Feb
26

2014 Season Preview: Speed Demons

By
(Presswire)

(Presswire)

It has been an easy to overlook part of their game, but the Yankees have been one of the most prolific base-stealing teams in baseball over the last decade. They’ve swiped 100+ bases in seven of the last eight seasons and their 1,117 steals since 2004 are the fourth most in the game. No one thinks of the Yankees as a base-stealing team but they’ve been among the best in recent years.

Of course, there is more to base-running than bulk stolen base totals. A lot more, really. Advancing on a ground ball, scoring from first on a double, going first-to-third on a single, all of that is important as well. Players don’t even need to be fast to be good base-runners, though speed sure does help. Between the incumbents and the players brought in over the winter, New York has a number of guys who can make plays on the bases if not flat-out cause chaos.

Jacoby Ellsbury
When the Yankees signed Ellsbury to that massive $153M contract back in December, they added arguably the best base-runner in the world to their roster. He led baseball with 52 steals last year and was only caught four (!) times, a 93% success rate that was easily the best among players who attempted at least 25 steals. Ellsbury has one 70 steal season (2009) and two other 50+ steal seasons (2008, 2013) to his credit. His career success rate is 84%, well above the current break-even point of 66-68%.

Over the last three seasons, Ellsbury has taken the extra base (first-to-third on a single, etc.) 49% of the time, which again is well above the 39-40% league-average. It’s worth noting that he took the extra base only 42% of the time last season, his lowest rate in five years. That doesn’t necessarily mean Ellsbury is slowing down or anything like that, we’re talking about a sample of 74 extra-base opportunities. The difference between 42% and 49% is five extra bases, that’s all. Ellsbury just turned 30 in September and there is little reason to think he will be anything but a base-running monster in 2014. If he stays healthy, 40+ steals and tons of extra bases taken feels like a lock.

Brett Gardner
I know I’m not the only one who was disappointed in Gardner’s stolen base total last summer. After stealing 96 bases (81% success rate) during his previous two healthy seasons from 2010-11, he dropped down to only 24 steals (75% success rate) in 2013. My hypothesis is that because their offense was so weak, the Yankees gave Gardner the red light a bunch of times last year in an effort to make sure there were runners on base for Robinson Cano. Maybe I’m crazy, who knows.

(Nick Laham/Getty)

(Nick Laham/Getty)

Gardner’s rate of taking the extra base is very similar to Ellsbury’s: 45% in 2013 and 48% from 2011-13. I think the thing that has kept both guys from being truly elite extra-base takers like Mike Trout (career 61%) has been their ballparks. Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park are small parks, so the outfielders can play a little shallower and get to balls hit in front of them a little quicker. It doesn’t take much to stop a guy from taking those extra 90 feet on a base hit.

Anyway, Gardner turned 30 about two weeks before Ellsbury, so he’s still relatively young and should continue to be a threat on the bases in 2014. Hopefully he gets back to being a 40+ steal guy because that’s when he’s at his best. Only once in their history have the Yankees had two 40+ stolen base players in one season (Steve Sax and Roberto Kelly in 1990), but Gardner and Ellsbury have a very real chance of doing it this summer.

Alfonso Soriano
Man, remember how exciting Soriano was when he first came up? He was this wiry little guy who hit for power and ran like the wind, hitting 95 homers and stealing 119 bases from 2001-03, his three full years with the Yankees. That was a baseball lifetime ago and 40+ steals are a thing of the past, but Soriano can still do some damage on the bases.

After swiping a total of 22 bases from 2009-12, Soriano rebounded to steal 18 bags last season, including eight in 58 games with New York. He wasn’t terribly efficient though, getting caught nine times total and four times in pinstripes. That 67% success rate is right on the break-even point. Soriano has also taken the extra base 38% of the time the last three years (41% in 2013), so he’s basically league average in that regard.

I’m not exactly sure what we can expect from the 38-year-old Soriano on the bases this coming season. Could he steal 10-15 bases with a 67% success rate while taking the extra base a league average amount of time? That seems very possible but I’m not sure he could do much better without a huge contract year push. I’d bet against one at his age. Soriano isn’t a Gardner/Ellsbury level base-runner, but he can steal the occasional bag and score from first on the occasional double.

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

Ichiro Suzuki
Ichiro, 40, stole 20 bases in 24 attempts last year, second most on the team behind Gardner. His bulk stolen base total has gradually declined over the years but he remains highly efficient, with an 83% success rate both last year and over the last three years. He took the extra base 38% of the time last season and 40% over the last three seasons, so more or less league average.

The additions of Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran have pushed Ichiro into a fifth outfielder’s role, but he should still get plenty of chances to have an impact on the bases as a pinch-runner/spot starter. He keeps himself in phenomenal shape and even though he has clearly lost a step over the years, Ichiro is still a smart base-runner who picks his spots well. I think experience can be very valuable for a bench player and when it comes to running the bases in the late innings of a close game, few would be a better option than Ichiro. Running the bases is something he still does very well, it’s just a question of how often he’ll get to do it.

Derek Jeter
In the past, the Yankees could always count on their captain for stolen bases and smart base-running decisions, but following last season’s leg injury filled nightmare, it’s unclear if he’ll be of any value on the bases in 2014. Even when he was healthy in 2012, Jeter only stole nine base (in 13 attempts) while taking the extra base 38% of the time. What will he be able to do on the heels of a twice-fractured ankle and various leg muscle problems? The smart money is on not much.

It would be awesome is Jeter got back to being a threat on the bases this summer, but that should be the very least of his and the team’s concerns. He should focus on staying healthy and being productive at the plate, first and foremost. Those are the most important things in his final season. Any base-running value Jeter gives the team this year is icing on the cake. It just isn’t much of a priority at this point of his career.

* * *

Kelly Johnson has stolen 37 bases over the last three years but he only went 7-for-11 (64%) last season, and he took the extra base at a well-below-average 29% over the last three years. He might steal 10-15 bases this summer, but his history suggests he won’t be all that efficient on the bases. Beltran’s knees don’t allow him to run much anymore but Eduardo Nunez is always good for double-digit steals, even as a part-timer, and he took the extra bag at a league average rate from 2011-13.

Gardner and Ellsbury will clearly be the stars of the Yankees’ base-running show this season, and they have some nice support in Ichiro, Soriano, Nunez, and maybe Jeter. It feels like a foregone conclusion that they’ll again top 100+ stolen bases as a team this year and they should improve on their overall extra-base taken rate, which was the second worst in the game at only 35% last year.

Categories : Offense

74 Comments»

  1. Donny says:

    My favorite stat of all-time: Joe Dimaggio was never thrown out running first to third.

    Think about that. Insane.

  2. Eddardo Nuney says:

    Jeter is not a speed demon. Ellsbury and Gardner are going to be a great one-two punch on the bases. They could steal 100 bags between them. Soriano did pretty well last year stealing bags. I could see him getting 20. Ichiro shouldn’t play at all except as a PR and that should be as little as possible.

  3. Dirk Diggler says:

    Call me crazy but…

    Roberts *was* a prolific base stealer…

    Now that he had hamstring surgery and left his concussion issues behind him — is it unrealistic to say that he (Brian Roberts) could swipe 12-15 bags under the radar pending his health?

    I personally don’t think it’s out of the question. Roberts could be toast (pull a Hafner), or he could return to being semi-productive (think Ibanez in 2012) , but I wouldn’t necessarily count him out before he plays a game. I think he could sneakily steal some bags this season.

    • BronxBomber987 says:

      I’m glad I’m not the only one with hope in Roberts. I personally feel like he’s going to be better than people think this year. He raked in September so is it that hard to believe he is getting close to being slightly above average?

      • Dirk Diggler says:

        Didn’t he play in all but like two games following the hamstring surgery or something like that? Sorry, I’m too lazy to verify that, but I think it was along those lines.

        I have some doubts, but at the same time, Cashman was negotiating with him even before Cano signed with Seattle so Cashman could share our optimism that we have for Roberts and see something in him.

        • LK says:

          I interpret Cashman negotiating with him before they lost Cano to mean either (1) they knew they were losing Cano or (2) they don’t think Roberts can be a full-time starter.

          • Dalek Jeter says:

            I interpret it as they knew there was a nonzero chance that Cano would leave and they acted accordingly.

            • Jorge Steinbrenner says:

              Agreed.

            • LK says:

              Sure, but if Plan A was to have both Cano and Roberts on the team, when Cano plays 160 games every single year, it doesn’t exactly scream that the org saw a ton of upside.

              • Jorge Steinbrenner says:

                I think Plan A was Cano, and not Roberts. Roberts was anywhere between Plan B and Plan Y at the time.

                • Dalek Jeter says:

                  I agree. Just because you’re in negotiations with a player doesn’t mean that you have signed, or are obligated to sign, him.

                  • LK says:

                    I think I might’ve had the timeline wrong. I thought they signed Roberts before missing out on Cano.

                    • jjyank says:

                      I’m pretty sure that you’re right.

                      I wouldn’t read too much into what it says. If Plan A was to sign both of them, Roberts gets pushed to the bench for the time being and could easily be released. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the FO wasn’t optimistic about Roberts. I just think the Yanks were trying to cover their bases as much as possible in the event Cano left. And I think that logic makes some sense, considering they opted for a one year deal with Roberts, rather than jumping on someone like Infante for multiple years.

                • Macho Man "Randy Levine" says:

                  So what does that mean Plan Z was?

            • Darren says:

              Too bad Cashman didn’t show that ability to multi-task when Russell Martin was looking for a deal!

              • Jorge Steinbrenner says:

                Swing and a miss.

              • Dalek Jeter says:

                Meh, last year sucked especially at catcher…but Brian McCann is a better offensive catcher than Russel Martin, is a year younger, and according to Fangraph’s defensive metric is only slightly worse than Martin defensively for their careers.

                • LK says:

                  Yeah, that would be a great point if Martin hadn’t said that he would’ve taken a 1-year deal to stay with NYY.

                • Darren says:

                  I like McCann a lot more than Martin (at least in theory), but as noted below, he would’ve signed a 1 year deal or else he could have easily been traded. And the reason they didn’t sign him was wacky – that Cashman was focusing on pitching before he could move on to catching. And to make it worse, I believe he was focusing on resigning Pettitte and Kuroda, which shouldn’t have been THAT all consuming.

          • TWTR says:

            Cano reportedly told his teammates that he was going where ever the most money was. So ownership on down had to know that as well.

    • LK says:

      Roberts played in 77 games in 2013 and stole 3 bases. It’s possible he’ll return to form, but it would be surprising. Even Oliver, which gives everyone 600 PA, only projects him for 7 SBs. Roberts shouldn’t be counted on to do anything, other than keep the trainers busy.

      • Giancarlo Murphy says:

        Keeping Roberts healthy and manning second base is more important than risking a bad collision during a stolen base attempt. New rule: Everyone over the age of 36 runs station to station, at least until Alex gets back.

        Also, please tell me Ellsbury is smart enough to slide headfirst into first. They should make that grounds for terminating Gardner’s contract.

  4. John Duci says:

    Were definetly going to be near th top of the league in stolen bases which is going to be fun to watch. I just wish we had that one standout superstar in the middle of our lineup. I think McCann will go from really good to great this year with that being said.

  5. Macho Man "Randy Levine" says:

    Mike, you know I love all you do here, but I have to ask: did it hurt to write about Ellsbury and not say anything negative?

    :)

    • BronxBomber987 says:

      I know he didn’t come out and say it, but when I read the “massive contract” I heard a a scoff in my head with a sigh of disapproval.

    • Jorge Steinbrenner says:

      Hurt?!

      It’s a sign of bravery to go cold turkey like that.

      • Macho Man "Randy Levine" says:

        Temperature’s rising
        Fever is high
        Can’t see no future
        Can’t see no sky
        My feet are so heavy
        So is my head
        I wish I was a baby
        I wish I was dead
        Cold turkey has got me on the run

        /dating myself again’d

  6. Dalek Jeter says:

    Two words: Scott Sizemore.

  7. Tanuki Tanaka (Formerly Bob Buttons) says:

    Am I the only one who thinks that contraption on Gardner’s left hand has a hidden blade or chainsaw waiting to pop out at Gardner’s whim?

  8. dkidd says:

    if he can wrap his head around the new role, ichiro could be really useful as a pinch-runner/late inning defensive replacement

  9. Tucker says:

    I really hope that the addition of Jacoby Ellsbury can help Gardner’s base-stealing. You said it, Ellsbury might be the best in the world, but he and Gardner are about the same speed. Here’s hoping Ellsbury’s got some tips and tricks to teach Gardner so that the two can be stealing a combined 80+ bases annually for the next 4 years.

    • jjyank says:

      And who knows, maybe the pressure of not being the lone speedster on the team helps Gardner relax and be more aggressive. His biggest criticism seems to be that he gets too passive. That could be for any number of reasons, like the one Mike said in the post. Who knows. But maybe Ells can give him a tip or two, and maybe knowing that he doesn’t have to carry the speed game by himself lightens his load (TWSS) mentally.

      I’m hopeful.

    • Darren says:

      I doubt it. It’s not like picking up girls in a bar where one guy with game can elevate the game of his buddies (sometimes). Gardner’s not a good baserunner, and we probably just need to accept it. If he had the instincts of O’Neill or Mattingly, with his speed he’d probably steal 100 bases a year.

      • jjyank says:

        I’d like to know how a guy who is “not a good baserunner” could ever lead the league in steals. Which, you know, Gardner has.

        He may be too passive, but to call him “not a good baserunner” just seems silly. He’s not the greatest baserunner, but he’s a good one.

  10. Matt DiBari says:

    The one thing I hope to see this year particularly with Ichiro, but with anyone that comes off the bench, is that if we use a pinch runner, actually have the man run.

    Last year was very encouraging because we almost never saw it, but in the years before that the Yankees had an awful habit of putting in a punch runner and then just having him stand on first until the inning ended. I never understood that

  11. hey now says:

    One antidote to the shift craze might be having burners scattered throughout the lineup.

    Let’s see you shift everyone all around when Ellsbury and Gardner are on the bases, Joe Maddon.

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