this club.
Let’s try and figure out what happened to Christian Yelich in 2020 in just a few sentences. The first step is fewer balls were put into play. Yelich’s plate discipline was much better with a career-low chase rate and a career-high walk rate. That’s good! He also had a career-high strikeout rate and whiff rate. That’s not good! Then when Yelich did make contact, the ball just wasn’t finding grass for him. His BABIP fell by 100 points from the previous year and 100 points off his career total. Yelich still hit the ball hard which is good and in a small sample season, he just didn’t get the full season to solve his strikeout problem. He was still on pace to hit 31 home runs over 650 plate appearances, and just hit 44 home runs in 2019, so he should still have the possibility of hitting 40 home runs.
The bigger question for Yelich is will he be stealing bases at an advanced rate from his 2019 season. That year he swiped 30 bags and was only caught stealing twice. He had the highest success rate on stolen bases among players who attempted at least 20 stolen bases. Yelich had quietly become a real stolen base threat but in 2020 he took steps back. He only stole four bases and got caught twice. Again, it was a weird year and Yelich probably didn’t want to run when he was struggling at the plate and derail his confidence by getting thrown out at the plate. I am not going to tell an MVP how he should approach his play in the field but if you draft Christian Yelich thinking he’s going to steal bases, that’s not a guarantee. I think he should be stealing bases and likely will steal more, but it’ll take an extreme outcome for him to steal 40+ bases this year.
Coming off another MVP caliber season and a World Series Championship, Mookie Betts is living large. He’s done everything there is to do on a baseball field in his career. Why not add to it by joining the 40-40 club?
Well, that would be a challenge for Mookie Betts. His career-high in home runs is 32 in 2018. He’s got good power, but maybe not enough to hit more than 40 in a year. Though it’s possible under an extreme outcome with the right type of baseball, Betts could do it. The problem is that the baseball is changing, and that could affect Betts more than the average player. Of Mookie’s 77 home runs in the past 3 years, 58 have been between 90 to 105 mph exit velocities. His quality of contact was also significantly worse in 2020 but that seems like an outlier. His launch angle remains the same and he can still square it up well, but those factors getting worse does work against him.
The good news is that if Betts’ power is there, the speed will be there too. Betts career-high in stolen bases is 30 but it seems like the Dodgers are more willing to run on the basepaths than the Red Sox. Including the postseason, Betts stolen 16 bags in 18 attempts. He matched his stolen base total from 2019 in about a third of the times on base to do so. Betts sprint speed is still in the top 15 percentile and set a career-high in his sprint speed in 2021. Mookie has also always been a great base stealer with 136 steals in 163 attempts. The Dodgers should let him run as much as he sees fit and in the World Series, they did just that. Most of Mookie’s concern comes from his bat, but the steals will be there for the former MVP.
Where Trevor Story is going to be playing in August of 2021 will help determine the likelihood that he makes this list. His best teammate was traded, and the rumors were, the Rockies were going to offer Story an extension but that has grown to be less likely by the day. If he is smart, he will look to move on from Colorado and go elsewhere but that will greatly affect his home run numbers.
Now, he could be like DJ LeMahieu and end up in a place like New York where even his low line drives will find ways to be home runs, but that’s not a given. Out of everyone on this list, Story is the one with the widest range of outcomes. He’s been at a roughly 35 home run per 650 PA pace the last three years. If he starts turning on the ball, he could hit a few more home runs in Colorado. Quality of contact metrics in Colorado can be misleading so I’m going to ignore them for the most part with Story. If he gets traded, then we have to wait and see.
The other part about Story is that the steals aren’t relatively close to what they need to be. His career-high in Steals is 27 in 2018. However, in 2020, he was stealing more often with 15 in 18 attempts. Like Betts, he’ll need to keep that pace to have any sort of chance to make join the four men in the famed group. However, Story went from above an 80% success rate in 2018 to a below 80% success rate in 2019. If Story gets traded to a team in the American League, his steal attempts could go down too. The answer isn’t clear here for Story but it’s not an extreme outcome for him to do this which is why he is on the list.
The final name on the list is Jose Ramirez. Now depending on who you ask, he’s the guy who should have won the MVP in 2020. They have a good case as he did have the highest fWAR in the American league helped out by his 17 home runs and 10 stolen bases.
Ramirez has grown to love pulling the baseball, as that infatuation with going to all fields is what led to his struggles in the first half of 2019. Since 2018, Ramirez has a .481 xwOBA when he pulls the ball. When he doesn’t pull the ball, he has a .268 xwOBA. He’s fixed that issue, but Ramirez has never been one to have a good quality of contact measurements. He’s readily dramatically overperformed his QOC metrics in the past with a juiced ball. Taking that away could sap his power. The good news is that in the past two seasons, he’s hit the exact amount of home runs he should have based on Baseball Savant’s xHR metric. Some concerns could be calmed by this.
Ramirez, like the first man mentioned on this list, did come close to 40-40 club before. In 2018 he hit 39 home runs and stole 34 bases. His stolen base rate has gone down but given that he is very little protection in that lineup, teams may choose to simply walk him more, putting him on first base more often. That will give him plenty of opportunities to run wild if he so chooses, and the Cleveland baseball team may need him to run to create some offense for them. Though the bad part about that scenario is that if he is getting walked more, his opportunities for home runs go down, which would make him less likely to join the club. As it stands now though, he has just a good of a shot as anybody to get to that elite company.
Honorable Mentions: Mike Trout doesn’t steal enough to due injury concerns for him to be in serious consideration for this, but of course if he were to start running again there’s no question, he’d be with Acuña in terms of probability to join the club. Trea Turner doesn’t hit enough home runs for me to consider him more but if he starts to sell out for power, he will get close. Fernando Tatis Jr. could be on this list, but he hasn’t played more than 89 games in a single season so it’s hard for me to project him to join or get close to joining the group until we see how he fares in games 130-150 on the season.
There are some big names on this list, and plenty more could join them. It’s time for baseball to send some runners in motion more often, so let’s see if the 40-40 club is taking some new members.
Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Jacob Roy (@jmrgraphics3 on IG)