Stealing Wins: The 2010 Yankees & Baserunning

The other guy in the A-Rod trade
The Edwin Jackson trade possibility
Run Brett run. (AP Photo/Ed Zurga)

For the most part, we recognize that the game exists in three distinct parts: hitting, pitching, and fielding. The last two go together to a certain extent. Those are just broad generalizations of course, we know that fielding consists of catching and throwing, that pitching consists of game-calling and executing the pitch, and that hitting consists of swinging a bat and baserunning. That baserunning part is what we’re going to focus on here, and it’s probably the most ignored skill in the game.

The Yankees as a team come off as a terribly bland baserunning squad to the naked eye. Oh yes, it’s fun to watch Brett Gardner soar around the bases at the top speed, and thanks to him the Yanks stole 100+ bases for the fifth consecutive year (103 steals at a 76.9% success rate, to be exact). Beyond Gardner though, the team is loaded with a pack of cloggers led by Mark Teixeira and Jorge Posada. Both Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are slowing down, and even Robbie Cano is nothing special on the basepaths despite being young and relatively athletic. When I looked at the team’s baserunning ability last winter, I found that the 2009 squad was worth 10.30 runs below average in non-stolen base situations. I suggest you go back and read that post just to get familiar with the tools we’re working with here.

That -10.30 run output was an eight run drop-off from 2008 and was the third worst in the game, ahead of only the Braves and Orioles. In sabermetric jargon, it means that the Yankees essentially cost themselves a win on the basepaths. That’s not good, obviously. Thankfully the team improved in these non-stolen base baserunning situations in 2010, jumping all the way up to 0.32 runs above average. It’s a negligible amount when you look at it on its own, but in the context of the last two years it’s a considerable 10.62 run improvement that should not be ignored. Here’s a breakdown of the team’s baserunning performance, and like I said before, I recommend re-reading last year’s post just to get familiar with the stats used

The most noticeable improvement comes from two players: Gardner and Posada. Gardner went from 284 plate appearances and 2.50 runs above average in 2009 to 569 plate appearances and 4.81 runs above average in 2010. It’s quite simple, they gave the guy more playing time and he rewarded them on the bases. Posada was the game’s worst baserunner a season ago (8.23 runs below average), but he improved his effort by two-and-a-half runs this past season for a total of 5.66 runs below average. Yes, it was still the second worst baserunning performance in the league (sorry, Adam LaRoche), but it was an improvement. Jorge stole a career high three bases in 2010, and he also performed better when it came to advancing on base hits according to the component data. That doesn’t necessarily mean he advanced more often, it just means he got thrown out less. Sometimes staying put is the best thing to do.

Jeter’s overall offensive performance cratered in 2010 but his baserunning did rebound. He went from just about a full run below average (0.90 to be exact) in 2009 to 1.76 runs above average, back in line with his career performance. Looks like his ’09 baserunning was just a blip on the radar. Of course, I’d gladly give up those extra three-ish runs of baserunning if it meant Jeter would hit like he did in 2009 again. Replacing Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon with Curtis Granderson and the Nick Johnson/Marcus Thames/Lance Berkman mash-up resulted in a 0.82 run upgrade on the bases. Replacing Melky Cabrera with Greg Golson, Colin Curtis, Chad Huffman, and Austin Kearns was a tiny little 0.23 run upgrade. Nick Swisher‘s baserunning performance fell off by close to two-and-a-half runs, and he was the most significant decline.

Cano’s baserunning skills caught my eye so much last year that I wrote an entire post on the topic. I showed that while he was generally a crappy basestealer, he had improved in the other aspects of baserunning in each of his four big league seasons. Unfortunately the improvement did not continue, as he dropped from 2.46 runs above average in 2009 to just 1.37 runs above average in 2010. A little more than a run isn’t that big of a deal, but it would have been cool to see that improvement continue. I guess Robbie had grown accustomed to simply trotting around the bases last summer (hiyo!). As long as he’s in the black, I’m cool with it.

The Yanks have added just one significant position player this offseason, importing Russell Martin to be the everyday catcher. Unlike most backstops, he’s not a total slug on the bases. He swiped 21 bags in his breakout 2007 season and has stolen at least ten bases in each of his five professional seasons (although he has just a 70.2% success rate) save for 2010, when the hip injury robbed him the season’s final 55 games. Martin’s legs were worth 0.22 runs below average in non-stolen base situations last summer, an improvement from -1.58 runs in 2009 and a downgrade from +0.04 runs in 2008. By no means is he a great baserunner, but for a catcher, he’s pretty good.

Once again, the big thing to take away from this is that baserunning doesn’t impact the game all that much on an individual level. You’ll live with Tex being a below average baserunner because he does quite literally everything else in the game well. Nick Swisher cost the team three runs on the bases? Who cares, he can make that up in a week with his bat. The overall impact at the team level can be significant, and it’s worth nothing that the difference between the best baserunning team (Texas, +12.08 runs) and the worst (Arizona, -10.29) was more than two full wins last year. The Yankees are one of about a dozen teams scrunched right around the league average, give or take three runs in either direction.

More playing time for Gardner, a healthier and improved Granderson, and the addition of Martin should be enough to mitigate any decline by Posada, A-Rod, and Jeter in 2011, hopefully keeping the team right around that league average mark. It would be nice if they were a better and more dynamic team on the bases, sure, but that’s just not their game. Considering the minimal overall impact, that’s perfectly fine with me if they mash away.

The other guy in the A-Rod trade
The Edwin Jackson trade possibility
  • JGS

    Out of curiosity, why pick a picture where he is clearly out?

    • Mike HC

      Looking at that slide, it is no wonder Gardner gets beat up as the season goes along.

    • Mike Axisa

      I didn’t out that much thought into it. Didn’t even notice he was out until you mentioned it.

    • Gordon

      No shit.

    • Steve H

      He just wanted to get Betancourt in the post.

  • Matt DiBari

    Sort of off topic, but is there anyway to find out what count the Yankees were most likely to run on? My perception was that the Yankees (and Gardner in particular)almost never ran before two strikes, which was incredibly frustrating in game situations.

    • Johnny O

      Gardner’s base stealing acumen (not sure if this is measureable in terms of the above numbers related to his pure speed like 40 time or something?) seems to the naked eye to be very poor. He never seems to know what count or pitch to steal on and never recognizes that he needs to run every time on base against the victor martinez’s of the world.

    • Jonathan

      I completely agree with this. The earlier you run in the count the more of a chance there is for someone to drive you in or move you over. But we usually wait until 2 outs or 2 strikes when the benefit is so much lower than it should be. We shouldn’t even be running that late.

      There are so many times were gardner or another SB threat gets a leadoff single or walk and then he just sits there. And if you play out the inning(disclaimer: the inning isn’t guaranteed to play out the same way but there’s no chance of it working out if he doesn’t run) he would have scored. Example, a groundout moves him up to second, then a deep fly ball moves him to 3rd and he’s stranded there where if he was on 2nd that’s a run. Especially when the pitcher is horrible at holding runners or the catcher is Vmartesque. Gardner seems to have frozen up after last years stretch run/playoffs where he got caught stealing in several very important games. I hope it wears off for next season.

      • Matt DiBari

        I’m particularly a fan of putting in a pinch runner to stand around until the inning ends. We do that alot.

  • Ross in Jersey

    Hey man, Posada was a speed demon on the bases this year! He stole as many bases as his last 3 years combined at a 75% success rate, showing your new-fangled stats is a bunch of hogwash!

    (/sarcasm, if it wasn’t obvious)

  • Monteroisdinero

    Montero is slow as well but hopefully it won’t matter with doubles and homers. If Gardner leads off and Jeter bats second, the Yanks have to figure out a way to maximize the stolen bases and minimize the gidp’s.

    • jsbrendog (returns)

      jeter is probably not going anywhere.

  • Steve H

    It’s better to be poor on the bases than it is to not get on base at all.

    • Thomas

      No its not. If your slow you are just clogging up the bases.

      Dusty Baker

      • Steve H

        And PS, get me Wily Tavares and Corey Patteron.



    • Zack

      I bet Ruben Rivera wishes he was never on base:

  • SRB

    Gardner (often hitting ninth) would have gone more earlier in the count if Jeter (often hitting first) had not followed him- Girardi put the clamps on because he felt Jeter would hit in the hole created by holding Gardner on- The problem w/ this was when Jeter hit into the double play too often Move Jeter to the seven spot and let Gardner run!

    • Monteroisdinero

      A healthy Nick Johnson is the perfect lefty to bat after Gardner. Such a person does not exist however.

  • king of fruitless hypotheticals

    what should your CS rate be? obviously if its 90%, you’re stealing too often, and if its 0%, you’re not trying enough.

    is Gardner making enough attempts?

  • BugTunkler

    There are problems with the table above. When someone is negative in both categories, the total should be more negative, not less. Looks like you had the same issue last year.

    • Mike Axisa

      That’s not how it works. It’s (EQBRR)-(EQSBR). Take Cano for example:

      (-1.30)-(-2.67)= +1.37.

      His total baserunning value was -1.3 runs, but that’s due to a stolen base component that was -2.67 runs. That means the rest of his baserunning had to be a net positive.

      • kimonizer

        got it, should of read last year’s post again.

    • kimonizer

      I noticed that too. If that is in fact incorrect we are much much worse because there are a bunch of double negatives there.

      • Mike Axisa

        Again, not how it works. When you subtract a negative, it’s the same thing as addition.

  • Eric

    Another frustrating thing with the Yankees last year was how when Gardner got on base, Girardi would bunt him over instead of letting him steal.

    I mean, really Girardi?