Yankees outfielders adding value with their arms


Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Just how good is the Yankees outfield defense? The eye test paints a pretty picture, and the numbers provide a similar perspective. This morning Stephen cited a Dan Barbarisi post that further examines the defensive numbers for the Yankees’ outfield, and the returns are predictably good. As a unit the Yankees outfielders have a UZR of 20.1, or 8.7 per 150, which ranks third in all of baseball. Only Arizona and Boston lead them. The major difference among the three teams is how they accumulate these defensive numbers. Both Arizona and Boston accomplish this with range; their 37.3 and 22.8 range runs lead the league by a decently wide margin. While the Yankees do have quality range numbers, they have something that the Red Sox and Diamondbacks do not: quality outfield arms.

As a unit the Yankees’ outfielders have produced 4.4 runs above average with their arms. That ranks seventh in baseball, and just 0.3 points away from fourth. All three of the starters not only have positive arm scores this year, but all three rank in the top 20 among all MLB outfielders in arm score. Again, this passes the eyeball test at least as it concerns 2011. They’ve all had issues in the past, but it does appear that they’ve turned it around. In 2011 they’re apparently turning the corner.

Before we proceed, a word about the small sample that is the 2011 season. It is absolutely true that to gain any value from defensive metrics you need heaps of data — preferably three years’ worth. Clearly we’re not getting anything close to that by examining year-to-year improvements for each player. Yet I’m confident that we’re measuring something real — that is, something that actually happened on the field — when we’re looking at arm scores. From the FanGraphs UZR primer, arm scores are “based on the speed and location of batted balls to the outfield and how often base runners advance extra bases (advances), don’t advance the extra base (holds), or get thrown out trying to advance (kills).” While speed and location are subject to bias, the play-by-play data can give us a good idea when it comes to advances, holds, and kills. So while there is a level of noise in these data, there is also some truth, stemming from the “it happened” factor.

Since he arrived in New York, it was apparent that Nick Swisher had an arm more suited for a left fielder, or even a DH. He lollipopped throws with consistence in 2009, and the numbers bore it out; he had a -5.9 arm score, which was tied with Brad Hawpe for worst in the majors. The problems were so bad that he went to then pitching coach Dave Eiland for advice on how to better hurl a baseball. That seemingly did the trick. In 2010 he improved to -0.8 arm runs above average. This year he’s at 1.6 runs above average, which ranks 19th among MLB outfielders.

While Gardner occasionally uncorked a five-bouncer to home plate during his first two years in the outfield, he still produced generally good arm numbers. From 2008 through 2009 they went: 5.0, 2.4, 6.6. The score in 2008 and the huge jump in 2010 might have been a product of perception. Gardner doesn’t look like a guy with a quality arm, therefore coaches and base runners might be more apt to attempt the extra base. To wit, he had 12 assists last year, which ranked second among MLB outfielders. This year he has only six assists, perhaps because the league has adapted to his actual arm skill. Despite that he still has an arm score of 1.7, which ranks 15th among MLB outfielders. It suggests that he’s holding base runners, rather than killing them.

That leaves Granderson, who had mixed results in terms of arm score earlier in his career. He was actually below average in his final two years with the Tigers, but has been positive in both of his seasons with the Yankees. In fact, his 1.9 arm score from this year ranks 10th in baseball. This is due, in large part, to his eight outfield assists, which ranks 15th among outfielders. The only other year in which he’s had more than five assists was in 2007, when his arm score was at a career high 4.1. I want to say that Granderson’s arm score stems from the same bias that Gardner’s does: teams using old and unreliable information concerning Granderson. But I’m not sure there’s enough evidence there to render that any more credible than any other pet theory.

On broadcasts this season the Yankees crew has often mentioned that the outfielders, not just Swisher, have worked with Larry Rothschild on their throwing. It makes perfect sense, of course, since outfielders want to generate power with their throws just as pitchers do. While it’s an anecdote, it apparently shows up in the data as well. Whatever the case, the Yankees starting outfield is not only doing an excellent job of running down fly balls, but they’re also holding and killing base runners with efficiency. After years and years of watching one of the poorest outfield defenses in the league, it’s nice to finally see the Yankees on top.

Categories : Defense
  • nesto

    I’ve come to terms that not all outfielders will have arms like Choo, Ichiro, or Markakis. That being said, Swish, Brett, and Curtis have been doing good with what the have. The improvement from Swish is obvious. I remember all the airmail he sent back in 09.

  • Art Vandelay

    “After years and years of watching one of the poorest outfield defenses in the league, it’s nice to finally see the Yankees on top.”

    You can say that again. It’s so fun watching grandy and Gardner track down balls in left center. Alot more fun than Matsui and Damon.

    • Kilgore Trout

      But it was a lot more fun watching Damon and Matsui hit. Both Damon and Matsui have signature Yankee moments that none of the current outfielders possess. Who can forget Johnny Damon stealing 2nd and 3rd on the same play in the 09 WS? Or Hideki Matsui’s 6 RBI game to clinch the title? I think these guys were quite fun to watch.

      • jsbrendog

        granderson offensively >>>>>>>>>damon offensively

        gardner to watch >>>>>> matsui to watch. just more exciting

      • Chen Meng Wang

        and that time that Grandy was in the middle of an MVP race in 2010…Damon and Matsui where definitely better than him with the bat.

      • Jim S

        They were fun to watch, but not fun to watch in the outfield.

      • Sean C.

        You sound like my dad with all that “True Yankee” rhetoric.

  • mikeNicoletti

    Can you imagine how Mussina’s career yankee numbers would look with this defense instead of the ones that were behind him?

  • pat

    I find it funny that arm strength is simultaneously the most whined about and least important tool a player can have.

    • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

      “… arm strength is… the most whined about… tool a player can have.”

      This is not even close to true.

      • pat

        Come on now. How many psychotic commenters wanted to run Johnny Damon out of town because of his arm? Same with Swisher and Gardner.

        • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

          Really? You don’t want to stick with this line of reasoning. There is absolutely no way, none, that arm strength is the most whined about tool. PERIOD*.


          Seriously, though, that’s just not remotely true, I don’t even know how to argue about this. It’s like you’re telling me 2+2=boobies.

          • jsbrendog

            that math seems sound to me.

            in my world everything = boobies

            • laser


      • Jesse

        Arm strength is a game changer.
        C’mon man!
        /ESPN Mondy Night Football Countdown’d

    • Ed

      That’s because it’s far easier to judge arm strength than anything else. What you can tell with your eyes is pretty much all their is to it, and it shows easily both at the stadium and on tv.

      Range is hard to judge on TV, as you’re usually only seeing the end of the play. It’s also deceptive, as Johnny Damon diving to catch a ball leaves far more of an impression in your mind than Brett Gardner making it look like a routine play.

      Hitting and pitching have so many aspects to them that its hard to get people to even agree which ones matter more than others. You also need to be trained well to know a good pitching motion or swing from a bad one. We can guess at that stuff, but we’re usually wrong.

  • Vinny Scafuto

    Brett Gardner’s 5-hoppers caused the Virginia earthquake.

    • Ethan


      • Eric Duncan

        The joke is … That there was a earthquake just now on the atlantic coast.

        • Ethan

          Oh it actually originated in Ontario but apparently felt all along the North East. They were just talking about it in the SEA-CLE game

          • Ethan

            oh i see now that there was one in virginia too. My bad.

            • Mike HC

              I thought the one that hit ny was the one that originated from Virginia. Virgina was like a 5.9 or something and we got the small after effects. I obviously didn’t do the research myself, so only regurgitating what I heard.

        • MikeD

          I know. I felt it up in Westchester county.

          • Ethan

            ah i see. Was there any damage?

            • Scout

              And I thought it was C.C. sitting down next to me.

            • MikeD

              The only damage was to my blood pressure for that passing moment when I realized it was an earthquake!

              Small shaking in the home for about ten seconds.

              • pat

                Small shaking in the home for about ten seconds.


                • Hikkker

                  you shook me all night long!!

              • Mike HC

                Yea, that was kind of crazy. I’m in a 30 story nyc building that got evacuated. People were panicking, swarming the elevators, ha.

                • Ethan

                  Yeah apparently the capitol building and pentagon were evacuated according to the Indian broadcasters.

                  • Mike HC

                    “According to the Indian broadcasters” ??? haha, huh?

                    • Mike HC

                      oh, are you in india?

                    • Ethan

                      Indians lol oops.

                    • Mike HC

                      hahah, oh, you were watching the cleveland indians game. I’m a little slow apparently, the earthquake shook me, ha.

  • Bronx Byte

    It was a normal errant pitch that hit the backstop from a bullpen session by Burnett.
    Larry Rothschild just yawned.

  • Reggie C.

    Is the game tonight cancelled?

    • MikeD

      Why? Because of the quake? Nah. Very minor beyond people’s nerves working in tall buildings.

  • Mykey

    Lifeguard at Jersey Shore here. That was weird to feel on the beach.

  • Mike HC

    I assume that “Acts of God” are an exception to the off topic rules around here. Maybe add it to the comment guidelines, ha.

    • Jim S

      No way. God is not above the rules of RAB.

      • MikeD

        What about Jesus?

        • Jedile

          Jesus is coming!

          (I was slow, stupid satellite internet)

        • Jim S

          I’m not sure. He probably has to ask his dad before doing anything.

  • Monteroisdinero

    I live in Virginia-about an hour from the epicenter. It was an intense 20 seconds of rumbling and shaking. I used to live in the SF bay-never thought it would happen here.

    /but Nick Swisher’s arm still sucks!

  • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

    I can’t wait for Josh Beckett to complain about how unfair it is that the Red Sox have to play a game on the day of a freak earthquake.

  • David, Jr.

    Off topic – Wandy claimed – Not the Yankees, thankfully.

  • Ethan

    Sigh, just read an article about the brewers and how they have the largest division lead in baseball. Just an example of how weak the NL central really is. The brewers are a good team but would be third in the AL East, and after having adjusted the team to playing in the East they would probably be 4th, behind the Rays. They play against 4 teams that are under 0.500 in their division. I would be nice to be in a division as weak as the NL Central or just not in a division as strong as the AL or NL East.

    • Bryan

      I prefer the Yankees playing in a strong division – the threat of missing out on the postseason forces them to put a strong team on paper and play at a championship calibre level each year.

      Also playing strong teams regularly exposes the Yankees’ flaws, which theoretically can be corrected by the postseason.

  • Sarah

    Just had someone at my office tell me “The Yankees don’t have anyone in the outfield with a good arm. None of their outfielders can throw you out at home.”

    To which I replied: “Brett Gardner.”

    Rangers fans. When will they learn?

  • Bryan

    I like your logic – that teams will adjust to the “actual” arm ability of an outfielder. I guess this would apply to anyone. Gardner’s high assist total was a product of imperfect information around the league about his throwing ability. Presumably Ichiro/Guerrero’s assist numbers also dropped once the league caught on about their arms.

  • laser

    I can throw a seed from center to home…sign me up.

    And I have a pop-time in the high 1.8s

  • laser

    I can throw a seed from center to home…sign me up.

    And I have a pop-time in the high 1.8s

    Earthquake ftw