Baseball strategy is constantly in flux. As teams work try to gain an edge in terms of scouting, player development, and statistical analysis, they do so as well in terms of pure tactics. Every team has every incentive to employ the best game plan.
When it comes to baseball’s most basic tactics, there have been some clear league-wide trends. Plays that risk unnecessary outs, like bunts and steal attempts, have trended downwards, as have walks of the intentional variety. The league knows outs and baserunners are precious, and to be handled with care. They also know stealing them away from the other team is vital, and have attempted to do so by way of the evermore prevalent shift.
These trends are undeniable. How do the Yankees stack up, though? Have they continued to move in step with the league’s trends with regard to basic strategy?
Let’s start with sacrifice bunts:
Yankees Sacrifice Bunts
In 2016, the league put down a bunt every 181 plate appearances. That figure has moved to 227 in 2018, and the Yankees have moved in that direction as well. They record over 500 plate appearances before putting down a bunt on average.
The logic behind the drop in sac bunts probably matches the logic behind the drop in stolen base attempts:
Yankees Stolen Base Attempts
The league attempted .72 steals per game in 2016, which is down to .68 steals in 2018. The Yankees have attempted fewer steals per game this year than 2017, but have been a little more active on the bases than in 2016.
Still, they have continued to steal and put down bunts at rates lower than the league average. With a lineup that is populated by huge sluggers like Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Gary Sanchez, this makes all too much sense. Moving runners into scoring position means little when someone like Judge is at the plate, and risking outs when the mighty Stanton is in the box is foolhardy. The Yankees are smartly playing to their strengths in not playing fast and loose with their 27 outs.
Where the Yankees have gone to an extreme is cutting out intentional walks:
Yankees Intentional Walks
The Yankees have issued just two intentional free passes this year in over 2400 plate appearances. The Astros too have issued only two intentional walks, but have played five more games. The Yankees and Astros are among the most analytically inclined teams in the game, and it’s no surprise to see that they have cut intentional walks entirely out of their diets.
More polarizing than the dearth of sac bunts and intentional walks is the proliferation of the shift. Thanks to Baseball Savant, we can now see whether or not a team employed any kind of shift on any pitch. According to Baseball Savant, teams used some kind of infield shift on 13.7% of pitches in 2016. That number curiously fell to 12.4% in 2017 before jumping all the way to 17.3% this year.
The Yankees have moved with the league:
The Yankees have shifted their infield alignment over a quarter of the time. As the league has moved towards more shifts, the Yankees have too, much as they have moved away from steals and sac bunts. When it comes to pretty much every strategic trend over recent years, the Yankees have moved the same direction of the league, and at a greater pace.
There’s certainly a debate to be had whether these changes and trends make for a better and more fun game. Steals can be exciting, and shifts that remove balls in play can be deflating. There probably isn’t much of a debate, however, regarding whether the Yankees’, and the league’s, choices are solid tactically. It just makes intuitive sense to not fool around and make outs on purpose or give the opposition free baserunners. The Yankees have continued to follow league strategic trends, and in terms of their chances of winning, that’s probably for the better.