Stealing Wins: The 2010 Yankees & Baserunning

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

Twenty minutes later, Luis Gonzalez totally ruined this moment for everyone. (AP Photo/Joe Cavaretta)

For Yankee fans in the early part of the 21st Century, few players in pinstripes elicited as much excitement as Alfonso Soriano. He was tall and thin — sinewy almost — and with a bat speed that simply wowed the crowd. His home runs were majestic; his speed on the base paths blazing. He made it look so easy, but after a rapid rise, he quickly fell out of favor. It would change the Yanks forever.

Signed as an international free agent out of Japan, Soriano made his Yankee debut in September of 1999, and he quickly made a mark. His first Yankee hit was a walk-off home run against Norm Charlton and the Devil Rays on a Friday night in the Bronx, and as Chuck Knoblauch began to suffer from baseball-induced psychosis in 2000, Soriano’s hot hitting drew raves.

In 2001, Soriano emerged as the Yanks’ starting second baseman, and he had a respectable rookie campaign. He hit .268 but with only a .304 on-base percentage and slugged .432. He did steal 43 bases and finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. For a few minutes at the end of Game 7 of the World Series, it seemed as though Soriano would emerge as the hero. His 8th inning home run off of Curt Schilling gave the Yanks a 2-1 lead with Mariano looming. But alas.

Still, Soriano seemed to use that home run as a spring board to greatness, and the next season was truly his break-out campaign. He struck out too often and walked just 23 times, but he still hit .300/.332/.547 with 39 home runs and 41 stolen bases. It was good enough for a third place MVP finish. In 2003, the power dipped, but the patience improved. He hit .290/.338/.525 with 38 home runs but stole just 35 bases.

Yet, rumblings of displeasure were emerging out of the Yankee camp with Soriano. In the playoffs against Boston and the Marlins, Soriano went just 9 for 55 and struck out 20 times. He was benched in the World Series, and the Yankees seemed to think that he spent too much admiring his home runs and not enough time closing the holes in his swing. When destiny intervened in February, the Yanks did not hesitate to send Soriano off to the Rangers.

As Alex Rodriguez came to New York, Soriano went to Texas, bound for a last-place team. The Yanks had no real clear successor to Soriano at second base as Robinson Cano was still just a prospect, and those close to the Yanks were sad to see Soriano go. “We gave up a great player” Yogi Berra said to the Daily News. “Once he learns the strike zone, he’ll be even better.”

Others shared Yogi’s sentiments. “He’s got a long way to go. He hasn’t even come near reaching his potential. “I was excited to see him grow and develop into the player he is,” Jorge Posada said during the early days of Spring Training. “A-Rod is an exciting player, but Alfonso is pretty similar. He’s going to develop into an A-Rod. He has that potential, and when everything is said and done, when he’s 32, we’ll talk about Soriano as the best player in the big leagues.”

Of course, things didn’t quite turn out A-Rodian for Soriano. He gained two years of age when he was traded, and suddenly, the Yanks had sent not an up-and-comer to the Rangers but someone just a year younger than A-Rod west. Both teams knew of the age discrepancy at the time of the trade.

Since leaving the Bronx, Soriano has had an uneven career. He never did find the strike zone as Yogi thought he would, but he has belted 216 home runs in the intervening seven seasons. As he’s aged, his stolen bases have trailed off to just five last season, and he’s battled hamstring problems while playing the outfield for the Cubs. He’s under contract in Chicago for another four years, and the Cubs still owe him $72 million. They’d move him if they could.

When Soriano hit 46 home runs for the Nationals in 2006 and the Yanks grappled with mid-decade failures, it seemed as though he would become the one who got away from the Yanks, but time has a way of changing things. These days Alfonso Soriano is working to regain that stroke and consistency he once flashed in the Bronx. He’s fifth in strike outs since his 2001 season and eighth in home runs. Alex Rodriguez, of course, leads baseball in the former category over the last ten years, and despite those fears and a very respectable career, Soriano never did become an A-Rod-like player. Almost, but not quite.

Pettitte not expected to decide on 2011 this week

Earlier today, we reported that the Yanks aren’t expecting Andy Pettitte to return, but we did say they were expecting to hear from the lefty this week. Apparently, those earlier reports were erroneous. As Brian Costello of The Post reported this afternoon, Brian Cashman said he doesn’t believe he’ll hear from Pettitte this week.

In a related post, T.R. Sullivan, MLB.com’s Rangers reporter, confirms that Texas did indeed reach out to Pettitte. The ballclub was informed that Pettitte “will either retire or go back to the Yankees.” Sullivan believes Pettitte will make up his mind in February which is in line with what we’ve heard concerning the Yanks’ decision to move ahead on the assumption that Pettitte will retire. Either way, Pettitte, says Sullivan, “wants to retire as a Yankee,” and the club will happily give him the time he needs to come to a decision.

Open Thread: A.J. turns his number

(AP Photo/Rob Carr)

A happy birthday goes out to A.J. Burnett today, the right-hander turns 34. There’s no beating around the bush here, the Yankees need Burnett to be better than he was last year, and that would be true even if the team managed to sign Cliff Lee. Hopefully a new pitching coach and an offseason of rest (both physical and mental) does the trick. Know who else celebrates a birthday today? The best bad utility infielder infielder ever, Luis Sojo. He turns 45. Happy B-day to both.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The Islanders are the only local team in action, which kinda sucks. Baseball can’t come back soon enough. You know what to do, so have at it.

Rothschild to meet with Burnett in coming weeks

Via Buster Olney, new pitching coach Larry Rothschild is expected to fly down to Maryland to visit with A.J. Burnett in the coming weeks. A.J. called Rothschild as soon as he was hired, and the two are expected to talk about mechanics and whatnot at the upcoming pow-wow. I’m sure the cynics among us will say this should have happened weeks ago, but these guys can’t focus on baseball all year long. It’s 162 games plus Spring Training plus the playoffs, and everyone needs time to unwind and clear their head.

It’s official: Yankees sign Pedro Feliciano

The Yankees have officially signed left-handed reliever Pedro Feliciano to a two-year contract worth $8M. The deal also includes a club option for 2013. The two sides agreed to the deal in the middle of December, but the holidays got in the way of the physical and stuff. Feliciano presumably steps in as the team’s late-inning lefty reliever since he’s the “proven veteran,” pushing Boone Logan into the middle innings.

Our 2011 Draft Order Tracker and Depth Chart pages have been updated.

The RAB Radio Show: January 3, 2011

After some time off, the RAB Radio Show returns with some storylines to start 2011. We start at the most logical place: Andy Pettitte. We should hear something this week, and if he returns we’ll have Andy Pettitte Day on the show.

If Pettitte does not return, the Yankees will have a few options. Mike and I talk about the idea of finding a reliever now, to help shore up the bullpen, while they wait for the right starter to become available. Then we talk about which reliever we’d prefer, Soria or Soriano.

Finally, do any of the youngsters have a chance at breaking camp in the rotation? If you’re wondering about my answer, I repeat it a half-dozen times.

Podcast run time 21:53

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