Who will swipe the 2021 stolen-base crowns?

March 16th, 2021

Stolen bases might not be as prevalent as they used to be, but few plays in baseball can match the thrill of the steal.

That's why you're going to want to keep an eye on the 10 speedsters listed below, because they comprise the predicted 2021 league stolen-base champs (five picks per circuit) in the eyes of five MLB.com writers. These picks range from youngsters trying to get a foothold in the bigs to the game's very biggest stars looking to gain membership into one of baseball's most exclusive clubs.

Here are the picks.

American League

-- SS, Royals
2019 total: 43 / ‘20 total: 24

Mondesi led the Majors in steals last year with 24, and he has 99 over the last three seasons, eight more than anyone else. The last player to lead his league in steals in consecutive years was Mondesi’s teammate Whit Merrifield in 2017-18. But he didn’t lead the Majors in both years. The last player to lead everyone in stolen bases in back-to-back years was Dee Strange-Gordon in 2014-15. And that’s the type of speed and reliability as a base stealer that Mondesi has.

His 29.4 ft/sec average sprint speed in 2020 was just shy of the elite threshold of 30 ft/sec. He made it a habit to run fast, with 24 bolts -- which are competitive runs at that 30 ft/sec elite speed. The only players with more in 2020 were Trea Turner and Roman Quinn.
-- Sarah Langs

-- OF, White Sox
2019 total: N/A / ‘20 total: 9

Robert is about to have the type of season Ronald Acuña Jr. did two years ago -- you know, the one where he almost went 40-40. Acuña "settled" for 37 steals and the league lead. Now it's Robert's turn. In terms of pure speed, Robert is up there with anyone. He averaged a sprint speed of 29.1 ft/sec, way faster than the 27 ft/sec MLB average, and was one of only nine players to reach the elite 30 ft/sec threshold 15 or more times on the bases. Just a guess: This 23-year-old "six-tool player" (Frank Thomas' words) blows past the 30-30 mark in 2021.
-- David Adler

-- OF/2B, Royals
2019 total: 20 / ‘20 total: 12

If you’re picking a player to lead his league in steals, it’s never a bad idea to take someone who’s done it recently. Twice. Merrifield topped the AL in both 2017 (34 SB) and ’18 (45), and even though he dipped to 20 thefts in the last full season, his 111 since the start of ’17 are fifth most in MLB.

Sure, Merrifield is getting a little up there in age for a true stolen-base threat at 32, but his sprint speed (28.4 ft/sec) was still in the 89th percentile last year. Aside from his above-average wheels, Merrifield also should have (ahem) a leg up in this counting category because of his durability: His 380 games played since the start of ’18 are tied for most in MLB in that span with Freddie Freeman and Cesar Hernandez. To that end, the longtime super-utility player should be aided by shifting to a more solidified role as the Royals’ starting right fielder. Add in the Royals’ aggressive approach on the bases -- no team has more than their 283 steals since the start of ’18 -- and there could be a path for Merrifield to push for a third stolen-base crown.
-- Jason Catania

-- OF, Astros
2019 total: 8 / ‘20 total: 6

The Astros didn’t go out and fill the center-field hole left behind by George Springer, and perhaps Jackie Bradley Jr. should be filling that role. But that’s in the past, and it looks like the starting job in center is Straw’s to lose. Straw won’t reprise the “Springer Dinger” power role atop Houston’s lineup, but he could catalyze the offense with his legs. Straw’s average sprint speed settled at 30.1 ft/sec in 2018 and ‘19, putting him among the very fastest players in baseball. Now he’ll likely get the chance to stretch those legs out on the basepaths while some distracted pitchers deal with the monsters behind him in Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and Yordan Alvarez.

We’ve seen Straw be electric in limited roles before. Now, with hope that he gets on base enough, I’m picking him to make the most of this opportunity.
-- Matt Kelly

-- 2B, Mariners
2019 total: 11 / ‘20 total: 12

After moving around a bunch in his first two big league seasons, Moore is expected to be Seattle’s starting second baseman to open 2021, and he’s a candidate to lead off as well. The 28-year-old isn’t a burner, recording an average sprint speed of 27.7 ft/sec in 2020, but he seems to have the green light on the bases from manager Scott Servais. Moore attempted 17 steals in 38 games last season and pushed his success rate over 70%, up from 55% on 20 attempts over 113 games in 2019.
-- Thomas Harrigan

National League

-- SS, Nationals
2019 total: 35 / ‘20 total: 12

Turner’s bat may have taken center stage in 2020, but his speed’s still elite. The 27-year-old’s average 30.1 ft/sec sprint speed was fourth best in the Majors a year ago, and he led MLB in bolts for the third straight season. High-end wheels don’t always make a great base stealer, of course, but Turner has swiped 51 bags per every 162 games in his career. He’s an obvious pick to lead MLB in 2021, especially if he bats in front of the ever-patient Juan Soto.
-- Thomas Harrigan

-- OF, Braves
2019 total: 37 / ‘20 total: 8

The 40-40 (or maybe 50-50?) dream is back on for Acuña, and little has changed from when he came so close two years ago. Pitchers won’t be motivated to pitch around Acuña to face Marcell Ozuna and Freddie Freeman, but Acuña showed last year (.406 OBP, 19% walk rate) that he can get to first even when they do. He’s still a top 20 baserunner across MLB by average sprint speed (29.2 ft/sec in ‘20), and he still picks his spots well (8-for-9 on steals).

Maybe the only argument against Acuña here is that he’ll slug so much that he’ll want to preserve his body. But he’s still just 23, and he’s said before that 50-50 is on his mind. The boppers behind Acuña should distract pitchers enough to give him a chance.
-- Matt Kelly

-- SS, Padres
2019 total: 16 / ‘20 total: 11

Simply put, no one is more fun to watch on the bases than this dude and his derring-do. Tatis’ baserunning exploits so far have been mostly about his instincts and brashness when it comes to taking the extra bag, tagging up or avoiding tags. That doesn’t mean, however, that he’s not a base thief, too.

Tatis has racked up 27 steals in his young career, a total achieved in only 143 games -- not even a full season. The 22-year-old’s 29.4 ft/sec average sprint speed ranked in the top 10 in MLB last year, so his wheels are for real. While a lot of internet ink has been used to highlight Acuña’s goal to join the 40-40 club (see above), would you be surprised if Tatis took that as something of a let-me-get-in-on-that challenge by running more?

Also? Don’t forget that Jayce Tingler was more than comfortable letting baserunners, uh, run in his first year as skipper. The Padres nabbed 55 bases in 2020 -- more than any other team -- and Tatis was at the forefront of that effort.
-- Jason Catania

-- OF, Braves
2019 total: N/A / ‘20 total: 0

Time for a crazy wild-card pick -- Pache has played a grand total of 14 big league games (two regular-season, 12 postseason) and stolen precisely zero bases. But we know this kid is a super-prospect, and we know he's fast. Pache has a 70-grade run tool in scouting reports, and in his tiny bit of MLB action he's already broken the 29 ft/sec sprint speed mark seven times and the 28 ft/sec mark 12 times. He's also tracked sprint speeds of 29.3 ft/sec and 28.6 ft/sec this Spring Training.

Pache once stole 32 bases in a season in the Minors, and he's got Acuña to learn the right mix of speed and aggressiveness from in the Majors. He's primed to win the Braves' starting center-field job and run with it. Turn Pache loose, Atlanta.
-- David Adler

-- OF, Dodgers
2019 total: 16 / ‘20 total: 10

I know, I know -- Betts hasn’t quite been in this category for a few years. But he felt like a fun choice with the fifth pick here.

Back in 2015-18, he stole 20-plus bases in each season, including 30 in ‘18 when he won AL MVP. But he had 10 last year in 55 games, a sign that perhaps he is going to start running more again. That would be 29 over 162 games played, putting him back into the conversation (even if that total still wouldn’t be quite enough).

The thing is, Betts is an electric player, and a lot of his intangible additions to the team come from speed, so it could make a lot of sense for him to start running more. He averaged 28.3 ft/sec in sprint speed in 2020, well above the MLB average. He’s fast. Maybe this pick was in part because of how much fun it would be to see it happen, but I’m OK with that. Remember, this is the player who became the second in World Series history with a walk and two stolen bases in the same inning this past October. He’s also a two-time “Steal a base, Steal a Taco” champion of the people.
-- Sarah Langs