The Yankees struggled to score runs this season, which I’m certain does not come as news to you. In coming up with theories that tried to identify the problem, many fans and writers focused on matters such as quality of contact, hard-hit percentage, launch angle, barrel percentage, etc. The other end of the spectrum opined about the Yankees’ inability to “manufacture” runs, or their disinclination to play “small ball”.
When complex questions arise, I think it’s best to keep things simple. (Yes, I’m aware I left you a hanging curveball there so I’ll thank you in advance for not leaving a comment in the comments section about my preference for simplicity.) So before we talk about anything else, let’s back up and start at square one with what we know about what leads to runs scored.
On-base percentage has had the highest correlation to total runs scored since forever. Every season the teams at or near the top of the league in OBP will be at or near the top of the league in runs scored. The 2021 Yankees, due in no small part to leading the AL in walks, were pretty good at getting on base, ranking fifth in the league in OBP. Yet, they still finished 10th in the AL in runs per game, so there must have been a different issue that might explain the scarcity of runs.
We also know that a team’s ability to hit with power, although not as closely correlated to runs as OBP, is correlated to runs scored. It’s very rare to see a team that scores many runs that doesn’t hit for power. In fact, in 2021, the four teams who led the AL in both total bases and SLG were also the top four in RPG.
Although it may not have seemed like it at times during the season, the 2021 Yankees did hit many home runs, finishing tied for third in the AL in that category. So if the 2021 Yankees were good at both getting on base and finding the seats, what was the problem?
They led the AL in most double plays grounded into, finished third in most runners left on base and their baserunning could generously be described as atrocious. All of those things are factors of course, but as maddening as they were to watch play out in real-time they don’t move the needle that much over 162 games — certainly not enough to explain how a good OBP team that hits a lot of home runs finishes 10th in the AL in RPG.
Here’s something I think gets lost in translation quite often, and therefore is something often overlooked: Hitting for power doesn’t just mean hitting home runs, it refers to all extra-base hits. Teams that are good at advancing runners, hit many doubles and triples in addition to home runs.
As you may have surmised by now, the 2021 Yankees finished dead last in the AL in doubles and second to last in triples. This is why despite hitting many home runs, they finished 11th in the AL in total bases and ninth in SLG.
SLG, when it comes down to it, measures the ability to advance baserunners. If a team isn’t getting a lot of extra-base hits of all types, they’re not going to be very good at advancing baserunners and they’re not going to score a lot of runs regardless of OBP. If you’re curious, the Yankees from 2019-2020 not only led the league in RPG but were first in SLG and fourth in total bases over that stretch.
Furthermore, remember earlier when we mentioned the high number of runners left on base and double plays? Doubles and triples address both of those problems. By definition, doubles and triples advance runners multiple bases at a time leaving fewer on, but they also leave the batter in scoring position with no runner behind him — drastically reducing the possibility of a GIDP.
The cause of the drop-off in doubles and triples is a multi-faceted issue too long to address today. Issues like generating consistently hard contact (from more than just two players), running speed, park dimensions, quality of base running coaches, first step out of the batters’ box, and situational awareness of the defense (or lack thereof) can all affect the number of extra-base hits. Although it may be a complex issue, the lack of total extra-base hits — not just home runs — is something the coaching staff needs to fix, as it certainly was a factor in the team falling short of expectations in 2021.
If you’re curious: Tampa Bay, Houston, Boston, and Toronto were the four teams that were all top four in the AL in RPG, doubles, total bases, and SLG.