Rosenthal: How the Yankees turned a weakness into an advantage and cut down opponents’ stolen bases
A three-run walk-off homer by Aaron Judge on Tuesday, a three-run go-ahead shot by Gleyber Torres on Wednesday. The Yankees are still the Yankees, ranking third in the majors in homers. But these Yankees are a major-league best 22-8 because they are more than simply another incarnation of the Bronx Bombers.
The 2022 edition is playing more like Pinstriped Perfectionists, doing little things as well as big. The team’s painstaking attention to detail is showing in all aspects of its play — defense, baserunning and, in a particularly unexpected twist, shutting down the opponents’ running game.
Equally unexpected: The coach spearheading the Yankees’ increased emphasis on throwing out baserunners attempting to steal is new third base/outfield coach Luis Rojas, who was part of the Mets’ organization when that team allowed more stolen bases than any other in 2018 and 2019 .
Rojas, 40, helped the Mets improve markedly in controlling the running game in 2020 and 2021, his two seasons as manager. But when the Yankees interviewed him for a coaching position last offseason, guarding against stolen bases was not even a topic of discussion.
The Yankees’ announced Rojas’ hiring on Nov. 15. In December, after the start of the owners’ lockout, he was at Yankee Stadium, meeting with Yankees manager Aaron Boone. Their conversation turned so spirited, the two strolled out to the field and talked through different offensive and defensive plays.
Upon returning inside, Boone and Rojas began speaking with some of the Yankees’ analysts about controlling the running game. Rojas explained that he took on that responsibility with the Mets, who last season ranked 20th in stolen bases allowed — a dramatic improvement from years past.
As Rojas recalled, Boone said, “You want to do it? Let’s go. Go ahead and do it.”
Last season, the Yankees threw out only 17 percent of opposing base stealers, the second lowest rate in the majors; and allowed 86 stolen bases, the ninth highest total. It wasn’t all the fault of the embattled Gary Sanchez, who threw out only five of 55 base stealers. Kyle Higashioka threw out only five of 38, Rob Brantly two of five, with pitcher pickoffs accounting for the other five caught stealings.
This season, with Sánchez traded to the Twins, Higashioka and Jose Trevino sharing catching duties, and the Yankees making use of PitchCom to enhance the communication between their catchers, pitchers and middle infielders, the Yankees have allowed the fewest stolen-base attempts (13 ) and fewest stolen bases (seven, tied with the A’s).
Tanner Swanson, the Yankees’ quality control and catching coach, said Rojas is “the glue” of the team’s efforts to control the opponents’ running game. The process involves far more than catchers releasing the ball quickly and throwing accurately. Infielders must keep runners close. Pitchers must hold the runners, display effective pickoff moves, and deliver the ball quickly to the plate.
Rojas compiles ideas, stresses to players the importance of thwarting stolen-base attempts and welcomes input from other staff members. While he is the one sending pickoff signs to the catcher, he is quick to point out that the Yankees’ efforts are collaborative. The mindset, pitching coach Matt Blake said, “This is a problem. We need to tighten this up.”
Boone and his coaches started actively discussing ways to better protect against stolen bases in offseason meetings at Yankee Stadium and on Zoom. They outlined their plans during a meeting with players in the middle of spring training, then extended that focus into the season. Before each series, the Yankees review their performance in greater detail than in the past. They’re also using the latest technology to their advantage.
With PitchCom, the catcher uses a transmitter attached to either his wrist or shin guard to communicate directly with the pitcher and up to three other defenders. The greater ease of communication enables teams to implement a robust series of tactics to counter would-be base stealers.
Swanson sets the Yankees’ menu for holds and pickoffs in PitchCom, which allows for 27 options — nine types of pitches, nine different locations, and nine separate control-the-running game instructions. Other coaches study opposing baserunners’ behaviors and exchange ideas with Rojas on different strategies that might work against specific baserunners.
Of course, it didn’t just dawn on the Yankees last winter that they needed to do a better job controlling the running game. Boone recalls a turning point occurring in Boston in September of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. The Red Sox went 6-for-6 in stolen bases in the opening game of the series. The Yankees won, 6-5 in 12 innings, but a known weakness became impossible to ignore.
“It was one of those things where something bad happening turned out to be one of the best things that happened to us,” Boone said. “It was right before the playoffs. It wasn’t just us saying it. It was like, ‘I see it now.’ You had that instant buy-in from players, commitment to it.”
The Yankees did not allow a stolen base attempt in their two-game, wild-card series triumph over the Indians, and only one stolen base in as many tries in their five-game, Division Series loss to the Rays. But the problem resurfaced in the 2021 regular season. Opponents were a combined 31-for-39 in attempted steals against the Yankees’ three most frequently used starters — 9-for-9 against Gerrit Cole, 15-for-18 against Jameson Taillon, 7-for-12 against Jordan Montgomery, who as a left-hander operates with an advantage when a runner is on first.
Each of those starters has now pitched six times this season. Cole has yet to allow a stolen-base attempt. Opponents are 2-for-2 off Taillon. And Montgomery has yet to allow a stolen base while picking off two runners. The Yankees’ two other starters, righty Luis Severino and lefty Nestor Cortes, have combined to allow one steal in three attempts. Opponents are 4-for-6 against the Yankees’ bullpen.
“We’ve just been more situationally aware: ‘These are the guys that are running. Here’s how they’re running. Here are the things you need to do it when they’re on base.”’ Blake said. “It doesn’t have to be picking guys off. We have picked guys off. But you’re not trying to pick them off. You’re trying to control them. It’s more managing the attempts against us.”
Rojas said Taillon was one of the first pitchers to tell him in spring training of his desire to do a better job against the running game. Taillon said he previously was “long” in his mechanics, allowing opponents to run freely, and noted that pitchers need to increase their concentration because the “running game is slowly starting to come back a little bit.” Maybe not so slowly: Major League Baseball is experimenting in the minors with ways to enhance stolen bases, from moving second base inward to using bigger bases.
Taillon cited another benefit to controlling the running game as well: Disrupting the timing of hitters. He struck out Vladimir Guerrero Jr. on a quick-step cutter in the Yankees’ 5-3 victory over the Blue Jays on Wednesday, prompting Guerrero to slam his bat, then break it over his thigh. Taillon, while allowing two runs in 5 1/3 innings, also induced several groundballs off quick-step sliders.
“I rarely did that in the past,” Taillon said. “It’s a weapon to throw off a hitter.”
Rojas, during his time with the Mets, learned the value of such details. In 2019, he became the team’s major-league quality coach after 13 seasons as a minor-league coach and manager. That year, opponents stole 42 bases in 45 attempts against Noah Syndergaard, 24 of 28 against Jacob deGrom. Upon taking over as Mets manager in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Rojas knew that had to change.
“I take it really seriously. I take it personally. I tell the catchers that. I tell the pitchers that,” Rojas said.
Every basic matter. The Pinstriped Perfectionists understand.
(Top photo of Bo Bichette and Isiah Kiner-Falefa on May 4: Vaughn Ridley / Getty Images)