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What tactical trends have the Yankees deployed early in 2016?

Have the Yankees' tactical leanings changed during the early-going?

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

With about a month's worth of games on record, now is a good time to take stock of the Yankees' in-game strategy so far. There are tons of ways to evaluate a team's strategic outlook, ranging from how they use ace relievers and how long they let starters pitch to the usage of something like a hit-and-run. For this exercise, let's look at a few age-old strategic maneuvers: the stolen base, the sacrifice bunt, and the intentional walk.

Last season, the Yankees were one of the most conservative teams in baseball when it came to stealing bases. They stole just 63 bases all year, 25th in the league, and were 26th in overall stolen base attempts, with 88. The team's reticence to steal seemed to stem mostly from increased conservatism from its main base stealers, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner, though that might have been due to the team's advice.

Ellsbury attempted only 30 steals in 2016, and was successful on just 70% of those attempts, well below his career mark of 83%. This was a marked drop in attempt rate for Ellsbury, who attempted 44 steals in his first year in pinstripes, and had 56 attempts during his final year with the Red Sox. The same goes for Gardner, whose 25 stolen base attempts marked a career low for a year in which he qualified for the batting title.

In 2016, the Yankees have done a 180. They are currently tied for second in baseball with 23 stolen bases, and are tied for seventh in overall attempts. They have done this despite the fact that they rank third to last in baseball in plate appearances, due to the Yankees' low number of games played, and to the general lack of baserunners generated by the offense.

Unsurprisingly, it is Garnder and Ellsbury who have led the charge on the basepaths. The pair has combined for 14 stolen bases, though they have been caught a total of four times. However, the rest of the team has also chipped in. Chase Headley has stolen three bases without being caught, Starlin Castro is two-for-two, and of course, even Alex Rodriguez has gotten in on the fun:

It remains to be seen if the Yankees as a whole will remain aggressive on the bases for the rest of the season, but it is notable that a team that was as conservative as any last season has ranked towards the top of the stolen base leaderboards this year.

Reticence on the basepaths is something of a sabermetric tenet since outs are too precious to risk losing them with a caught stealing. Increased aggressiveness on stolen base runs somewhat counter to the the king of thinking the Yankees generally support, though the increase of steals among other known analytic-heavy teams like the Red Sox and Astros suggests a potential change in philosophy. Elsewhere, however, the Yankees have employed tactics that more align them with consensus analytical thinking.

One such area is sacrifice bunts. Both the Yankees and the league as a whole have curtailed their use of the sacrifice bunt, as many teams are loathe to simply make outs on purpose. Consider this chart of league-wide bunt usage, as well as the Yankees' use of the sacrifice entering play on Thursday:

Year League Sac Bunts PA per Sac Bunt NYY Sac Bunts PA per Sac Bunt
2014 1343 137 29 210
2015 1200 153 24 261
2016 167 185 3 310

As the league has discontinued the use of the sacrifice bunt as a major tool, so have the Yankees. New York has dropped down to just five sacrifices in 930 plate appearances this year, one every 310 plate appearances. That is the eighth lowest rate in the league, higher than only high power offenses such as the Blue Jays, Orioles, and Astros, as well as organizations generally known for their aversion to old-school tactics like bunting (the Rays, Athletics, and Red Sox).

The Yankees have also continued to do away with another old-school strategy: the intentional walk. Here's New York's intentional walk usage juxtaposed with the league's use of intentional walks:

Year League IBBs Innings per IBB NYY IBBs Innings per IBB
2014 985 44 23 63
2015 951 46 16 91
2016 146 50 2 109

Like the sac bunt, both the league at large and the Yankees are being much more judicious when it comes to employing intentional walks. New York has issued just two intentional bases on balls in 2016, one for every 109 innings pitched.

So, in two areas of strategy, the Yankees have demonstrated a clear trend: they are refusing to give away outs by bunting, and they are not issuing free passes to first base to their opponents. This seems salient. In a low-offense era (and armed with what has been a low-offense team), Joe Girardi and his staff have seemingly continued the trend towards avoiding burning outs on offense and handing out free baserunners on defense.

This doesn't hold true with their stolen base aggressiveness so far. There is still a long season remaining to see if the Yankees cut back on their stolen base attempts, but at this juncture, the increased rate has been fairly effective. Their success rate of 82.1% is second in baseball, trailing only the Red Sox and their whopping 92.3% success rate. With excellent runners on hand in Gardner and Ellsbury, some added aggression on the basepaths might prescient. And with an offense struggling to score runs, along with an uneven rotation, purposely getting out and purposely issuing walks seem to be tactics worthy of avoidance.