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


  1. nesto says:

    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.

  2. Art Vandelay says:

    “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 says:

      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.

  3. mikeNicoletti says:

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

  4. pat says:

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

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

      This is not even close to true.

    • Ed says:

      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.

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

  6. Bronx Byte says:

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

  7. Reggie C. says:

    Is the game tonight cancelled?

  8. Mykey says:

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

  9. Mike HC says:

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

  10. Monteroisdinero says:

    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!

  11. 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.

  12. David, Jr. says:

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

  13. Ethan says:

    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 says:

      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.

  14. Sarah says:

    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?

  15. Bryan says:

    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.

  16. laser says:

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

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

  17. laser says:

    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

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