Over the course of the 2021 season, the Yankees offense was criticized for being extremely one-dimensional. It was an understandable critique: not only were the team’s rankings in stolen bases (10th), doubles (15th), and triples (14th) near the bottom of the American League, the players responsible for the team’s speed were Tyler Wade, Andrew Velazquez, Tim Locastro, and Greg Allen — i.e., guys near the bottom of the roster.
In fact, don’t just take my word for it. Statcast data from last season paints a very grim picture of how lethargic the team was on the basepaths.
The situation only got slower at the beginning of the winter, as the team non-tendered Locastro, Velazquez, and Wade and let Brett Gardner sit in free agency. With the team in need of some fresh legs, fans wondered if the Yankees would look at bringing in a guy like Trevor Story, who has routinely ranked in the mid-90s percentiles, or at the very least a doubles machine like Corey Seager. There were plenty of options available in free agency to diversify the team’s offensive skillset, so long as they were willing to spend the money.
Of course, we know what actually happened. GM Brian Cashman opted to forego free agency entirely, and instead decided to lean into a lineup of slow, lumbering power hitters by bringing in Josh Donaldson to play third base. And that was that — the team was going all-in on power.
And then Tuesday night’s game happened. Amidst Gerrit Cole’s awful start, the frigid cold, and the Tigers’ inability to play defense, the Yankees stole four bases — two by Isiah Kiner-Falefa and one apiece by Anthony Rizzo and Aaron Hicks. Sure, the team’s decision to steal bases left and right that night was certainly aided by the fact that Tucker Barnhart, who has a lackluster pop time (Statcast pegs him at 41st among catchers with 2.01 seconds in 2019, the last time they had enough data for him), was behind the plate. But that got me looking into the Statcast data, and what I found surprised me a bit.
Now, the sample sizes at this point in the season are so small that I am obligated to tell you that this data was compiled last night. The reason I’m getting so specific is that when I looked at the data on Tuesday night is that Hicks’ sprint speed dropped about a full foot per second in just one day; there are simply so few balls in play this early in the season that even sprint speed measurements are extremely volatile. But even acknowledging that things can change here in a heartbeat, there’s a lot to be excited about.
The top of the list, Locastro and Kiner-Falefa, are no surprises. Locastro is legitimately the fastest person in baseball, while IKF has averaged 16 stolen bases per 162 games over the course of his career. Towards the middle of the list, we have a trio of players, Gleyber Torres, Joey Gallo, and Aaron Judge, who never rank highly on sprint speed lists but who have shown an ability to swipe some bases. Torres had 14 last year, while Gallo had six before being traded to the Yankees, and Judge five after the All-Star Break. But most significantly, we have Hicks finding himself third on this list.
Once upon a time, Hicks was actually a rather potent base stealer for the Yankees, swiping 10 bases in 2017 and 11 in 2018. Once the injury bug began to hit him in 2019, he stopped running, accruing just five stolen bases across 145 games over the last three seasons. In the early going, however, Hicks has looked better than he has in five years. His 27.6 ft/sec is the highest sprint speed he’s posted since 2019 and represents an increase of more than 0.5 ft/sec over 2021.
That does not seem like a massive increase, but considering how impotent the Yankees were on the basepaths in 2021, even a small increase adds a new dimension to the offense. Take last night, for instance. When Donaldson walked to lead off the seventh, Aaron Boone inserted Locastro as a pinch-runner. Locastro’s speed forced the Tigers defense to rush an ill-conceived throw to nail him at second on a Torres bunt, a throw which careened into left field and allowed the speedster to reach third on the error. It created something else for the opponent to think about, and in doing so, created new opportunities to plate runners.
And with the way the offense has been swinging the bat, the Yankees could use as many opportunities to plate runners as possible.