The New York Yankees’ secret weapon? Stealing bases

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Spring training was compressed this year, seven weeks’ worth of work squeezed into a whirlwind of 21 days, and Matt Talarico had no real sense of what impression he might have made in his baserunning instruction to New York Yankees players — until a chance meeting at a Tampa, Florida, mall near the start of the season.

He saw a player he thought was Jose Trevino, who had just been acquired from the Texas Rangers — at the same time that Trevino recognized him. “You’re the baserunning guy, right?” Trevino asked, and that kicked off a 30-minute conversation emblematic of the care and passion the team has invested in what has become something of a lost art around the sport — a collective skill that has augmented the offense.

To be sure, the Yankees’ 66-32 record, best in baseball and ahead in the American League East by 11½ games, is due in large part to their major-league-leading 523 runs, a standing mostly built on an MLB-high 167 homers. But manager Aaron Boone and general manager Brian Cashman believe some of that is due to the team’s baserunning, to Talarico’s work.

The Yankees don’t really have a big-time base-stealer in their ranks — no Billy Hamilton, no Julio Rodriguez — and yet they rank second in the AL in stolen bases, with 65. In a recent stretch of 12 games, from June 26 to July 8, they went 15-for-15 in stolen base attempts.

The Yankees’ staff, particularly first-base coach Travis Chapman, have complemented Talarico’s work by diagnosing opponent tendencies that can be exploited — pitchers who don’t vary the timing or sequence of their pickoff moves, perhaps, or catchers who make a habit of calling breaking balls in specific counts.

Rival staffers acknowledge the Yankees’ baserunners have also improved at pressuring defenses through enhanced secondary leads — putting themselves in better position to perhaps run from first base to third, or first to home, or score from second base on a single.

The Yankees keep their own internal metrics on baserunning, which Talarico politely declined to share. But considering that the team totaled 63 all of last year — a number it surpassed this year just after the All-Star break — it’s clear the players’ increased focus on this element has paid dividends.

If the Yankees, including MLB’s biggest outfield and a lineup full of sluggers, seem like an unlikely match for elite baserunning statistics, consider this: The St. Louis Cardinals‘ Paul Goldschmidt is regarded as one of the game’s best baserunners — he was 12-for-12 in stolen base attempts last year — despite being 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds and not particularly fast at 34 years old. But what he came to understand is that in running the bases, effort and focus can directly translate into success. “If you care about baserunning and you put in the time [to prepare],” Goldschmidt said in a recent conversation, “you’re going to be a good baserunner.”

“I would agree with that,” said Boone, who also was known as an excellent baserunner in his 12-year playing career. Like Goldschmidt, Boone was not a speedster, but when he played in college, he began to fully recognize opportunities to run. As a junior at USC, he stole safely 26 times in 31 attempts. He swiped 107 bases in the big leagues, including 32 for the Reds in 2002, and understood firsthand the attention to detail Talarico brought to the Yankees as a roving baserunning instructor.

“Like anything else, you want to maximize your abilities [in] hitting, pitching, defense,” Cashman said. “The final area is the baserunning. [Talarico] made himself an expert.”

In Talarico’s playing days at Manchester College in Indiana, he had always batted at the top of lineups, spraying the ball and running the bases aggressively; his father and grandfather had measured Talarico’s success by his effort. As Talarico worked toward his master’s degree in education at Heidelberg, a Division III school, he served as a coach, and he had a player who was fast but reluctant to run. Talarico came to understand that this player was mostly worried about being thrown out. As Talarico sought ways to make the player more comfortable, he began what has become a forensic study of baserunning — how to steal bases, how to get leads, how to recognize opportunities presented by the defense and the value of applying pressure on a pitcher or a defender through enhanced effort.

The Yankees plucked him out of Wright State in the summer of 2019, though COVID-19 deferred his impact for a couple of years — a stretch at which the Yankees were more known for bad baserunning than good. They ranked in the bottom half of the league in stolen bases in 2021 — and were caught stealing more than 23 other teams in 2020 and 2021, too.

The timing of Talarico’s increased influence within the Yankees’ organization runs against the industry tides. Over the past 20 years, most teams that leaned into analytics steered away from stolen bases, generally, as part of their effort to manage risk. There were 3,279 stolen base attempts across major league baseball in 2011. By last year, the number of attempts had plummeted to 2,213. Teams and players have increasingly grown out of the habit of attacking opponents on the bases.

But last year, the Yankees got a fresh reminder of why baserunning matters when their 2021 season effectively ended with a runner being thrown out at the plate in the Wild Card Game against the Boston Red Sox. Aaron Judge was cut down on a relay from Xander Bogaerts, and that moment might have been a fresh reminder of why baserunning matters. When Judge was in Tampa after the season, he and Talarico sat down together. Talarico says he noticed right away that Judge was open to any suggestion, any information, that could help make him better. Just as Judge seeks feedback in hitting or on defense, Talarico said, he wanted to know more about running the bases.

What Boone loved about Talarico’s instruction was how specific it was, particularly in training the players to best put their body in position to run, rather than focusing purely on speed.

“If you’re not fast, we’re not going to talk about that,” Talarico tells his players. “If you run 18 mph — that’s not a very fast running speed — I want you to be the best 18 mph runner you can be.” Slow or fast, Talarico said, there are ways to be more efficient, more successful as a baserunner. “Part of success,” he said, “is maximizing what you have.”

Cashman also was impressed by how open Talarico was to being challenged on that expertise. Talarico had concrete opinions on how players should run the bases, with his advice built on data and video. But he also made it clear to any group he spoke to that if somebody had thoughts or better ideas, he wanted to hear them.

As the lockout carried into early March, it was apparent that whenever baseball resumed, spring training would be truncated, the instruction time precious. But Boone, strongly believing in the potential impact of baserunning, planned for Talarico to make a presentation for players once camp opened. Judge, Josh Donaldson and others seemingly embraced Talarico’s ideas right away that day, asking questions and posing hypotheticals. “They kind of geeked out on it,” Boone said.

That Judge — one of the most important players in the room — bought in so readily probably helped Talarico connect with the group. Recently, Talarico had a conversation with Judge and loosely discussed with him where he ranks in percentile among his peers — top 20%, top 12%, etc. “How do I get to first [percentile]?” Judge asked.

Throughout the season, even as he is rotating through the Yankees’ affiliates and talking with minor leaguers, Talarico has reviewed the big league games and sent feedback to the players. In a recent game, Judge hit a walk-off home run, and in reviewing the play, Talarico noticed that Trevino — the recently crowned All-Star who has been a revelation for the Yankees this year — did not get an optimal lead off second base.

Building off the relationship forged in spring training — between the maybe-baserunning guy and the maybe-catcher — Talarico sent Trevino a good-natured text. “Please don’t make me tell my kids that Daddy had to get another job,” Talarico wrote, “because Trevino didn’t get a good secondary lead.”

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