There are certain trends in MLB that are undeniable. Teams shift in today's game more than ever. Some speedy lead-off men are being replaced by patient power hitters in the top spot. There's less fear regarding striking out, leading to a large uptick in strikeouts and, subsequently, home runs.
As the sport progresses, conventional wisdom is challenged more and more, and sometimes, what was conventional turns out to not have been very wise. With regard to some fundamental baseball tactics, the bunt, the intentional walk, and the steal, the trend in recent times has been clear: the more teams come to grasp how precious every out is, the more hesitant they are to be cavalier with them.
Thus, stolen base attempts, purposeful free passes, and acts of sacrifice have become far less prevalent, and the Yankees have been no exception. As the league as a whole has de-emphasized these age-old ideas, so too have the Yankees.
Has that changed at all this year? For one, there was certainly buzz prior to the year about Joe Girardi and his staff encouraging players like Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner to rediscover their aggressiveness on the basepaths. Have the Yankees shifted back a little bit this year, with regard to these ancient tactics? Let's take a look.
Starting with stolen bases, here's the rate at which the Yankees have made such attempts this year compared to the past two years, to give a sense of the team's overall trend:
Yankees Stolen Base Attempts
In terms of plate appearances per stolen base attempt, the Yankees actually do appear to be trending in the opposite direction of the league. The current league average is 52 PA per stolen base attempt, and the Yankees now rank among the 10 most aggressive teams in terms of steals, after ranking towards the bottom the past two years.
This doesn't seem to be a result entirely based on aggression from players like Gardner and Ellsbury though. The pair has combined for 16 attempts so far, but that is close to the rate they set last season. Instead, Aaron Hicks has attempted 10 steals, Aaron Judge six, and Chase Headley five. Rather than seeing more steals from their speedsters, it seems that the Yankees have just been a little more aggressive overall, at least so far during this still young season.
If the Yankees look like they might be reversing their trend regarding baserunning tactics, perhaps the same could be said regarding IBB's and sacrifices? That might be a stretch. Here are their rates of sacrifice bunts:
Yankees Sacrifice Bunts
The Yankees have hardly bunted this year, dropping down only seven sacrifices in 2017. Still, it should be mentioned that even though they are bunting as infrequently as ever, they haven't gotten more reticent than in recent years, while the league has continued to become more bunt-averse every year. So, the Yankees actually have moved up a bit in terms of where they rank league-wide in sacrifices bunts.
Finally, we have the last age-old traditional tactic, the (now automatic) intentional walk:
Yankees Intentional Walks
Just glancing at the above chart, it's clear the Yankees have issued intentional free passes at a higher rate this year, though in this case, I wouldn't read much into it. When setting up a plate-appearance-per-walk rate, the denominator is quite small, and issuing merely one more or less intentional walk can impact the final figure hugely. The Yankees have issued only six IBB's this year, on pace for 19 on the year. If they had only issued five so far, their 2017 rate would almost exactly match their rates from 2016 and 2015. I think it's safe to say the Yankees haven't materially altered their apparent belief that intentional walks are generally fool-hardy and should rarely be issued.
On the whole, the Yankees do seem to be keeping with the league trend of not utilizing sacrifices or intentional walks, but there is some evidence they have been a bit more aggressive regarding steals. This is probably for the best. Big data shows intentional walks and sacrifices generally hurt a team's chances of winning, but we don't really need numbers to tell us getting out on purpose, or allowing a runner to reach on purpose, is bad. Given the Yankees' quality stolen base success rate (78%, 6th in MLB), some controlled aggression on the bases appears to be eminently reasonable.