The Yankees had a frustrating weekend against the Blue Jays, summed up by two situations on Saturday where the team loaded the bases and couldn’t manage a single run. Miguel Andujar hit a laser for a grand slam the third time the bases were juiced, but when the Yankees lost by a single run, it was easy to highlight the first two opportunities as huge reasons why New York dropped the game and eventually the series. The failure to score also emphasized a rather hilarious problem for one of the game’s best offenses: the Yankees really struggle with the bases loaded.
In all offensive situations, the Yankees have a 109 wRC+. That ties them with the Red Sox and Athletics for the second-best mark in all of baseball, just three basis points behind the best offense in the game, Houston. Yet, when there are three Yankees on, the team slips all the way down to a 78 wRC+. New York loses 31 basis points of production in what should be the best chance for a team to score!
There are a whole bunch of speculated reasons why the team struggles so much with such a golden opportunity. The common refrain is too many strikeouts, but the truth is, the Yankees have a 20.9% strikeout rate with the bases loaded, and the league median is 22.9%. New York is actually in the bottom ten in strikeouts with the bases loaded.
Whatever the reason, the Yankees’ inability to convert with the bases loaded has led to some jokes about the Wild Card game. A single-game elimination means that teams can and should try all sorts of things to gain an edge, since if you lose, you don’t get a second chance. The game should be all about maximizing your chances to win and reduce the odds of a true “coin flip” scenario.
With all that said, this inexplicable weakness in the team’s ability has to be hanging over them somehow, right? If there was one element of your job that you were vastly under performing in, wouldn’t it be top of mind for you every day?
We know that New York doesn’t hit well in this one particular split, so what would happen if their bases loaded performance bled over a full game? What happens if the mental block or physical hitch that affects the Yankees with three men on affected them in every plate appearance?
Before we get into this too deep, I’d like to point out that hitting with the bases loaded has absolutely no bearing on how a team does in a particular year. This is the plot of all teams in 2018 with the sacks full, the Yankees appearing as our red diamond:
The correlation coefficient here is 0.1394, indicating no relationship whatsoever between success with three men on and overall team success. The top eight teams in wRC+ with the bases loaded are as follows: Cleveland, Boston, Minnesota, Houston, Cincinnati, Toronto, Colorado, and Baltimore. You have four playoff teams – or likely playoff teams in the case of the Rockies - and four bottom-dwellers. There is no connection between this particular split and wins.
Now then, let’s say New York plays the whole game believing the bases are loaded. Oakland isn’t walking three men to start an inning, but the Yankees are certainly treating their at-bats like it. To make this hypothetical situation testable, we have to make a couple of assumptions. First, the Athletics themselves will have an average offensive night, which for them is 4.84 runs per game. This will give us a floor that the mentally-bases-loaded Yankees will have to overcome, and if they do, we count that as a win.
We also have to make a judgement about what offensive output for the Yankees looks like. No team in baseball has a 78 wRC+ for the full season, so we can’t use that as a placeholder. We CAN use OPS, though. With the bases loaded, the Yankees manage just a .697 OPS, identical to the season-long OPS of the Kansas City Royals. Essentially, the Yankees offensively turn into the Royals for this hypothetical Wild Card, and while that’s very sad from a fan’s perspective, it’s great for writers, since we can use the Royals’ season long offensive output as a replacement distribution for the Yankees.
Kansas City averages 3.92 runs per game, and over the full season their output has a standard deviation of 2.70. Note that OPS and runs per game are very strongly correlated, with a coefficient of 0.952. If two teams have a similar OPS, they’ll almost certainly have similar runs per game. Thus, if our hypothetical Yankees don’t change their performance with the bases loaded, the expected runs distribution for the Wild Card game looks like this:
Given the two assumptions we’ve made with this exercise, the Athletics would win the Wild Card game about 58% of the time. That may not sound like much, but in context, it’s staggeringly high. Right now the Yankees hold home field advantage for the single elimination game, and home field is worth about three points of win expectancy on its own. Before a pitch is thrown, the Yankees would be expected to win the Wild Card game 53% or so of the time, meaning the Athletics have a win expectancy of about 47%. “Loading the bases” for every single Yankee batter brings Oakland’s win expectancy up 11 points!!
The downside to this imaginary Yankee mental block for Oakland is the home run. Although the math does bear out that a team with Yankee-like production with the bases loaded would be expected to score four runs or less a game, the truth is that we’re not talking about a team with Yankee-like production, but a team with Yankee production.
Still, in a perfect simulation, the bases loaded plan for the Athletics really does work. 58% win expectancy before first pitch is huge, akin to a Yankee home game against the White Sox, which everyone would agree the Yankees should win. Loading the bases and forcing the Yankees to confront whatever inexplicable demons they have with three men on could actually work in a particularly key spot, especially if a base was left open while one of Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton was at the plate. Heck, Oakland would even be welcome to walk the bases loaded every game. You’d have to think the Yankees would get over this issue eventually, right?