If you’ve been looking for a silver lining in what’s been a depressing season for the Yankees, we were given one on Sunday night: Thanks to an uncharacteristic five-run offensive explosion from the Yankee bats, combined with the Detroit Tigers getting shutout in Chicago, the Yankees are no longer dead last in the American League in runs per game. Onward and upward to 14th in the league — watch out Seattle Mariners, you have some competition for that No. 13 spot.
Pretty much everybody around the Yankees, professionals and non-professionals alike, have chimed in at some point with an idea of what the problems are and what needs to be done to address them. As an amateur, couch-sitting sociologist, I’ve noticed that a common mistake we all make is to overreact to short-term issues — baseball has a long season with many ups and downs — and quite often matters have a tendency to normalize themselves as the season progresses.
However, another common mistake is to underreact to long-term issues. It’s been said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, and that comes into play in baseball pretty often. The smart organizations are good enough to differentiate between the two scenarios — don’t overreact to small sample sizes but also don’t put your head in the sand and wait for what’s clearly become a problem to go away either.
If you’re of the mind that 60 games is a big enough sample size, and the Yankees need to change something about their offense before it’s too late, I have an idea. To be clear, I’m not 100 percent convinced that it’s time to hit any panic buttons, but it’s certainly a discussion worth having at this point in the season. So for today’s purposes, let’s use the notion that the Yankees need to change an aspect of their offense as a discussion starting point.
The most obvious thing to change on a baseball team is the roster. If your team can’t score runs, the fix is simple: get players who are better at getting on base and hitting for power than the ones you have. Unfortunately, even though the solution is “simple” it’s not easy, especially mid-season. It’s not something that can be done quickly either, so its unlikely the benefits of a few personnel changes sown now would be reaped this season.
One thing the Yankees have not tried, however, is to implement stolen bases as part of an offensive strategy. In addition to dwelling at or near the bottom of the league in runs per game, the Yankees are also dead last in both stolen bases and stolen base attempts. As A.J. Hinch noted on a recent YES Network broadcast, there’s no need for unnecessary risks, but if you rarely even attempt to steal bases, you’re certainly leaving opportunities on the table. (Once again, your personal feelings of A.J. Hinch aside, the man understands the math of the game.)
If your first response to the above is that stolen bases and stolen base attempts have a tenuous correlation to overall runs scored and that more stolen bases may not improve matters, I wouldn’t completely disagree. We can go through baseball history, recent or otherwise, and find plenty of examples of teams who stole many bases but didn’t score many runs. The opposite — teams who do not attempt to steal many bases yet still score runs at a high rate — can also be found. For example, the Astros currently lead the league in runs per game and don’t have many more attempts than the Yankees do. The Astros, of course, can hit — which brings me to my point, which I always come to even if I don’t use the interstate to get there:
The better question to ask is “Why not attempt more stolen bases?” To paraphrase Branch Rickey, the team has been a woeful offensive team without implementing it as a strategy, the worst that can happen is they’ll still be woeful.
For starters, the Yankees are not a team without fast runners. They have four players who have slightly better than average sprint speed, according to Statcast — Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier, Aaron Judge, and Miguel Andújar. They have two more with far above average sprint speed in Brett Gardner and Tyler Wade.
Additionally, the team has players who’ve had success. DJ LeMahieu, Frazier, and Andújar are a combined 20 out of 25 on attempts as Yankees, and Wade is 15 for 19 in his career. Would the success rate drop in a larger sample size with that group? Probably, but it would still be pretty good for most situations even if it did. Speaking of larger sample sizes: Since integration, among Yankees with a minimum of 100 stolen bases, Gardner has the third-best success rate, coming in at 81 percent. (If you’re a trivia fan, I’ll tell you who numbers one and two are at the end of this article.)
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, many of the skills required to be a good base stealer can be taught. Learning how to read a pitcher’s habits and moves to home and first can be taught. Anticipating breaking balls in the dirt can be taught. Knowledge of game situations and risk calculation can be taught. Many Yankee fans remember Paul O’Neill going 22-for-25 on stolen base attempts at age 38, and Alex Rodriguez stealing 13 bases in 14 attempts at age 36. It wasn’t blazing speed that led to their success at that stage of their careers — it was predominantly knowledge and awareness.
Let’s look at two examples where being a little more aggressive may have led to better game outcomes:
Going back to Opening Day, the Yankees were tied with Toronto 2-2, with the Yankees batting in the bottom of the eighth inning. With one out and Aaron Hicks on first base, Torres and Gio Urshela were due up. With Rafael Dolis, a pitcher who throws a sinker, slider, or split-finger 99 percent of the time pitching, and with Danny Jansen — he of the well below league average pop time — catching, that would have been a great time to attempt a stolen base. A fast runner with a battery combination conducive to running, when one run is huge and guys not named Judge or Stanton are due up was a risk worth taking. The Yankees did not — they lost by one run.
On May 28th the Yankees were tied with the equally hapless Tigers 1-1 with one out in the fifth inning, and Frazier on first base. The Tigers had a better than league average pitcher on the mound in Casey Mize, and a catcher playing in his 45th career game behind the plate in Jake Rogers. Most importantly, the Yankees’ number eight and nine batters were due up – i.e., the odds of a long ball or consecutive hits were very, very low. Frazier taking second would have been a significant boost to the run expectancy with minimal risk. The Yankees did not take the risk, they did not score in that inning, and they lost the game by one run.
We’ll end there for brevity’s sake, but there are plenty more examples of instances this season when the Yankees left calculated risks, and run-scoring opportunities with them, on the table. This is likely due to being more concerned with avoiding a mistake than increasing the chances of scoring. This is the key point here: I’m not suggesting there’s a need to attempt more stolen bases just for the sake of doing so or take unnecessary risks in the process. We’ve seen enough careless outs on the bases this season. Nor am I suggesting we know how things would have played out for sure if those bases had been stolen in the above scenarios — but we do know how things have been turning out without taking small risks this season, and it hasn’t been good.
A team that has been as poor as the Yankees have been offensively, can certainly afford to take a few more calculated risks. If it’s not yet the point of the season in which something has to change, we’re certainly close to it.
Again, the better question is why not?
Trivia: Among Yankees since integration with a minimum of 100 steals, the best success rate belongs to Rickey Henderson (85 percent), second-best belongs to Alex Rodriguez (84 percent).