One of the more frustrating aspects of watching the Yankees last season was their baserunning, which can only be described as atrocious. The team tied for the most runners thrown out at home plate in all of MLB and had the eighth-most runners thrown out on the bases overall. They managed that despite being rather timid on the base paths, as only two teams across MLB took an extra-base when given the opportunity less often than the Yankees. (If you’re thinking there’s an odd contradiction in that set of facts, you’re correct — it’s very hard to run into that many outs when you’re not running that often.)
Although the recent trade that brought Josh Donaldson and Isiah Kiner-Falefa to the Bronx created excitement by answering a few roster questions while raising a few others, one of the things that flew under the radar is that the Yankees improved their baserunning with the trade. As I noted last year when discussing the Yankees’ dysfunction on the base paths, baserunning on a team level doesn’t move the needle that much for a team’s chances at winning a World Series. A team doesn’t have to be very good at running the bases in order to win, they just can’t be very bad. Although it may seem minor, the acquisition of Donaldson and Kiner-Falefa pushes the Yankees in the right direction, which is to say, further away from very bad.
Let’s start with Donaldson. Early in his career Donaldson was a plus baserunner, but age and injuries have dragged his baserunning performance down somewhat. He didn’t take many chances on the bases last season, as he took an extra-base only 36 percent of the time, but he also didn’t run into many outs either. In 2021 Donaldson was a baserunner 165 times and was only tagged out on the bases three times — well below league average. Baseball-Reference had his WAR runs baserunning (Rbaser) at zero in 2021, while his Base Running Runs (BRR) from Baseball Prospectus was -1.2. FanGraphs was a little harsher, grading him at -4.3 with their comprehensive Baserunning Runs Above Average (BsR) metric.
There are two important things to note here: first, the average to below-average grades are due to Donaldson not taking many extra bases — he’s certainly not going to win games with his legs. The upside is that he doesn’t run into a lot of outs either, so although his baserunning may not help, it’s unlikely to hurt the team. This is significant as “below average” overall is a big upgrade over “horrendous”, and the guy Donaldson will be replacing in the Yankees’ lineup was horrendous in 2021.
I loved watching Gio Urshela play in pinstripes as much as any Yankee fan, as the slick glove at third base while he also smoked line drives all over the field (in 2019 and 2020 at least) was a heck of a lot of fun to witness. That said, it’s hard to understate how bad his baserunning was and how much it hurt the team.
Gio took an extra-base in only 27 percent of his opportunities last season, which is 13 percent below league average. Somewhat paradoxically, he still managed to get thrown out seven times on the bases, which is well above league average and more than twice as many times as Donaldson — despite Gio being a baserunner 46 fewer times than Donaldson last season. Regardless of who was measuring or how it was being measured, Gio was one of the worst baserunners in MLB last year as he ranked in the second, third, and sixth percentile among MLB players with at least 300 PA according to the respective grading systems referenced above.
Although upgrading from “horrendous” to “below average” is somewhat of a backhanded compliment, it’s still an improvement. Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s presence does more than that, as by any measurement he was one of the better baserunners in baseball last season and based on 2021 performances, instantly becomes the best runner on the Yankees.
Although only moderately aggressive when advancing on singles and doubles, his five outs on the bases last season in 677 PA and with 203 times as a baserunner is lower than average and shows he knows when to pick his spots. When combined with a very efficient 20 SB in 25 attempts, he earned 3.0 Rbaser, which ranked in the 90th percentile among players with at least 300 PA. As with Urshela (but with good news), all rating systems were in agreement as Kiner-Falefa’s BsR ranked at the 91st percentile in MLB while his BRR ranked in the 95th percentile. If you’re curious how that compared to Yankees in 2021, Brett Gardner’s ranks of 77th and 47th percentiles in BsR and Rbaser respectively led the Yanks, while Gleyber Torres’ 66th percentile rank in BRR led the team. Again, it’s all relative, but Gardner and Torres are no longer the team’s best baserunners, which is a good thing.
Of course, a big part of baserunning is actually getting on base. In that regard, Donaldson is also a significant upgrade over Urshela as his OBP was 51 points better than Gio’s last season. With regards to Kiner-Falefa, his .312 OBP last season was just a tick below the AL average of .316, and his PA won’t be replacing any single player’s so it’s hard to predict its impact. That said, no Yankees’ infielders were exactly OBP machines last season, so it’s safe to say Kiner-Falefa’s baserunning will improve the team.
Although it won’t have an enormous impact on the team’s chances of winning the World Series in 2022, the Yankees have improved in an area in which a significant improvement was needed. Yankees’ fans haven’t gotten the frontline starting pitcher we all wanted, or the big-name shortstop, but in today’s landscape, having one less thing to become irritated with always helps.