The Yankees' incredible shrinking on-base percentage

Jonathan Daniel

The Yankees were once known for their ability to get runners on base. What happened?

The Yankees have struggled to score runs this year, and there are several reasons why. Even after spending close to $300 million on free agent bats this past winter, the team is currently sitting twelfth in the American League in runs per game at 4.04. One culprit, for sure, is the lineup's lack of pop - the 63 home runs they've hit are 41 behind the leader, Toronto, and their 197 extra base hits are tied for last in the league. While that's concerning, the starkest contrast between the 2014 Yankees and their high-scoring predecessors from 2012 and earlier is that this team just doesn't get on base.

There's a pretty commonly held belief among MLB fans that Billy Beane invented on-base percentage sometime in the late 1990s. He didn't. Beane built his high-powered Athletics teams by identifying a hugely important skill that was undervalued around baseball at the time, but there were some teams already on the OBP boat and the Yankees, led by former GM and major league scouting director Gene Michael were chief among them. Following the relatively simple concept that if you put more runners on base, you have a better chance of scoring, the '90s Yankees stressed patience at the plate as they developed Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter, and they brought in players like Wade Boggs, Mike Stanley and Tim Raines, who they knew would take pitches and work counts. After leading the Majors with a ridiculous .374 team OBP in 1994, the Yankees became notorious for their refusal to chase balls and give pitchers easy outs, a reputation that held strong for the better part of the ensuing two decades. In the twenty seasons that passed between 1993 and 2012, the Yankees fell out of the top five of the AL in OBP just once, while leading the league in the category eleven times. One of the most defining moments from the dynasty years was a walk - the one drawn by Paul O'Neill against Armando Benitez in game one of the 2000 World Series.

Over the past two years, much of that has slipped away. The Yankees' .307 OBP in 2013 was well below the .320 league average. The injuries that ripped the lineup apart last year can be blamed for that, but things haven't improved that much in 2014, even with a mostly healthy starting nine. To date the Yankees are twelfth in the AL in OBP at .318, and Brett Gardner's team-leading .357 among qualified batters is only 39th best in baseball. The team's 8.1% walk rate is ninth in the AL and the team leader, Yangervis Solarte, is 44th in the majors at 10.5%.

The Yankees' power deficit can be blamed in part on players slumping. They wouldn't be near the bottom of baseball in homers and extra-base hits if guys like Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann were hitting like they should. But when it comes to working counts and reaching base, the issue is more one of roster construction. What we're seeing now is the result of a gradual deemphasizing of those skills in recent player acquisitions. No 2014 Yankee finished inside the top 30 in baseball in OBP in 2013 (the highest was Jacoby Ellsbury at .355) or in the top 50 in walk rate (Kelly Johnson was tops at 9.5%). Back in 2009, the Yankees swung at just 42.9% of the pitches they saw and 22.6% of those outside the strike zone, good enough for second and first in the AL, respectively. Since then those rates have crept steadily upward. This year they're chasing 45.4% of all pitches (eighth fewest in the AL) and 28.7% of non-strikes (sixth).

To some extent the front office's hands have been tied by what's been available and by what other teams are willing to pay for it. Above-average OBP guys like Nick Swisher and Robinson Cano have been let go, but both obtained lengthy and pricey commitments elsewhere that would have been tough for the Yankees to match. Russell Martin was apt at drawing walks, but there were plenty of other flaws in his game that warranted his moving on. On last year's free agent market, Ellsbury's was actually the fourth highest OBP among major players behind Shin-Soo Choo, who the Yankees reportedly offered $140 million to, Cano and Mike Napoli. Meanwhile there's been some regression in the on-base department from existing assets. Derek Jeter slipped from .362 in 2012 to .324 this year, Mark Teixeira's still solid at .352, but a notch down from where he was in 2009 and 2010, and Alex Rodriguez, whose career low as a Yankee was last year's .348 has been suspended for the season.

There's no quick fix for the situation the Yankee offense has found itself in, but adding a player or two with plus plate discipline and on-base ability should be high on their to-do list as they plod toward the second half of the season. Calling up Rob Refsnyder could help. He's got a .390 OBP and an 11.5% walk rate for his minor league career, and he's getting on at a .404 clip at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre so far. On the trade front, Seth Smith is a platoon player, but he's sporting a .397 OBP and a 14.0 walk rate in San Diego, so he'd certainly help against righties. If there's a bigger move to be made, Tampa Bay's Ben Zobrist and Philadelphia's Chase Utley have the kind of hitting approach the Yankees should be looking for.

The Yankees won't start scoring consistently until they start getting on base.

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