Are the Yankees Vulnerable to Steals?

Unless an injury occurred, drawing a definitive conclusion from a single game of baseball is often impossible. Didi Gregorius probably won’t be the AL home run champion, Alex Rodriguez is unlikely to lead the team in stolen bases for long, and there’s a good chance Dellin Betances won’t be a liability out of the bullpen. But one part of Tuesday’s game stood out in such a way that it’s simply impossible to ignore. Maybe it won’t turn into an issue, but it’s worth examining one area that is largely unaddressed for the Yankees.

To start, let’s run down how New York was beaten on Tuesday. The Yankees struck first with a pair of runs, countered by two from the Astros. Then, Houston took a lead that would last for the remainder of the game. It started with the ever-dangerous lead off walk to Jose Altuve, who scored two batters later on a Betances error allowing Carlos Correa to reach. The tie was broken, and it was 3-2. Next, Correa and Colby Rasmus (who reached on a walk) were driven in by a single from Luis Valbuena. The Yankees played sloppy baseball in the eighth, but how did they cede three runs on just one error, two walks, and a single?

Something happened in between those four events to help the Astros pull ahead: two stolen bases. These steals instantly moved Altuve and Correa into scoring position, and the Yankees looked helpless against this type of attack. While it certainly may be an overreaction, the team’s susceptibility to speed was jarring.

Surprisingly, stolen bases weren’t much of a problem last season. The team allowed just 71 steals in 2015, good for sixth-best in the league, and their 33.64% caught stealing rate was eighth. Their speedy opponent, the Astros, had the third most steals in the majors at 121 in 2015. The three steals allowed by New York on Opening Day could very well be a fluke; after all, they averaged less than half a stolen base allowed per game last season.

But that doesn’t guarantee the Yankees will be stout against the run this year. So, let’s take a look at the Yankees versus the stolen base. The most direct and significant part in controlling the running game is the catcher. Brian McCann will likely be doing most of the catching this season, and he’s not bad when it comes to limiting steals. McCann is getting older and has his flaws, but the 0.5 Throwing Runs he posted last season were average and won’t hurt the Yankees.

Obviously, throwing out runners also goes beyond the catcher. Although they’re often directly blamed for a stolen base, the pitcher is just as important and responsible. Pickoff moves, delivery and speed to the plate are all factors that can change the outcome of a stolen base. There’s a large variance among pitchers’ ability to limit stolen bases, independent of the catcher. That effect was clearly seen on Opening Day with Betances.

*Note: Correa’s steal was overturned

It’s not a coincidence that these two swipes came while Betances was pitching. The 28-year-old is one of worst pitchers in baseball when it comes to halting the running game. He allowed 17 stolen bases last season, which was 17th  worst in the league. This doesn’t sound too bad, until you see that the second reliever on this list was Tommy Hunter at No. 44. Betances is an extremely large human at 6’8″, so channeling all of his long levers into an effective pitching motion takes longer than most. As a result, baserunners are able to get a better jump and cover more ground before the catcher has the ball.

Being tall not only makes it harder to deliver quickly, but pickoffs are a challenge as well. The Yankees made 363 pickoff attempts last season, the third-fewest in baseball (the Tigers had the most with 1048 attempts). Height may not be directly tied to a pitcher’s ability to pick runners off and limit steals, but it’s worth mentioning just how tall some of the Yankees’ pitchers are:

  • Dellin Betances – 6’8”
  • Andrew Miller – 6’7”
  • Ivan Nova – 6’5”
  • Michael Pineda – 6’7”
  • CC Sabathia – 6’6”

Maybe the Yankees stolen base problem isn’t as bad as it seemed on Opening Day, and they could very well keep runners from stealing at a similar rate to last season. Still, the Yankees won’t be invulnerable to the steal. Not only does Betances have trouble in this facet of the game, but some of the other long arms could struggle as well.


Lead photo: Anthony Gruppuso / USA Today Sports

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