No one will ever claim that the 2015 Yankees were a team that relied on its speed to win baseball games. The Yankees have averaged 107.75 stolen bases per season with Joe Girardi as manager, peaking in 2011 when they stole 147 bases as a team. The 2011 Yankees featured Brett Gardner (49 steals), Curtis Granderson (25), Eduardo Nunez (22 in only 338 plate appearances), and Derek Jeter (16) on the base paths.
By contrast, Jacoby Ellsbury led the 2015 club with 21 steals in 111 games played, followed by Gardner with 20, and Didi Gregorius and Rico Noel each stealing five in the regular season. The Yankees stole just 63 bases as a team last year, with Los Angeles and Baltimore being the only teams in the American League who stole fewer. That is also by far the fewest bases that the Yankees have stolen under Girardi, with the next lowest mark coming in 2012 when they stole 93 as a team. The figure below reveals the steepness of the decline in Yankees stolen base numbers by 44% between 2014 and 2015 alone.
Beyond base stealing, the Yankees also slowed as a team in 2015 by taking fewer extra bases. FanGraph's XBT% statistic reports the percentage of time that a base runner advances more than one base on a single or two bases on a double. Between 2008 and 2014 the Yankees averaged an XBT% of 37%. In 2015, that figure declined to 34%.
Despite being a station to station team that advanced runners one base at a time, the Yankees were a highly productive offensive club in 2015. They scored 764 runs, which placed them second in MLB behind only the Toronto Blue Jays. This run production relied heavily on the home run, of which the Yankees hit 212, good for fourth among all clubs last season.
While home runs should again be heavily featured in the Yankees' attack in 2016, the ability to steal and take extra bases offers the promise of a more diverse offense that can better resist slumps. Given how little benefit the Yankees appear to have gleaned from the base paths in 2016, it would seem that they have only room to grow in expecting improved returns from their base running.
One potential source of this improvement could come in the form of a healthy Ellsbury, who is the Yankees' best threat to steal and take the extra base when he is playing at full capacity. At the age of 32 it would be unreasonable to expect him to turn back the clock to 2009 when he stole 70 bases for the Boston Red Sox. However, when healthy, Ellsbury is a threat to make things happen with his speed, and the Yankees certainly missed his ability to put pressure on opposing defenses last season.
The Yankees will also hope that Gardner's health continues to improve to the point where he can be more aggressive with his base running. Gardner played in 151 games last year, and stole 20 bases in the process, but attempted only seven steals after the All-Star break. If he can avoid the bumps and bruises that seem to plague him perpetually during the second half of seasons, he too is poised to provide a boost to the Yankees' running game this year.
The acquisition of Aaron Hicks and the emergence of Rob Refsnyder also have the potential to add some higher-end base running ability to the lineup. Hicks' XBT% has averaged 42% through his first three seasons, and he stole 13 bases over 390 plate appearances last season. Both of these indicators bode well for his contribution to improved base running for the Yankees this year. Refsnyder has received praise for his athleticism throughout his minor league career, and this spring has stolen three bases as he attempts to highlight that facet of his game for the team's decision makers.
Despite these potential sources of improvement, the Yankees in 2016 are still a team that will rely on Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran to get on base and produce runs to be successful. With that in mind, do not expect the 2016 Yankees to receive many accolades for their dynamism in running the bases. However, with some improvement from the sources documented above, the Yankees do position themselves to have a more versatile offensive attack in 2016 than they did in 2015. As the Yankees' youth movement continues into the future with prospects such as Aaron Judge and Jorge Mateo, it is possible to envision a lineup that has the capacity to do damage with its legs as well as with the long ball.