The Yankees’ defensive improvement since 2008

Fan Confidence Poll: January 10th, 2011
The major difference in spending between the Sox and Yanks
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Brian Cashman has been running the Yankees since 1998, but it wasn’t until the after the 2005 season that he gained autonomy and full control of the baseball operations. Ownership was constantly dipping its toe in the baseball ops pool before then, and the Tampa faction of executives and team officials were meddling as well. The three-year contract Cashman signed after 2005 changed all that, but he was still stuck with the same team. Jason Giambi was just four years into a seven year contract and bitter old Gary Sheffield was still around. Carl Pavano was still under contract, ditto Bernie Williams and Jaret Wright. As much as he probably wanted to, Cashman couldn’t just flip a switch to make these guys go away.

It took a few years for Cash to get rid of those guys and replace them with players he wanted, but by the end of the 2008 season the process was pretty much complete. Sheff, Bernie, and Wright were long gone, and the contracts of Pavano and Giambi had mercifully expired at long last. That allowed Cashman to seek younger players at several positions, and he did just that by acquiring Nick Swisher and signing Mark Teixeira. Robbie Cano had established himself as no worse than a legit everyday second baseman with the potential for more, and one of the outfield spots was going to Melky Cabrera or Brett Gardner, whoever happened to be playing better at the time. And that was just that one offseason.

As a result of all the new blood, the team’s defense improved. It was hard not to, frankly. The Yankees were probably the worst defensive team of the decade up to that point, and bringing in just average defensive players would have been a big time help. The table on the right compares the team’s defense from 2006 through 2008 (a period starting when Cashman got his autonomy and ending with a host of albatross contracts expiring) to the defense they’ve played since. I used UZR/150 instead of straight UZR because we’re dealing with a three-year sample vs. a two-year sample, so the rate stat makes more sense. In fact, they always do, but I digress.

The scary part is that this data does not include the 2005 Yankees, which may have been the worst defensive team in the history of baseball. If we include them, we’re looking at an improvement of 70.4 runs saved per 150 defensive games, a simply staggering amount. As it stands, the Yankees made what amounts to a five win improvement defensively thanks to the moves made in recent years, all because a few more of  batted balls are converted into outs on a nightly basis.

Just three of the team’s eight fielders on Opening Day 2006 were playing the same position on Opening Day 2009, though we really should consider it four because of Alex Rodriguez. He was on the shelf in early ’09 recovering from his hip procedure, but he obviously would have been at the hot corner in Game One if healthy. The other holdovers were Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, and Cano. The entire outfield alignment changed during that three year period as did the first baseman.

The change continues as well. The presumed 2011 Opening Day defensive lineup figures to have just four players playing the same position that they did on Opening Day 2009, and that includes A-Rod. The entire outfield alignment changed again, going from Johnny Damon-Brett Gardner-Xavier Nady (LF-CF-RF) to Gardner-Curtis Granderson-Nick Swisher. Jorge Posada has been replaced behind the plate by Russell Martin. Just the infield remains intact, as they will for at least the next three seasons.

The cool part is that the Yankees made all this defensive improvement without sacrificing offense. In fact, they actually got better with the bats. They led baseball with a .353 wOBA from 2006 through 2008, an offense that was 15% better than league average according to wRC+. That improved to a .356 wOBA in 2009 and 2010, 19% better than average. Younger, more athletic players led to better defense and even improved what was already the game’s best offense, who’d a thunk it?

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Fan Confidence Poll: January 10th, 2011
The major difference in spending between the Sox and Yanks
  • http://twitter.com/cephster Ross in Jersey

    The suggestion that Tex is only 6.4 runs/150 games better than late-years Giambi just furthers my belief that the stat is flawed when it comes to rating first basemen. I could be biased, but it seems like that number should be much larger.

    • Thomas

      The 1B UZR data in the post is slightly skewed since Giambi didn’t play that many of the games in the field, less than 200 games.

      Also just to give the other data:

      DRS has Teixeira at -2 over the past two years compared to Giambi’s -22 for his last three years in pinstripes (still less than 200 games at 1B).

      TZ has Teixeira at +14 over the last two years and has Giambi -14 for his last three Yankee years.

    • MikeD

      The stat is flawed when it comes to firstbase, as are all attempts at advanced metrics to rate the men of firstbase. Bill James actually selected Mark Teixeira as the best first baseman for the Fielding Bible awards, even though the generally available defensive stats indicated there were others more deserving. It means one of two things: 1) He has no belief in any of the defenisve ratings when it comes to first base, or; 2) He has access to other defensive information he helped develop for the Red Sox (and we can’t see) that indicates Teixeira is best.

      Would love to see his reasoning.

  • http://slidingintohome.blogspot.com Domenic

    I wonder how much further regression from Rodriguez and Jeter will hinder the defense as a whole. It’s sort of a shame that I’m hesitant for the Yankees to pursue a groundball specialist due to their issues.

    • http://twitter.com/cephster Ross in Jersey

      Why would you be hesitant to get a ground ball specialist just because of Alex and Jeter’s defense? Even if they don’t get to every ball, that’s just some extra singles and maybe a double down the line every now and then. I’d rather have that than get a guy who gives up a ton of flyballs that have a roughly 10% chance of being a home run.

    • http://youcantpredictbaseball.wordpress.com/ bexarama

      CMW did very well when the infield defense was awful.

      • http://www.twitter.com/TomZig Tom Zig

        Yeah, think about it, A-rod was the best defender on those infields.

        • MikeD

          I don’t think A-Rod has ever been the best defender since he moved to third.

  • NYYROC

    I agree that the team is much better defensively, you can tell just by watching the games. Having Cano & Tex on the right side and a more athletic OF has helped a lot. I agree with Ross however. The UZR stat must be flawed. I don’t believe Cano & Tex are negative and AROD & Jeter have not improved as the stat suggests. Your main point is a good one though, the team can play some D.

    • Ed

      The table shows A-Rod as having improved a little and Jeter improving a lot.

    • The Real JobaWockeeZ

      UZR may be flawed but it isn’t flawed just because your memory says otherwise.

  • Mike Myers

    Of all the bad defenders over the past decade plus, the one that bothered me most was Bobby.

    When he used to let those balls drop infront of him instead of charging, it drove me nuts.

    My roomate at the time was from philly and laughed when the Yanks got him….2 months later I knew why.

    • JimmieFoxx

      He shouldn’t have been laughing considering we practically got Bobby for free.

      • The Real JobaWockeeZ

        It was a salary dump. That’s hardly free regardless of prospect cost.

    • Accent Shallow

      My roomate at the time was from philly and laughed when the Yanks got him….2 months later I knew why.

      Abreu has his well documented defensive issues, but the man could hit.

      • http://twitter.com/cephster Ross in Jersey

        And those documented defensive issues were mainly him spazzing out when he got near the outfield wall. I don’t remember him having an issue charging fly balls, and he had an excellent arm.

        And like you said, the dude could hit. Only guy that I didn’t mind getting into a 2 strike count.

        • http://kierstenschmidt.com Kiersten

          Ditto. The wall thing drove my mom and I NUTS. But he seemed to be fine otherwise.

    • http://youcantpredictbaseball.wordpress.com/ bexarama

      My roomate at the time was from philly and laughed when the Yanks got him….2 months later I knew why.

      So, uh, your roommate was laughing at what the Yankees gave up to get him, right? He was terrible defensively but quite good offensively.

  • Big Apple

    This is a great post. Tex has made me forget about Giambi who was God-awful…i had nightmares about him trying to start the 1-6-3 DP…he’d always throw it into left field.

    I’m not very schooled on UZR and from what I’ve read I do think it is flawed. But I rarely see it referenced with respect to a team – its usually just a particular player like “Jeter sucks b/c his UZR is terrible.”

    But one player does not make a team and not all players are going to have the same skill. So instead of just calling out one players defensive deficiencies, wouldn’t it make much more sense to always use a stat like UZR on a team wide basis? I would think so since defense is about the only team aspect in baseball (which is primarily an individual sport.) You can have a SS with poor range but make up for it with better players at LF and CF and a 2B with a cannon.

    • Brandon

      +1

      • Max

        Isn’t that what Defensive Efficiency is?

    • CS Yankee

      I would not worry about a 1-6-3 DP with Giambi…

      now a 3-6-3 or a 3-6-1 (as our pitchers couldn’t cover squat…Clemens, etc) DP we didn’t worry about either because he would either field and touch first and grab a ham sandwich or he would half dive and look towards RF.

      • Big Apple

        sorry..i meant the 3-6-3…or the 3-6-1…if giambi had to throw that ball to 2B it resulted in no outs and a man on third.

  • Brandon

    This is why I dont like UZR, how did Teix put up a negative UZR over the past two seasons?

    • http://www.twitter.com/deanezag Zack

      The same way Teixeira put up a .256 BA this year when his career BA is .286? 1 or 2 years of numbers doesn’t always represent a player’s true talent level. His 2009 is close to his 05-07 seasons. And Tex was playing with a broken toe the last 2 months of the season, could that have hurt his range this year?

      Sure Tex is 10x better than Giambi was at 1B, but I bet if we watched Barton 150 times a year we’d say he’s 10x better than Tex.

      • MikeD

        I doubt that. You’re putting too much faith in UZR, especially as it relates to 1B. MLB teams do not use UZR is evaluating players, and I’m not talking about teams stuck in a 1970s mindset. I’m talking teams that value statisitical analysis. If they’re not buying into it, neither am I.

    • CS Yankee

      Teix real value is his arm, poise (can throw home, etc) and picks at 1B…he doesn’t cover/react the best to a liner (no Donnie) on the line but his other assets make him among the games best (or so I believe).

      He makes Jeter okay with the dirt picks and helps Arod as well with setting his feet late and adjusting to the throw.

  • Monteroisdinero

    Does ARod play farther toward SS than other 3rd basemen to help with Jeter’s limited range? Do we give up more ground ball doubles down the line than other teams? If we do, is this offset by more grounders in the hole that Alex gets to?

    It will be interesting to see how the catching position stacks up defensively with Martin and Montero vs Posada and Cervelli.

    • Sweet Dick Willie

      Jeter’s limited range is mostly to his left (up the middle). He’s actually pretty good going to his right.

  • http://twitter.com/steveh_MandAura Steve H

    This should be required reading material for Rob Neyer.

    • http://www.twitter.com/TomZig Tom Zig

      ICWUDT

    • MikeD

      The Yankees and Brian Cashman don’t care about defense. Rob told me that a couple years back, and whatever Rob says must be true, says Rob.

  • C-Mac

    How exactly does UZR work? Does it just simply divide the field up into a grid and base a defender’s ability by the ground he covers on any given play? Or is there a weight given to the type of hit–bloop, line drive, slow/fast grounder?

    I only ask because based on memory (unreliable at best), I wouldn’t say Tex has the most amazing range, which makes sense given speed. But what does stand out in my memory is him snaring a whole bunch of very hard hit balls in impressive fashion. I would just think that range wouldn’t matter as much at 1B, but the ability to handle difficult hits would? Any stat account for this, or do we have to wait for Hit F/X to start figuring things like this?

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      It’s based on everything, where it’s hit, how hard it’s hit, the batter’s handedness, the park, the whole nine.

      • Andy in Sunny Daytona

        Does it take into account where the fielder is positioned by his coach? Do they have metrics designed to know what coach does the best in putting their fielders into position?

        • Big Apple

          i find it hard to believe one stat can quantify everything that affects a batted ball…weather, day game/night game, type of pitch, lefty/right, baserunner speed, etc…

          • http://www.twitter.com/deanezag Zack

            What stat does?

            OBP doesn’t change if you’re facing Maddux or Oliver Perez.
            A solo HR off of Moyer is still a solo HR off of Mariano.
            You can strike out Pujols or Ryan Howard, and it’s still just 1 SO in your box score.
            SB off of Pudge in his prime is still a SB if you steal off of Posada.
            et al.

            • Dave

              Sure, it matters. Maddux was RHP, Ollie’s a lefty. Mo’s a righty closer, Moyer a junk-ball lefty. RyHow a lefty, Pujols a righty. Obviously, when they post BA or BAA (or any stat for that matter) on your TV set and show the disparities between the two, it’s pretty clear that the differences are considered significant by the teams employing the analysis.

        • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

          It’s built into UZR. Better positioned players will get to more balls, and that will be reflected in the stat.

          • Big Apple

            get it…the assumption is that the defender takes all of those things into account to position himself in the spot where the ball should be hit…

            so it actually doesn’t have as much to do about range as much as reading the situation that is presented in every single pitch and making the necessary adjustments.

      • CS Yankee

        It doesn’t factor in scoops or throwing ability for 1B, does it?

        Teix can stay low and pivot well to 2B and will charge an IS, but not way above in dives, etc.

    • Big Apple

      I have no clue how UZR calculated…but I would add on to that arm strength and accuracy. Some guys can get to any ball but they still can’t make an accurate or strong enough throw to get the runner.

      Cano may not be the fastest guy but he’s got an arm like a CF so he can still nail the runner.

      frickin’ love Robbie Cano…he drove me nuts for a few years, but IMO, he’s the most fun player to watch. Makes everything look easy and he smiles….that swing is a thing of beauty.

      • CS Yankee

        Your team UZR is a solid idea (as listed above) as a player like Jete’ was hampered by Giambi not making up anything on an off-throw and is helped by now having Teix.

        It is still a team game with just 4 or 5 spot-light times for the hitters.

  • Mike HC

    The Yanks overall team D has improved using just about any measure you want to use. Granderson and Gardner in the outfield is outstanding and our infield is quite solid in my opinion, nothing spectacular though.

  • Johnny O

    Hold on just one minute. Brian Cashman is a HORRIBLE, HORRIBLE General Manager. You can’t possibly convince me that he put together a team that has a significantly better Defense without sacrificing any offense. This is blasphemy.

    Before anyone asks, I’m kidding. Love Ca$hman and love this article.

    • Big Apple

      he’s just following in Theo’s run prevention footsteps.

  • Sean C

    I love having (essentially) two legit CFs in the outfield. Anyone ever notice how Grandy/Gardy, aside from just backing up each other on plays like they should, they cover a ton of ground out there. The outfield in general is so much better than what we saw. Abreu? Melky? Damon? Good thing 2/3 of them had good bats to make up for all of the shenanigans that went on out there during the last decade.

  • John

    why do you always say “but I digress”…reminds of stephan A smith. not necessarily a complement. I enjoy your posts though for the most part!

  • Kevin Ocala, Fl

    I’ve often wondered if Jeter’s defensive stats suffered because of Giambi, and then got better when Tex came in. Hell, anyone that’s thrown anything, football, baseball, etc at a person that can’t catch knows the feeling of tightening up or taking something off the throw. Makes sense IMHO, and I’ve been surprised that I haven’t seen any articles that have been written about it. Just sayin’….