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Why the Yankees don’t need to be expert baserunners

The Yankees have not been great on the basepaths, but does it matter?

MLB: AUG 07 Yankees at Orioles Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Yankees’ offense has been nothing short of excellent this season: their 5.98 runs/game sits atop the American League, as does their team OPS+ of 120. They are also among the league leaders in hits, doubles, and home runs. But even so, they have also frustrated fans repeatedly, with repeated strikeouts looking, groundball double plays, and, most notably, blunders on the basepaths. This last group of frustrations that is worth investigating today.

It seems like at least a couple of times a week, the Yankees make a number of baserunning blunders, such as Mike Tauchman getting thrown out trying to stretch a double into a triple, or Cameron Maybin getting picked off of first base. But on the whole, are they actually that bad on the basepaths? Consider their rankings in the American League and how they compare to the league average.

Yankees Baserunning Rankings

Statistic NYY AL AVG NYY Ranking
Statistic NYY AL AVG NYY Ranking
RS% 36% 32% 1
SB Opp. 1705 1655 4
% Time Running 3.57% 4.90% -
SB% 70% 73% 13
Bases Taken 123 117 5
XBT% 39% 40% 10
BsR -1.1 0.16 7

As a rule, the Yankees have been below league average on the basepaths, albeit only slightly. Additionally, they appear to take as few risks as possible, attempting to both steal bases and take extra bases at a below-average rate. Despite this, they lead the American League in percentage of baserunners scoring, which suggests that any struggles on the basepaths has not affected their ability to drive runners in.

At a most basic level, the Yankees’ conservative nature on the basepaths should not be surprising: why would they risk an out by stealing second base or going from first to third if the next three batters are liable to put the ball in the seats? But what happens upon diving further into the stats?

Individual Yankees Baserunning

Individual Baserunning Stats Sprint Speed SS %Rank RS% SB Opp %Running SB% XBT% BsR
Individual Baserunning Stats Sprint Speed SS %Rank RS% SB Opp %Running SB% XBT% BsR
Brett Gardner 28.9 91.8 42% 149 7.40% 82% 42% 4.2
Cameron Maybin 28.7 88.7 46% 73 15.10% 64% 52% 1.2
Mike Tauchman 27.9 73.5 38% 74 6.80% 100% 58% 1.4
Aaron Judge 27.9 73.5 33% 135 2.20% 67% 40% -0.4
Didi Gregorius 27.9 73.5 42% 70 2.90% 50% 52% -0.3
Aaron Hicks 27.7 69.1 41% 92 3.20% 33% 50% -0.1
DJ LeMahieu 26.9 51.1 39% 244 2.50% 67% 45% 0.6
Gleyber Torres 26.7 46.4 37% 152 3.90% 67% 35% -1.3
Gio Urshela 26.6 44.4 38% 129 1.50% 50% 27% -2.5
Luke Voit 25.8 30 29% 157 0% 0% 27% -4.1
Austin Romine 25.7 27.6 29% 54 3.70% 50% 40% -0.7
Gary Sanchez 25.1 18.5 24% 91 0% 0% 24% 0.3
Edwin Encarnacion 24.7 14.5 41% 43 0% 0% 33% 1.1

There seems to be little correlation between Statcast sprint speed and FanGraphs BsR: not surprisingly, Brett Gardner is by far the best on the basepaths, while Luke Voit is the worst. Beyond that, however, there is fairly little correlation whatsoever. Even so, there are three different relationships that we can look at that can tell us a bit about the Yankees’ baserunning strategy and their success at doing so.

In general, the most frequent runners are the ones who have the most success running. Of course, this is a relationship that is subject to extremely small sample sizes. As a team, the Yankees have only attempted to steal a base 61 times this season. This trend is nonetheless encouraging, and when combined with the meager amount of times the Yankees run, it shows us that the Yankees limit their stolen base attempts to opportunities where they have a good shot of success. They have not exactly been fantastic at stealing bases when they do, but the strategy is nonetheless sound.

The faster a baserunner’s recorded sprint speed, the more likely they will take an extra base on a hit (i.e., go from first to third or score from second a double, or score from second a single). For the most part, this is common sense: a guy like Gardner will simply be able to advance on a larger variety of hits than a small runner like Gary Sanchez.

The league average here is 40%, while the Yankees’ average is 39%. This distribution shows that, much like with the stolen base statistics, the team largely plays it conservatively on the basepaths.

The Yankees have been able to play it safe like this in large part due to their prolific offense, which has only had a hole in the lineup when in National League parks during most of the season. Because they have been able to rely on numerous guys throughout the lineup to put up big hits throughout the year, they have rarely needed to manufacture runs. As a result, although the team hasn’t been stellar on the basepaths, they haven’t needed to take so many risks. Running has largely been meaningless to their team’s scoring capabilities.