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Have the Yankees changed tactically under Aaron Boone?

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The Yankees have continued to move with modern baseball trends under Aaron Boone.

League Championship Series - New York Yankees v Houston Astros - Game Six Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

When the Yankees dismissed Joe Girardi and hired Aaron Boone after the 2017 season, they furthered a prominent recent trend of teams targeting inexperienced managers. Just as the Twins hired Rocco Baldelli, the Cubs hired David Ross, and the Red Sox hired Alex Cora, the Yankees handed the keys to the franchise to someone with virtually no prior experience coaching professional players.

That decision was sure to have a number of consequences. One I want to take a look at today is how Boone has impacted the Yankees in a few basic tactical ways. How the Yankees have changed tactically could provide a small glimpse into how the team has shifted after moving from the somewhat old-school Girardi to the younger and fresh-faced Boone.

I’ve performed this exercise before back when Girardi was still in the Bronx, examining how the Yankees were deploying age-old maneuvers like intentional walks, sacrifice bunts, and stolen base attempts. Now, I want to compare the extent to which the Yankees have used those simple tactics under Boone to how they used them under Girardi.

Part of the reason the Yankees favored Boone was his apparent willingness to work closely with the front office in implementing new-age ideas directly on the field. Thus, we should expect to see a few particular changes with Boone; namely, bringing in Boone seemed to indicate the Yankees would forsake anachronistic moves like intentional walks and bunts, while going even harder on newer strategies such as defensive shifting.

Has that been borne out in the numbers? Let’s take a look.

Yankees’ Tactics under Boone and Girardi

Year Sac Bunts SB Attempts
Year Sac Bunts SB Attempts
2018-2019 9.5 95.5
2017 18 112

Here we have the average annual amount of sac bunts and steal attempts across the two years Boone has managed in New York, compared to 2017, Girardi’s final season at the helm. In both cases, the Yankees have cut back. They laid down about half as many bunts as they did in 2017, and have bunted the fourth-fewest times among all 30 teams over 2018 and 2019, down from tenth fewest in 2017. Likewise, they attempted the seventh-fewest steals the last two seasons, after they were almost exactly average in that department in 2017.

This jibes completely with what Boone was brought in to do. Brian Cashman surely didn’t want to see the hulking, power-hitting lineup he assembled giving away outs on offense. Moving runners into scoring position matters little when Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are at the plate. Consequently, the Yankees under Boone have rarely risked outs, instead letting their bats do the talking.

We see a similar story when it comes to run prevention:

Yankees’ Intentional Walks

Year IBB
Year IBB
2018-2019 10.5
2017 18

Under Girardi, the Yankees already were loath to issue a free base on balls. They’ve cut back even further with Boone, as only the Astros, who incredibly didn’t intentionally walk a single batter during the 2019 regular season, have issued fewer intentional walks over the last two seasons.

Clearly, the Yankees have become even stingier about giving away outs or baserunners on both sides of the ball with Boone in the fold. Have they also grown more aggressive when it comes to defensive shifting? Turns out, they have:

Yankees’ Defensive Shifting

Year Shift Rate
Year Shift Rate
2018-2019 32.0%
2017 17.1%

The Yankees have employed some kind of shift almost twice as often during Boone’s tenure than in 2017. They’ve posted the fifth-highest shift rate under Boone, up from the seventh highest in Girardi’s last year.

These are rudimentary tactics, but the shift we’ve seen under Boone feels of a piece with the team’s overall approach to coaching in recent years. The Yankees, like many teams across baseball, no longer wish to operate with the coaching staff and the front office as two entirely disparate entities. Collaboration and communication are the buzz words of the day, with clubs prizing managers and coaches who will both listen to new ideas provided by off-field analysts and convey those ideas in accessible ways to on-field talent.

This strategy can cut a few different ways. An inexperienced manager, while open to listening to the front office, may prove unable to handle a clubhouse of diverse people and personalities. On the other end of the spectrum, front office meddling in the dugout can go too far; perhaps the Astros are learning now that a general manager’s mandate to push the envelope wherever and whenever possible can lead an entire franchise to dark places.

In Boone, the Yankees seem to have found the happy medium. In curtailing many old-fashioned tactics, Boone has shown himself open to modern baseball strategy. He’s demonstrated an ability to learn from mistakes, most notably in his more aggressive bullpen management this postseason after the 2018 playoffs debacle. His players appear to respect him, and by all accounts the team’s clubhouse has flourished into a fun, accepting space under his leadership.

For the most part, the Yankees seem to have avoided the pitfalls that can come with hiring green managers, while enjoying the fruits of a strong coaching staff/front office relationship. They appear to have even doubled down on the strategy, dispatching Larry Rothschild in favor of Matt Blake, who surely will attempt to make the Yankees’ pitching approach the most cutting edge in the league. Maybe this harmonious organizational state can’t last forever, but for now, the Yankees seem to have found an off-field advantage that should lead to gains on the field.