Feb
25

Were the 2005 Yankees the worst defensive team ever?

By

After the heartbreak of 2004, the Yankees needed a boost in 2005. From all appearances, the team’s biggest trouble in 2004 was its pitching staff. The team lost Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, and David Wells after the 2003 season, and replaced them by trading for Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez. A year earlier they signed Jon Lieber while he was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, and during Spring Training they signed old friend Orlando Hernandez. Those four, along with Mike Mussina, could have been a formidable rotation had they all been at their best. Of course, things like that never seem to work out in baseball.

In the 2004-2005 off-season, the Yankees blew up the whole project. Brown and Mussina stuck around because of their contracts, but everyone else was out. Lieber left for the Phillies, El Duque signed with the White Sox, and the Yanks traded Javier Vazquez for Randy Johnson. To replace the two departures, the team signed Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright. It was hardly a perfect solution. In fact, it seemed like more of the same, just with different names. Unsurprisingly, the team ERA, while numerically lower in 2005, ranked worse in relation to the league.

Clearly, the Yankees replaced very good pitchers with far inferior ones. In 2003 the staff posted a 3.66 FIP, second in baseball. In 2004 that jumped to 4.27, 12th in the majors. In 2005 it was just about the same, 4.28, but that ranked 15th. For years I thought the conversation ended there. Worse pitchers means a worse pitching staff. Not only were the five starters inferior to the ones in 2003, but injuries forced the Yankees to trot out even worse arms.

But as we learned in 2009, even a team with a middling pitching staff can post a quality ERA if it has quality defenders behind it. The 2009 Mariners posted a team 4.39 FIP, which ranked 9th in the AL. Yet their team ERA of 3.87 was No. 1. The difference was in the team defense. The Mariners posted a team 85.5 UZR, 16 runs better than the next best team. In other words, with a pitching staff perhaps negligibly better than the 2004 and 2005 Yankees teams, the Mariners still managed the top ERA in the AL. (Though, of course, having an ace like Felix certainly helps.)

Defensive stats weren’t widespread in 2003, but if they were perhaps the Yankees would have taken a different approach to rebuilding the pitching staff. The team UZR that year was -62.2, second worst in the majors and worst in the AL. In 2004 that was even worse, -76.3. To put that number into even more grave context, the second worst team, the Red Sox, were at -34.1. Yes, the Yankees defense in 2004 was more than twice as bad as the second worst team. While the pitching staff was not nearly as good as 2003, the worsened defense exacerbated the problem.

Yet that’s nothing compared to 2005. The Yankees, as a team, posted a -137 UZR. That’s a 137-run penalty due to their defense. The second worst team, the Reds, ranked at -67, so once again the Yankees were twice as bad as the next worst team. The second worst AL team, the Royals, ranked -52.4, so the Yankees were even worse when compared to their own league. Finally, to continue with the theme of worst, the -137 UZR is, by far, the worst team UZR since 2002, when we began tracking UZR.

While the Yankees still ranked last in 2006, a -73.9 UZR, they were a bit closer to the next worst team, the Pirates at -53.3. In terms of the AL, however, they could be considered even worse. The White Sox ranked 13th that year at -29.3, putting a huge gap between the two teams. It wasn’t until 2007 that the Yankees started to improve, with a -8.8 UZR, which ranked 21st in the majors. After a step back in 2008, the Yankees jumped up to 19th in the majors in 2009. The defense still isn’t great, not even in the top half of the league. But compared to 2005, they’re a team of Ozzie Smiths.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Categories : Defense

111 Comments»

  1. steve (different one) says:

    apologizing in advance for the pedantry:

    why is there a picture of Soriano for an article about the 2005 Yankees?

  2. steve (different one) says:

    in 2004, the Yankee brass knew Bernie’s days in CF were over. the plan was for Lofton to play CF and Bernie to become the fulltime DH.

    Torre had other plans.

  3. Thomas says:

    Quick Quiz: According to UZR who was the worst defensive player on the team (no cheating)?

  4. Ellipses S. Grant (Formerly Rose) says:

    The team UZR that year was -62.2, second worst in the majors and worst in the AL. In 2004 that was even worse, -76.3. To put that number into even more grave context, the second worst team, the Red Sox, were at -34.1. Yes, the Yankees defense in 2004 was more than twice as bad as the second worst team. While the pitching staff was not nearly as good as 2003, the worsened defense exacerbated the problem.

    “I don’t put any stock in the team’s UZR ratings…” – Theo Epstein

    http://www.mlbtraderumors.com/.....sses-.html

    • radnom says:

      First of all, he implied what you just quoted right there.

      Most teams have their own defensive metrics. UZR is not considered to be all that reliable..it is one step on the path to progress. Defensive stats are still way behind their offensive counterparts in accurately describing player’s ability. Part of that is lack of interest in defense (in the past) and part of that is the added difficulty based on the nature of the game. Some things are more difficult to measure than others.

      I’m sure teams like the Red Sox and Yankees have their own defensive metrics and I’m sure they are better than what we have. There is a huge advantage to be had here.

      • What E.S. Grant claimed Epstein said:

        I don’t put any stock in the team’s UZR ratings…

        What Epstein actually said:

        Q: Did Ellsbury have problems in center last year?

        A: I think that he is an above-average center fielder now, who is going to be a great center fielder. I know there is a certain number we don’t use that is accessible to people online that had him as one of the worst defensive center fielders in baseball last year. I don’t think it’s worth anything. I don’t think that number is legitimate. We do our own stuff and it showed that he is above average.

        http://fullcount.weei.com/spor.....d-balance/

        • radnom says:

          Thanks for grabbing the actual transcript.

          I can think of lots of reasons why the Sox would be wise not to think much of the UZR for outfielders who play in Fenway park.

          • Me too. That being said, I can also think of reasons why the Sox shouldn’t simply dismiss UZR for outfielders in Fenway Park. It is what it is. If you have your own proprietary system, I hope it’s better, but it’s not necessarily better simply because it’s proprietary. You may be misleading yourself into thinking you’re better than you actually are using flawed proprietary metrics that aren’t as rigorous or verified.

            See also: The New York Mets.

            • Ellipses S. Grant (Formerly Rose) says:

              If they do in fact have their own evaluation system…do you think their very own Bill James had created it?

              • Ellipses S. Grant (Formerly Rose) says:

                If they do in fact have their own evaluation system…do you think their very own Bill James had created it?

                Have to watch it these days lol

            • radnom says:

              Agreed. Based on what we know of Theo, and the context of what he said, it seems he dismissed UZR for a reason as it is rumored most front offices do.

              In all seriousness, not bashing on the Mets*, I would be surprised if they even have many proprietary metrics, especially advanced defensive metrics. From what I understand, the Mets (along with the Giants) are one of the few teams still resisting advanced statistics.

              *ok, maybe a little

              • bexarama says:

                Jerry Manuel pretty much out-and-out said he has disdain for advanced statistics:

                http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/.....id=3625361
                On his first full day as the Mets’ long-term manager, Manuel forcefully attacked the SABR-type mathematical analysis some have fixated on in recent years.

                “You get so many statistical people together, they put so many stats on paper, and they say, well, if you do this and you score this many runs, you do that many times, you’ll be in the playoffs,” he said.

                “That’s not really how it works, and that’s what we have to get away from. And that’s going to have to be a different mind-set of the team in going forward. We must win and we must know how to win rather than win because we have statistical people. We have to win because we have baseball players that know and can understand the game.”

                • We must win and we must know how to win rather than win because we have statistical people.

                  That doesn’t make sense.

                  http://fantasy411.mlblogs.com/ron-burgundy.jpg

                • bexarama says:

                  You get so many statistical people together, they put so many stats on paper, and they say, well, if you do this and you score this many runs, you do that many times, you’ll be in the playoffs

                  I might be wrong, but I’m pretty sure “statistical people” don’t say that. They say, like, hey, here are ways to make your team the best possible so it’ll have the best chance to make the playoffs. I’m pretty sure none of the ways include having players bunt all the time, running around the bases like a chicken without a head, having a closer with a BB rate of 5 per 9 IP (WOW), or Jeff Francoeur, however. So Jerry might not want to hear it.

        • Steve H says:

          Adding Grant to his name is simply bad karma.

        • Andy (different one) in chilly NYC says:

          And yet, the word is that the Pillsbury Dough-Boy will be shifted to left, and Cameron will be the centerfielder. Hmmm…

          • GorillaBoy may not trust Ellsbury’s 2009 UZR as indicative of his true talent level, but that doesn’t mean Theo’s just dumb and thickheaded.

            No matter what system you use, Cameron >>>>>>>>>>>>>> Ellsbury.

            • radnom says:

              Exactly.

              Not being the worst in the league doesn’t mean you must be better than one of the best in the league.

              Only the Sith deal in absolutes.

            • Andy (different one) in chilly NYC says:

              Wasn’t implying that Theo was dumb, just that he doth protest too much re. UZR and Bellsbury being a great defender, considering that he’s likely moving him off the position he was “above average” at.

              Agreed that Cameron >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Taco-boy, and that it would be silly not to make the switch.

          • Steve H says:

            I’m sure their metrics had Ellsbury rated poorly as well, but it’s not like he’s going to say that. I’m sure they’ll say that Cameron is even better, though Tacoby is still great. And that moving to LF will help save Tacoby’s legs, etc.

    • Ellipses S. Grant (Formerly Rose) says:

      I guess I should have put “/Epstein’d” instead of “- Theo Epstein”. I meant them to be the same thing. Wasn’t meaning for it to be verbatim. Oh well. Lesson learned.

  5. Steve H says:

    UZR is clearly anti-Yankee.

    Funny that the Yankees have clearly made efforts to improve their defense through the years, to obviously little fanfare.

  6. Chris says:

    Based on UZR, the top 4 AL teams in defense are:

    1. Seattle
    2. Tampa
    3. Detroit
    4. Rangers

    Based on DefEff, the top 4 AL teams are:

    1. Seattle
    2. New York
    3. Texas
    4. Tampa

    Detroit was 5th in DefEff, and the Yankees 8th in UZR. I’m not sure which one I trust, although I tend to lean towards DefEff because the calculations and raw data are completely transparent.

    • pete says:

      tampa is gonna be better than seattle on D this year. It’s weird b/c they’re in the same division, and they have a shitty stadium and cowbell-toting fans, but it’s hard for me not to like the rays. Obviously they’ll never be the yankees for me, but they’re definitely my 2nd favorite team. And if Jennings plays all year in the OF this year, that is going to be a ridiculous defensive OF. Crawford-Upton-Jennings (or, possibly more optimally, Crawford-Jennings-Upton) could potentially rank among the greatest defensive OFs ever.

  7. Tom Zig says:

    137 run penalty because of defense…wow. That’s almost 14 wins. How they won 95 games that year is beyond me.

    • KeithK says:

      They won 95 games because they scored a whole bunch of runs (886), which was a bunch more than they gave up (789) even considering the defense. Which goes to show you that a team can win and win big without good defense. It just makes the job harder.

      It also suggests that one shouldn’t put too much faith in the exact numbers that UZR generates. While we typically equate 10 runs to 1 win, it is far from certain that the yankees would have won 109 games in 2005 if they’d just had defenders with a 0 UZR (and everything the same). From the numbers it is safe to conclude that the Yankees were quite bad on defense that year.

  8. Jamal G. says:

    After a step back in 2008, the Yankees jumped up to 19th in the majors in 2009. The defense still isn’t great, not even in the top half of the league.

    At simply turning batted balls into outs, the Yankees were the seventh-best defensive unit in Major League Baseball with a .697 rating, which was actually better than the Rays (.696).

  9. bexarama says:

    I really have no idea how the 2004 and 2005 Yankees won so many games. Yeah, they had great hitting, but they weren’t as good at offense as, say, last year’s team, and the pitching and defense just were not there at all.

    • Bo says:

      The 2004 was really good. Because they choked a 3-0 lead away hurts them but that team was a few outs away from winning a title since they would have blitzed the cardinals.

      • bexarama says:

        I don’t think they had great pitching. Their bullpen was pretty good with the years Gordon and Mo had, but Gordon just completely fell apart for the playoffs and Mo had his worst year in the playoffs ever (that doesn’t say much). I do think they would have beaten the Cardinals team, though that team was very good. I think they were exhausted, 2003-Yankees-style, from the 2004 NLCS, though.

    • Ellipses S. Grant (Formerly Rose) says:

      I don’t know this either. That’s why I never put much merit into the whole “2004 worst choke ever” nonsense. Sox fans always say to me “when was the last time a team up 3 games in a series lost the series in baseball?? HUUH??” and I just reply “When was the last time a team with the best offense in baseball and not 1 but TWO aces lost the first 3 games of a series???”

      It usually shuts them up pretty quickly.

      • bexarama says:

        Heh, I pretty much say that to Sox fans that go on and on about it, too.* Not only were the 2004 Yankees not totally awesome, the 2004 Red Sox were excellent.

        2004 was a pretty bad choke, though. No getting around it. But honestly, if both the Yankees and the Red Sox lost their first-round matchups that year, and the Twins went down 0-3 to the Angels then came back to win it 4-3, people would just be like “oh, cool” and there wouldn’t be all this friggin’ mythology around it.

        * Red Sox fans that think 2004 has any bearing on what will happen if the Yankees and Red Sox meet in the playoffs ever again (it’ll probably happen someday) are just adorable.

      • 2004 Red Sox, W/L record and Pythagorean record:
        98-64, 96-66
        2004 Yankees, W/L record and Pythagorean record:
        101-61, 89-73

        You read that correctly. We were lucky as shit to even be in the ALCS. Played way over our head all year long.

        As stated above, the defense was the worst in the league by a wide margin.

        We only had 5 regulars who were solidly above league average offensively (Jeter, ARod, Sheff, Matsui, Posada); the other four lineup spots were either league average (Bernie and Miguel Cairo) or black holes (1B and DH were revolving doors of fail).

        8 men made at least 5 starts for us (in descending order: 32-Vazquez 27-Mussina 27-Lieber 22-Brown 18-Contreras 15-Hernandez 7-Halsey 6-Loaiza); only three had an ERA under 4.50 (Lieber 4.33, Brown 4.09, Hernandez 3.30). Nobody threw 200 IP; Javier came closest at 198 IP. Nobody else broke 180 IP.

        Rivera and Gordon were solid. Everybody else in the bullpen pitched like 2009 Jose Veras. Every single one of them, no exaggeration.

        Total team ERA was 96+.

        —————

        The 2004 New York Yankees was quite possibly the worst, most flawed team ever to be within three outs of making a World Series.

        • bexarama says:

          the comparison between the Pythag record and the actual record for the 2004 Yankees never ceases to amaze me.

          The 2004 New York Yankees was quite possibly the worst, most flawed team ever to be within three outs of making a World Series.
          Also: 2006 CARDINALS
          They probably had better defense, but their pitching… (shudder) They only had three regulars with an OPS+ above 100. That’s as many as they had regulars with an OPS+ BELOW 80. And they were 83-78 (Pythag 82-79) IN THE NL CENTRAL.

        • Ellipses S. Grant (Formerly Rose) says:

          And to think…

          Had Mariano Rivera’s family not been electrocuted and Tom Gordon not been puking his guts out due to nerves…we may have even GOTTEN to the World Series.

          But those woulda-coulda-shoulda’s mean a whole lot of nothin’.

  10. Bernie Williams is gonna straight up MURDER YOUR ASS for this post, Pawlikowski.

    It was nice knowing you.

  11. Christos says:

    I hate snow

  12. Greg says:

    Where do you get your team UZR stats?

  13. So according to fangraphs, the Yankees were the worst fielding team that year….by a wide margin. Giambi doing his Frankenstein impersonation. Sheff, a young Cano. ooof. That’s a lot of bad fielding.

  14. RJ says:

    These geeky, second level stats mean absolutely nothing. Unless you’ve watched years and years of baseball, you cannot know which team is the worst defensive team ever. I’ve watched a lot of baseball (almost 50 years worth) and even I don’t know which team was the worst ever. It’s like every movie site I see — there’s at least one post entitled “Worst Movie Ever.” This is what this post reads like.

    • bexarama says:

      Yeahhhh, except the conclusion of this article isn’t “DEFINITELY YES the 2005 Yankees had the worst defense ever of any team in the history of baseball.” It’s “the 2005 Yankees had the worst defense, based on a certain stat that isn’t perfect and has only been around since 2002.”

      It’s not, however, a stretch to say that the 2005 Yankees were a really terrible defensive team, which I think was the main point.

  15. smurfy says:

    This explains why the camera was always pointed towards the batter.

  16. Michael says:

    I don’t blame Torre for having to piece together a rotation made up of rookies, journeymen, and guys who longed to be journeymen, but why he started Sheffield at 1B is beyond me.

    Melky Cabrera saved them when Matsui and Sheffield went down, and how did they thank him for it? Here’s a seat on the bench.

  17. smurfy says:

    Very instructive story, Joe. The FIP / ERA contrast, the value of UZR, if fuzzy, the value of the range uzr stat, esp for outfield play. Thanks.

  18. [...] to be fair, there have been several cases made that the 2005 Yankees may have been the worst defensive team of all time, and there’s a good chance Colon’s and Garcia’s numbers wouldn’t be quite [...]

  19. [...] thought for sure the 2005 team — generally acknowledged as one of the worst fielding teams of all time — would’ve taken the cake for lowest tallies in both of these metrics, but [...]

  20. [...] From Game-31 through Game-162 in 2005 the Yankees went 84-48, the best record in the AL by four games. Yet this year they appear perhaps better equipped for a surge. The pitching staff is solider and deeper — there will be no Sidney Ponson appearances this year. The offense, too, has a few more weapons than the 2005 team. They might have had the heavy hitters, and Jason Giambi‘s second-half surge certainly played into the Yanks’ winning ways, but the 2012 Yankees have a bit more speed to go with their power. They also don’t have to overcome one of the worst defenses in baseball history. [...]

  21. [...] Yankees fans who remember the 1980s recall teams that could hit, but aside from Ron Guidry, those teams struggled to provide elite pitching. All too often veteran players also see noticeable declines in their defensive abilities. The 2000s spending teams resembled these teams, and it was not an accident that the 2005 team has been cited as statistically one of the worst defensive teams in MLB history. [...]

  22. [...] Yankees fans who remember the 1980s recall teams that could hit, but aside from Ron Guidry, those teams struggled to provide elite pitching. All too often veteran players also see noticeable declines in their defensive abilities. The 2000s spending teams resembled these teams, and it was not an accident that the 2005 team has been cited as statistically one of the worst defensive teams in MLB history. [...]

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