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The Yankees have improved as a baserunning team

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The team has been less aggressive, but has also made smarter choices on the basepaths.

Divisional Series - Minnesota Twins v New York Yankees - Game One Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

The Yankees of 2020 are built far differently than the Yankees of years past. Although home run power has always been the team’s top priority, the Yankees used to really prioritize speed on the basepaths: think Johnny Damon, Jacoby Ellsbury, young Brett Gardner, heck, even Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez were good for 15-20 steals a year.

Nowadays, the Yankees aren’t too active when it comes to swiping bags. A 35-year-old Gardner led the team with just 10 steals last year, and the Yankees as a team stole just 55 bases last year, the sixth-lowest total in the Majors. This is a far cry from even just two years ago, when the 2017 Yankees stole 90 bags.

The Yankees have decreased their baserunning aggressiveness in some ways under Aaron Boone, but they have become an overall smarter team on the basepaths. In that 2017 season when the Yankees were among the league leaders with 90 steals, they were also second in the league in outs on the bases, with 70. That’s over 2.5 games’ worth of outs just on the basepaths!

In 2018, the Yankees lowered their number of outs on the bases to 54, which was one above league average, and improved further in 2019, only making 46 outs on the bases, which was the ninth-best total in the bigs. In just a two-year span, the Yankees have made 24 fewer outs on the bases, which is almost an entire game’s worth.

Even though the team is stealing fewer bases, the Yankees haven’t become less aggressive on the bases in other aspects. Their rate of taking the extra base (first-to-third on a single, second-to-home on a single, first-to-home on a double) has remained right around the MLB average of 41 percent over the last three years. This is mainly because the Yankees have excelled at scoring from second on singles – no American League team scored from second on singles more than the Yankees last year, who did it 115 times thanks to contact artists like DJ LeMahieu and Gio Urshela.

Although the Yankees succeed with small ball in that way, make no mistake, they are built around the long ball. This is also another reason why the Yankees’ steals totals have dropped. They simply don’t need to steal as many bases when they have Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Gleyber Torres in the lineup, who can go yard at any time. This isn’t the doldrums of 2014-2016 offensively.

In terms of player baserunning ability, the Yankees don’t have many positive baserunners (per FanGraphs’ BsR metric), but they also don’t have too many negatives. All in all, the team is average on the bases. For every Brett Gardner, Mike Tauchman or Tyler Wade, there’s a Luke Voit, Gio Urshela or Gary Sanchez balancing them out. According to FanGraphs, everyone else is somewhere in the middle in terms of baserunning value, which sounds about right.

After his rookie season in 2018, Gleyber Torres was viewed as one of the Yankees’ worst baserunners. It was identified as his biggest potential area of improvement, and although he’s still not a positive baserunner, he cut his BsR in half from -1.0 to -0.5 last year, which shows progress, at least. If Torres and Miguel Andujar can continue to grow as baserunners, the Yankees can become an even better team on the basepaths.

The 2020 Yankees will be defined by their power, their rotation, and their bullpen. The team’s performance on the basepaths is not as pressing an x-factor as those other aspects, but it is still important. Bad baserunning mistakes get amplified in the playoffs, and with the Yankees’ young core on the rise, it appears that the team is starting to leave some of those errors on the bases behind them.