How Much Has the Yankees Baserunning Improved?
By Chris O’Connor
June 8, 2022
Before the start of the 2022 season, one of my bold predictions was that the Yankees would perform as an above-average baserunning unit as measured by Fangraphs all-encompassing baserunning score. The Yankees were the second-worst team by the metric in 2021, so while an above-average finish may not seem so dramatic, that would still be a massive jump. Brian Cashman made it a goal to make the Yankees more dynamic and athletic in 2022. The addition of Isiah Kiner-Falefa, combined with subtracting the slow-footed Gio Urshela and Gary Sanchez, has clearly played a role in achieving this. But Josh Donaldson himself is not necessarily a speedster, nor are the two Gary Sanchez replacements (Kyle Higashioka and Jose Trevino). Still, it appears that the Yankees have been not only far more aggressive on the bases, but just much smarter. Watching this team day after day, the eye test tells me that they do not make the same ill-advised mistakes on the bases as last season. What do the numbers say about the Yankees baserunning this season?
The numbers do support the idea that the Yankees' baserunning has been dramatically improved this season. Per that Fangraphs metric, the Yankees are tied for the 14th-best baserunning team in baseball this season. They have 31 stolen bases through 54 games this season, which puts them on pace for 93; last season they had 63. Despite the added volume, the Yankees 78% success rate is unchanged, which is a positive sign. Another thing: last season, the Yankees had 50 outs made on the bases (including a league-leading 22 at home plate) while taking the extra base just 36% of the time. This season, are on pace for 54 outs made on the bases (including 12 at home plate) while taking the extra base 39% of the time. They have combined a far more aggressive approach on the bases with only a slight increase in total outs made. And that they have nearly cut in half the total amount of times that they have made an out at home plate, which is a particularly demoralizing play, is just icing on the cake. Similarly, the percentage of times that a runner on base comes around to score a run has risen from 28% in 2021 to 32% in 2022. That might not sound like a big jump, but that 28% last season was tied for last in the league; their 32% this year ranks tied for tenth. The rise in stolen bases and general aggressiveness on the basepaths certainly helps that, particularly when they are being thrown out on the bases at a much lower rate than last season, but there are other reasons as well.
In my opinion, the Yankees batted ball profile plays a large role in their improved baserunning. As expected under Dillon Lawson, the Yankees new, analytically-savvy hitting coach, the Yankees are hitting the ball into the ground less. Last season, they had the 12th-highest ground ball rate in baseball at 43.6%; this year their rate of 41.6% is tenth-lowest. Hitting the ball on the ground is particularly sub-optimal for a team like the Yankees. Like last season, they walk a ton (walk rate of 9.5% is fourth-highest) and most of their extra base hits are homers (their 78 combined doubles and triples ranks third-lowest, while their 80 home runs leads the league). Because such a high percentage of their baserunners start on first base, hitting the ball on the ground kills the Yankees more than any team because of the propensity for double plays. This is also supported by the numbers: last season, they grounded into 152 double plays, a figure that was second-highest in the league. This season, they are on pace for 117 double plays, a figure that ranks ninth-highest in the league. Still not great, but certainly a fairly dramatic improvement over last season.
The Yankees pitching has received most of the acclaim for their 39-15 start, and deservedly so. Leading the league in home runs is sexy, and their improved defense plays a huge role as well. But don’t overlook the subtle (and not-so-subtle) improvements in their baserunning. Aaron Judge getting thrown out at home plate in the Wild Card Game last year is one example of how thin the margins are in the playoffs, and the Yankees in recent years have not exactly been great on the bases. In previous seasons, the Yankees have relied more on brute force to bludgeon the opposition. Think home runs and a power bullpen. This year, the starting pitching may take the Yankees to the World Series, but their improvements on the bases may be the difference in the pressure cooker of October.