The 13 position players on the Yankees’ current 25-man roster have stolen a combined 1,524 bases in the major leagues. Between them, they account for 19 separate seasons of 25 or more steals. Of course, some of those kleptomaniacal campaigns came long ago—particularly for the 38-year-old Carlos Beltran and the 40-year-old Alex Rodriguez—but still, New York is a club with both experience and ability on the base paths, as it demonstrated last year (swiping 112 bags, fifth-most in the big leagues, at an AL-best 81% clip) and also during the first few months of this season.
Through May 30, the Yankees had attempted 41 steals, the 11th most in the majors, and were successful an enviable 73% of the time. Over the next month and a half, due in part to the continued absence of injured leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury, their pace slowed; by July 11, they ranked 23rd in the league in attempts, with 54, but still had a success rate better than 72%. Over the past month, however, even with Ellsbury healthy again and the lineup (including speedy No. 2 hitter Brett Gardner) otherwise at full strength, they have virtually eliminated the stolen base from their offensive arsenal. Between July 12 and Aug. 10, during which time they played 23 games, New York attempted two steals, finding success once.
That the Yankees’ running game has stalled has not escaped the attentive New York media, which has increasingly pressed manager Joe Girardi about it as what initially seemed like a short term oddity developed into a full-blown trend. Girardi has seemed honest when addressing the topic—to a point. “I think our guys are a little bit more cautious about when they’re going to go, especially with the guys behind them and the way they’re swinging the bats,” he told reporters recently. “It’s not like we’ve had a hard time scoring runs.”
Girardi’s explanation makes some sense. Even though Gardner has 15 steals and Ellsbury has 14, you don't want them sliding into an out with the way that Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira (combined home runs: 54) and company have been producing, especially when the team scored 99 runs in 12 games from July 23 to Aug. 4. But it is very difficult to believe that opponents did not throw a single pitch in nearly a month in which either of the speedsters might have safely acquired an extra bag. (The club’s two attempts between July 12 and Aug. 10 were made by Teixeira and Chase Headley, who have two steals between them this year, both by Teixeira.)
It is likely that there is a second reason for the Yankees’ lack of steals, one which Girardi seems to have so far left unsaid: a desire to keep the lineup healthy, particularly Ellsbury and Gardner. A stolen base attempt is a physically risky endeavor, with the possibility of a strained hamstring or a spiked hand always looming. The 31-year-old Ellsbury has proven notoriously fragile—he has played in more than 150 games just twice, and he missed seven weeks earlier this season with a sprained knee—and Gardner’s head-first style has also made him prone to picking up generally more minor knocks. The Yankees plan to motor into October after a two-year absence, and they will need their spark plugs.
Playing it safe, with their offensive style and their health, was fine until a few weeks ago, but circumstances have changed. The Blue Jays, simultaneously catching up with their baseball-best run differential and bolstered by trade deadline acquisitions like pitcher David Price and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, have cut New York's lead in the AL East from seven games as of July 28th to just half a game; the Yankees’ chances of winning the division, according to Baseball Prospectus, have in that time plummeted from 85.3% to 43.6%. And New York’s offense, which, as Girardi suggested, was once humming along despite its shunning of a key tactic, hasn’t been nearly as prolific recently. In their 10 August games, the Yankees have scored two runs or fewer on six occasions, and they have just three wins. Last weekend, they were on the wrong side of consecutive shutouts for the first time in 16 years and a major league record 2,665 games—to make matters worse, at the hands of Toronto.
The lineup’s struggles might be due, in part, to its inability to manufacture runs on the base paths, but it might also stem from a harder to measure source, which is the psychological impact of a red light. I recently spoke to a longtime manager about the effects of a decision to shut down a running game, not specifically related to Yankees but on general terms. “One coaching maxim that I’ve heard, and I’ve learned it over and over again: You want to be careful coaching aggressiveness out of your players,” he told me. “You start telling them, ‘Hey, you gotta back off,’ and all of a sudden they’re not the same players. They’re tentative.”
Ellsbury and Gardner, in particular, have denied receiving any mandate not to steal. On Tuesday, Gardner attempted the team's first steal of the month, breaking for second with one out in the ninth inning of a tied game with Rodriguez at the plate. He was thrown out due to a strong throw by Indians catcher Yan Gomes. The Yankees went on to lose, 5–4, in 16 innings.
One thing seems certain: The Blue Jays are now chasing them, and the Yankees should probably start running.