In early June, I wrote about how the Yankees should try to steal more bases. They were badly struggling to score runs, and they had the fewest SB attempts in MLB at the time. Given that they had a good handful players with better than average running speed and with solid track records, the better question was “Why not attempt more steals?”
For all the countless times I’ve yelled at the Yankee organization in my life, this may have been the first time they listened to me. Not only did the Yankees attempt to swipe more bases from June on, but they were pretty good at it, going 43-for-51 (84 percent) on attempts over the next three months.
Whether or not that had an impact on the number of runs the team scored is a different topic that we can delve into another day. I think what we can agree upon for today’s discussion is that it certainly created excitement. Stealing bases is not only a very athletic endeavor, but it involves a lot of strategy, risk-taking, and creates a lot of on-field action.
Which leads us to today’s question: Which players in Yankee history have been the best at both creating that excitement, but also doing it with a very high success rate that helps lead the team to wins? To that end, I looked at Yankees since integration with at least 150 stolen bases on the team and compared their success rates. I also threw in a little personal subjectivity to come up with the best five Yankee basestealers of all time. In no particular order:
Derek Jeter was one of the most consistently reliable basestealers the Yankees have ever had. Over 20 seasons Jeter stole 358 bases (the Yankees’ franchise leader) with a 79-percent success rate. Jeter was at his base-stealing best in 2002 when swiped 32 bags and went 32-for-35 in attempts, which obviously played a big part in him scoring 124 runs for a team that led the league in runs scored by a mile. Even at age 40 and well past his athletic prime, the Captain stole 10 bases in only 12 attempts in 2014.
Mickey Mantle, despite being slowed by numerous injuries over his career, still posted an 80-percent success rate with 153 stolen bases. That total of 153 is good for sixth-most among Yankees since integration, but we all know that number is relatively low due to his situational awareness. Generally batting third or fourth in great lineups over his career, The Mick knew risks on the bases generally weren’t worth it considering who followed him in the order. (His basestealing prime also came in an era when stolen bases weren’t emphasized — the AL leaders frequently only sat in the twenties.) This is one of the reasons why he famously said that he would have accomplished 30/30 several times “If I’d known they’d make a big deal out of it.”
I’d bet a good sum of money that you weren’t aware of this: Alex Rodriguez stole 152 bases as a Yankee with an 84-percent success rate. The total is seventh-best among Yankees since integration and the percentage is second-best all-time among Yankees. As a Yankee, he was never the 40/40 Man he was in his youth, but he was always a consistently good base stealer. Heck, even from age 36 on — which included a near-two-year absence for hip surgeries and a suspension — he was 24 for his last 27 attempts in his career. Despite what most of us feel about his analysis on television, Alex was a very smart and intuitive baserunner.
As much as fans have become frustrated with Brett Gardner over the years for not stealing “enough”, he’s still unquestionably one of the best base stealers in Yankees’ history. His 274 stolen bases and career 81 percent success rate are both good enough for third-best all-time among Yankees. Gardner’s best years on the basepaths came early on in 2010-11, when he swiped a combined 96 bags and led the AL in 2011 with 49.
I know I prefaced with “in no particular order,” but when discussing basestealers it’s no secret that there is Rickey Henderson — then there’s an enormous gap — and then there’s everybody else. That said, I do think many Yankee fans don’t realize how dominant Rickey was during his four-plus seasons in the Bronx. His 86-percent success rate from 1985-88 was the highest over a four-season stretch in his career, and he led the league in total steals in three of those seasons with totals of 80, 87, and the all-time franchise record of 93, so it wasn’t exactly like he was picking his spots.
Rickey also missed part of 1987 to injury, otherwise, it likely would have been four stolen base crowns. For some perspective, no one has stolen more than 80 bases in a season since Rickey — regardless of success rate. His 326 steals as a Yankee are second all-time only to Jeter’s 358 (Rickey played in 2,151 fewer games as a Yankee) and his 85-percent success rate is best in franchise history.
What does any of this mean to today’s team? Not much. As I said, we can debate the overall impact of stolen bases and attempts on team success some other time. Regardless, it is a fun aspect of the game to watch and it’s certainly fun to look back at the Yankees who turned it into an art.
*Honorable Mentions go to Willie Randolph (251 SB, 75% success rate) and I know you don’t want to hear it, but ... Jacoby Ellsbury (102 SB, 80% success rate.)