Prior to the 2014 season, the Yankees front office made a commitment to diversify the team’s lineup. The previous year’s inability to generate offense highlighted the inherent vulnerability in relying on one-dimensional sluggers. The team responded by paying top-dollar for free agent Jacoby Ellsbury and extending Brett Gardner at a more conventional market rate. The writing on the wall suggested that baseball was moving into a more speed-centered direction and the Yankees responded accordingly.
In a somewhat surprising turn of events, home run rates spiked in 2016. The 1.155 home runs per game is the second highest in recorded history. Nevertheless, baserunning remains a significant feature of today’s game. Unfortunately the Yankees struggled in both areas during the 2016 season--or at least that’s the popular impression.
It just takes a quick scroll through Twitter to reveal fans decrying the lack of stolen bases by the Yankees. Listening to the announcers and sports radio doesn’t do much better either. Ellsbury and Gardner are the the obvious targets, but others hear the criticism as well. These assessments naturally beg further inquiry. Were the 2016 Yankees truly as bad of a baserunning team as people imply? The data suggest that might not be the case.
A surface level examination indicates that the 2016 Yankees were actually one of the better baserunning teams in baseball. They ranked 8th in terms of BsR, Frangraphs’ all-encompassing baserunning measurement, with an 8.2. For comparison’s sake, this represents a monumental improvement over the 2.9 BsR put up by the 2015 team. That said, BsR is only one tool to assess baserunning. It’s the big picture assessment, but sometimes the devil is in the detail. An examination of more advanced baserunning statistics now proves most useful.
|Team||Bases Taken||SB%||XBT%||Outs on Base||1stS3||2ndSH|
The above chart indicates that the Yankees were an above average team at successfully stealing bases. They also made fewer outs on bases than the average team. On the contrary, they struggled taking the extra base. The team had a difficult time going from 1st to 3rd on a single or scoring from second on a single. That isn't too surprising when you consider the 2016 Yankees lineup at one point or another featured the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, and Billy Butler. Those guys aren't exactly known for being speed demons.
As for Gardner and Ellsbury, the principal base stealers, the fan frustration seems to be more on a lack of aggression rather than ability. Gardner ranked fourth in the majors in terms of individual BsR with a 7.2, but his 14 stolen bases were the second fewest in his big league career. Ellsbury, on the other hand, posted a meager 2.9 BsR, behind teammates Didi Gregorius and Chase Headley. His 20 stolen bases were also below his career average numbers.
The decline in stolen base numbers from Gardner and Ellsbury isn't too surprising. They're both on the wrong side of 30. It's natural for their speed to decline as they age. Another common explanation for Ellsbury's lack of aggression has been the fact that he hit ahead of Gary Sanchez later in the season. He didn't want to make an out on the basepath and rob Sanchez of an RBI possibility. While this makes sense logically, it doesn't prove to be a satisfying explanation. Ellsbury hit ahead of David Ortiz and other Boston sluggers during his tenure as a Red Sox. He had no problem running then. His age and tendency towards injury likely explains his hesitancy.
The Yankees weren't a poor baserunning team in 2016. In fact, by a number of measurements they were either above-average or quite good. The problems, however, were taking the extra base and lack of aggression. It's too early to project next season's roster, which makes for a difficult job in hypothesizing baserunning. Nevertheless, the 2016 season is a strong foundation upon which to build. While power will always be the Yankees calling card, speed has become an increasingly important part of their game.