Something unusual happened two weeks ago and I wouldn’t blame you for not noticing. In the seventh inning on April 14th, White Sox slugger Jose Abreu stole second and third bases against the Yankees. They are his only two stolen bases this year. Abreu stole two bases all of last season and has ten steals (13 attempts) in 763 career games.
Allowing stolen bases has been a constant and impossible to ignore problem for the 2019 Yankees. They went into last night’s late West Coast game having allowed an MLB leading 25 stolen bases in an MLB leading 29 attempts this year. No other team had allowed more than 19 steals and only one other team allowed more than 16 steals.
The Yankees rank dead last in caught stealing rate this year (14%) but success rate is not the best way to measure stolen base susceptibility. Stolen base attempts is. Opponents will tell you how vulnerable you are to stolen bases by how often they try ’em. There’s a reason there have been roughly 25% (!) fewer steal attempts against the Cardinals than any other team since 2005. It’s because teams don’t test Yadier Molina.
Going into last night’s game, opponents had attempted 29 steals against the Yankees this season, the most in baseball. Teams have attempted a stolen base in a whopping 9.9% of their opportunities against the Yankees, with a stolen base opportunity defined as a runner at first or second base with the next base open. The leaderboard:
- Yankees: 9.9%
- Tigers: 9.1%
- Reds: 7.9%
- Astros: 7.3%
- Rays: 7.3%
(MLB Average: 5.3%)
In the early going this season, when a runner has had an opportunity to steal a base against the Yankees, there’s a one-in-ten chance he’s going, and a better than eight-in-ten chance he’ll be successful. That is bad. Really, really bad. Between steals and sloppy mistakes, the Yankees are giving away too many extra bases this year.
Catchers are the primary line of defense against stolen bases, and the stolen base numbers so far this season tell you pretty much everything you need to know about how opponents view New York’s catchers when it comes to controlling the running game. The stolen base success rate against the individual catchers:
- Kyle Higashioka: 10-for-13 (77%) in 41 innings
- Austin Romine: 9-for-10 (90%) in 86.1 innings
- Gary Sanchez: 6-for-6 (100%) in 71 innings
Teams have run wild on Higashioka, who’s throwing arm has never really been the same since his 2013 Tommy John surgery. They’re running plenty on Romine as well, and, oddly, teams are challenging Sanchez too. He’s made four errors (all bounced throws) on those six steal attempts. It’s a small sample, sure, but runners have attempted to steal with Gary behind the plate about 50% more often this year than last.
“Adjustments have been made. It’s simple. I pulled on the ball again,” Sanchez said to Dan Martin following an error a few weeks ago. “I tried to make a stronger throw than I wanted and ended up bouncing it. I believe I’m gonna be able to correct that sooner rather than later.”
Catchers are the primary line of defense against stolen bases but they are not the only line of defense. The guy on the mound is a factor as well and the Yankees have a few stolen base prone pitchers. Adam Ottavino is one (3-for-4 against him). Aroldis Chapman is another (3-for-3 this year and 27-for-31 the last five years). So is Dellin Betances, though he has not yet pitched this year. This stood out to me:
- Aroldis Chapman: 3-for-3
- James Paxton: 3-for-3
- CC Sabathia: 3-for-3
- Zack Britton: 1-for-2
- J.A. Happ: 1-for-1
Runners are 11-for-12 (92%) stealing bases against the Yankees’ left-handers this year. The one wasn’t even a real caught stealing either. Britton picked Terrance Gore off first base. 11-for-12! Lefties are looking right at the runner at first base! They have a natural advantage when it comes to holding runners, and yet, opponents are running like crazy when the Yankees have a southpaw on the mound.
That has to improve. Literally all of this must improve. Sanchez has to stop bouncing throws — say what you want about his overall defense, but Gary’s throwing was never an issue before those errors this year — and Romine and Higashioka have to make more competitive throws. I know it’s not easy, but so many of these stolen bases allowed have not been close. The throws are pitiful.
The pitchers need to give the catchers help as well. More (and better) pickoff throws, varied times, quicker slide steps, etc. The guys on the mound have to give the runner a reason to stay close to the bag and also give the guy behind the plate a chance to get an out when a runner does take off. There have been too many sizeable leads and great jumps thus far. The catchers need a chance.
You can not steal first base, but stolen bases can be leveraged in a way hits and walks can not. When you have a man on first base in the late innings, you can’t summon a base hit at will. The runner can attempt to steal whenever he wants though. Doesn’t mean he’ll be successful, but he can go at any time, and so far this season runners have been very successful running against the Yankees. It is a capital-P Problem right now.
Chapman and Ottavino seemed to make an inordinate number of pickoff throws Monday night, which indicates the Yankees are aware of this stolen base problem, and they’re working on it. I mean, duh. They’re not oblivious. It might not happen overnight, but my hunch is the Yankees will better combat the stolen base going forward. Sanchez’s return will help (assuming his throwing is not broken forever), as will a conscious effort to hold runners by the pitching staff.
To date, the 2019 Yankees have not been the team we expected them to be, and injuries are the primary culprit. Shoddy bullpen work and sloppy mistakes can not be entirely blamed on injuries though, ditto what is truly an extreme stolen base problem. No team in baseball has been worse at preventing steals this year. This is something the Yankees don’t have to wait around for good health to clean up. It can — and must — begin now.