Baserunning decisions, by and large, are questions of risk versus reward. Obviously, advancing a base or two is a good thing, as it increases a team’s run expectancy. Attempting to advance also comes with some risk, as a team who is consistently aggressive in trying to advance extra bases by definition will run into some outs occasionally. (You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, right?) Yet quite often, getting thrown out on the bases decreases run expectancy more than gaining an extra base helps it. Therefore, in many instances, it’s better to just stay put and avoid running into outs.
What good baserunning teams are efficient at is balancing the risk and reward in each situation so a sound decision can be made, both in advance of a play and on the fly. Therefore, it’s understandable if a team runs into some outs as long as they’re taking many extra bases. Conversely, being risk-averse and not advancing very often can also be justified, as that should severely limit outs made on the bases.
What if a team somehow managed to very rarely advance an extra base, but simultaneously still managed to run into a very high number of outs on the bases? I present to you the 2021 Yankees, who are on the verge of making some rather ignominious history.
Currently, the Yankees have the lowest percentage of extra bases taken (XBT%) in MLB, defined as the percentage of times a runner advanced two bases on a single or three on a double when the opportunity arose. They also rank second in MLB in most outs made on the bases (OOB). Actually, they were in the lead for much of the season, but after a hot streak from Oakland — and a very fortunate Rougned Odor, who tried very hard to run into an out in the fifth inning on Sunday night — the Yankees are now in a close second to the Athletics. (This Oakland team, quite clearly, never watched “Moneyball.”)
If the Yankees can somehow pull off the daily double and lead the major leagues in both lowest XBT% and OOB for the season, they would become the only AL* team to do so in the 106 seasons for which we have baserunning records.
If you’re like me, you find those stats contradictory and confusing - almost comically so: The 2021 Yankees are so conservative on the bases they rarely take an extra base when the opportunity presents itself, yet they still manage to make outs on the bases at an extremely high rate?
That makes very little sense. That’s like an NFL QB who has the fewest pass attempts but also leads the league in interceptions. It’s like an NHL goalie who faces the fewest shots also leading the league in goals allowed. At least in those comparisons, it’s one individual – the Yankees are an entire roster of baserunning ineptitude, close to an extent the American League has never seen before.
Of course, when it’s a team-wide issue, questions are going to be asked about the coaching staff. When Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman was asked about it, specifically baserunning coach Reggie Willits, Cashman responded, that the Yankees' poor baserunning record “does not diminish how good a baserunning coach Reggie Willits is.”
Cashman went further:
“In fact, I would say he’s one of the best baserunning coaches this game has got. No one cares or works harder than that guy. I know when you get on the dark side of things it’s easy to throw somebody under the bus. It’s easy to point a finger at somebody and lay blame there...”
Cashman’s position raises a few issues: First, if Reggie Willits is one of the best, I’m not sure I want to meet the worst. Secondly, donkeys work hard too – the “hard work” trope is just a deflective straw man argument – no one is questioning anybody’s work ethic or level of caring. Lastly, of course, it’s easy to point the finger, and we all know the problem is rarely just one person, but that ignores an important point here.
The GM speaks as if “culpability” and “responsibility” are synonyms — they are not. The team’s poor baserunning may or may not be someone’s fault, but it most certainly is someone’s responsibility, and that responsibility isn’t being fulfilled. Whether that’s Willits, third-base coach Phil Nevin (the Yanks lead MLB in outs at home by a good margin), or manager Aaron Boone – someone needs to step up and fix matters.
As I noted when I wrote about the Yankees’ baserunning earlier in the season, baserunning isn’t nearly as important to wins and losses as OBP, SLG, and run prevention are. There have been many teams that have had great baserunning seasons but poor won/loss records. There have been teams with below-average baserunning skills that have won the World Series. The 2021 Yankees are far past “below average” or even “bad” team-wide baserunning – they’re already in the discussion worst in American League history, and may end up with a record to prove it.