2012 Season Preview: Saving Runs

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So good that MLB told him he can't use a glove in 2012 just to make it fair. (REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Like a number of other teams, the Yankees ignored defense for quite some time in the mid-aughts. Maybe ignored is the wrong word, but it definitely wasn’t a priority. The 2005 Yankees were arguably the worst defensive team in baseball history, but they still managed to win 95 games thanks to a dominant offense and some good timing (pythag. 90 wins). That formula doesn’t cut it these days.

By no means are the 2012 Yankees a defensive dynamo, but they’ve improved defensively at a number of positions in recent years by shedding poor glovemen like Bobby Abreu, Jason Giambi, and Johnny Damon. UZR says the Yankees were the eighth best defensive team in baseball last year, saving 23.2 more runs than expected. At the same time, their -15 DRS ranks 21st out of the 30 team. Different systems give different answers, which is why this defense thing is so hard to pin down these days. Let’s take a look at the Yankees who provide value when not in the batter’s box…

Robinson Cano
Cano is a good example of just how imperfect defensive metrics are these days. UZR doesn’t like him one bit, rating him as a below average defender in each of the last four years and in six of his seven seasons. DRS, on the other hands, says he’s been above average in each of the last three years and in four of the last five. Total Zone says he’s been a bit below average the last two years, but above average the four years before that. FRAA? That says he’s been above average defensively in every season of his career except for 2010, when he registered at -0.5.

Which system is right? Probably all of them to a certain extent, but it goes to show that there’s still no right answer with this defensive stuff. Overall, I think Robbie’s a pretty good second baseman, particularly on plays to his right and around the bag on the double play pivot. Balls hit to his left have been a bit of a problem throughout the years, but I think he’s still a net positive, all things considered. No one will ever confuse Cano for Roberto Alomar or Chase Utley on defense, but he’s a solid glove guy that does his best work near the bag. That double play pivot is just as sweet as his swing.

Brett Gardner
You can make a legitimate case that Gardner is the best defensive player in baseball. He combines his speed with excellent reads for top notch range, and his throwing has improved dramatically over the last two years or so. His arm isn’t terribly strong, but it is accurate. Anytime a ball is hit in the air towards left, I’m pretty confident that it’ll be turned into an out these days.

One thing to keep in mind is that Gardner’s ridiculous defensive ratings — +50.9 UZR and +35 DRS last two years — are relative to other left fielders, and most other left fielders are slow, plodding, bat-first types. I don’t want to take anything away from Brett because he is an elite defender, but if the Yankees were to move him to center, he would not be a +20 defender on an annual basis. He’d be more along the lines of +10 or so. That’s still really awesome, and when it comes to saving runs with the glove, no one on the Yankees is better and very few around the league are even comparable.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Russell Martin
Catcher defense is a tough thing to quantify, but we’ve gotten better throughout the years. Although he’s been below average at blocking passed pitches in recent years, PitchFX data has shown that Martin is one of the very best at framing pitches and saving runs by turning balls into strikes. With an average arm that consistently throws out 30% of attempted base stealers or so, Russ handles himself well behind the plate and is an asset to the team defensively.

Of course, Martin looks like the greatest catcher ever compared to his predecessor Jorge Posada. Not to dump on Posada, but he was a bad defensive catcher and flat out abysmal later in his career, and it could be clouding our judgment when watching Martin or any other Yankees catcher. The few advanced metrics we have do a good job of showing that while he’s a good defensive backstop, Martin isn’t great. He does the job throwing out baserunners, frames pitches exceptionally well, and won’t allow and excessive amount of pitches to get by him.

Mark Teixeira
Defensive metrics still haven’t mastered the first base position, which has more to do with straight glovework than range. Tex isn’t fleet of foot but he does guard the line well and keeps his fair share of balls from getting through the hole. That has more to do with positioning than actual quickness. He’s also a strong thrower, which is still amazing to see after watching Giambi airmail throws for the better part of a decade.

I think Teixeira’s best defensive work comes when he’s scooping throws at first or snagging bad hops, stuff like that. There’s no way to measure this accurately, so it’s completely anecdotal. He saves the other infielders errors by scooping those poor throws, but more importantly saves pitches for the guys on the mound. Tex sees more defensive work than every non-battery position on the field, which is a good thing for the Yankees given his skills.

* * *

I think Alex Rodriguez is worth a mention here, because he looked fantastic on defense late in the season and especially in the ALDS. He didn’t hit much after the knee and thumb injuries, but he still moves well around the bag and makes a lot of tough plays look easy because of his strong arm. I also think A-Rod is the smartest, most instinctual player I’ve ever seen. He always seems to makes the correct decision when it comes to going for the double play, looking back the lead runner, charging the bunt, all that stuff. Alex won’t win a Gold Glove, but by no means is he a liability at the hot corner.

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  • GardnergoesYardner

    The funny thing is that MLB would say something like that. All in the name of preserving competitive balance, right?

  • PghPinstripes

    I think Martin will improve in 2012 not having to chase bad AJ pitches.

    Also, where is Granderson in your metrics? Is he “average” defensively in CF? Would he be above average in LF? Is there any chance the Yankees switch Grandy and Gardner. If they did, would that improve the team?

    • http://fendersonandhampton.com Cuso

      If I’m not mistaken, UZR had him rated as the worst CFer in the majors last year.

      Defensive assessment is still (and may always be) an inexact science.

      • Preston

        You are mistaken, UZR had him at -5.1 runs last year which put him near the middle of the pack. But Granderson has been really all over the map from year to year in UZR. In 2010 he was plus 6.4. Over his career he’s been as high as 15 runs saved and as low -11. This is why they say a single season of defense is not a large enough sample size. Overall Granderson is above average in CF.

      • The Guns of Navarone

        That honor belongs to Angel Pagan. Grandy was -5 UZR last year. I remember there was a lot of debate about Gardner being in left affecting Granderson’s positioning and therefore his zone rating. But, in general, Grandy being below average last year definitely passes the eye test. There were plenty of times throughout the season where he misread some balls and got a bad jump.

        • Mike HC

          Not taking away from his range or anything, but agreed I remember multiple misplays that I don’t think he would usually mess up in most seasons.

  • DM

    “I also think A-Rod is the smartest, most instinctual player I’ve ever seen. He always seems to makes the correct decision when it comes to going for the double play, looking back the lead runner, charging the bunt, all that stuff.”

    Agree completely. A-Rod and Jeter both. They always know where the play is. Robin Ventura was like that too — which made up for some of his physical limitations.

  • Keigawa Burnettavano

    I just don’t buy that Gardner is that huge a run saver. Left field is simply not that important of a defensive position. Period. If you look at what a catcher, 2B, SS or CF contributes defensively, there’s no comparison in terms of relative importance of those positions compared to left field. Is there a less important position defensively than left?

    Gardner is a nice cheap player, but his defensive value – and overall value – is totally overrated.

    • Mike HC

      I would say that the huge left field/left center in Yankee Stadium makes a left fielder more valuable to the Yanks than maybe other teams. RF in Yankee stadium is probably the easiest position to play in baseball.

    • Sweet Dick Willie

      Is there a less important position defensively than left?

      First base. Also, I guess, DH would count.

      • Donny

        I don’t agree with this assessment at all.

        If you looked at the link to the worst defense ever (2005 Yankees), you would see that Giambi’s and Tino’s UZR were terrible. If you are not an advocate of that stat for measuring defense, just think hard enough to remember how terrible they were. Sure, Giambi could scoop a ball (he had to since he played in Oakland), but he wasn’t the most athletically nimble guy. As soon as Tex came here, the rest of the infielders marvelled at how many errors were saved by balls that were one-hopped to first.

        I think in a normal stadium LF relies the least on defense. However, Yankee Stadium (and to a degree Boston because of the wall) puts a burden on the fielder to, at least, be able to play positioning.

  • Mike HC

    Nice write up. Cashman probably doesn’t get enough credit for dramatically improving the defense while barely effecting the offense, if at all. That does slide under the radar when discussing Cashman’s moves and overall game plan since taking over.

  • A-Rod

    What do you mean I won’t win a gold glove? Its a popularity contest. If I am out there for 130+ games and don’t destroy the position I will win one.

    • jsbrendog

      adrian beltre.

      • vin

        You’re right, it is pretty damn hard to unseat a guy like Beltre.

    • vin

      Not if there isn’t any buzz about it. During ST, if Girardi states that he really feels Alex will win the Gold Glove this year, then the announcers and beat writers will pick up on it and the avalanche will start. That’s how it usually works for guys who don’t necessarily make highlight reels (Torii, Ichiro, etc).

    • RetroRob

      A-Rod was one of the top defensive third basemen in the game last year.

      Yet even if he continued that this year and deserved the award, he won’t win it with Even Longoria and Adrian Beltre in the league.

    • Slugger27

      this is a confusing comment. hes played many seasons with the yankees over 130 games and hasn’t won a GG. with this information freely available, its almost like youre intentionally posting false imformation.

  • Manny’s BanWagon

    These defensive metrics are frequently contradictory and often fluctuate so significantly from year to year that I don’t know anyone can put much weight in them at all.

  • Jonathan

    I definitely think Granderson belongs in this conversation. UZR has been nuts with him. I’m not sure how to explain defensive numbers fluctuating this badly:15.1, -11.1, -1.3, 6.4, -5.1. How do you go from elite, miserable, approximately average, above average, below average? I would most likely rate him as slightly above average. Besides Jeter I love our defense.

    And if Jeter/Palmeiro/Ethier can win a GG, ARod definitely can. I still firmly believe in his talents. Before getting hurt at the start of the year in 2011 you could tell he was his old self. If he can stay relatively healthy I have confidence he can put up a .290/.385/.525 season while playing good defense.

  • ralph

    Your summary of brett gardner is about as spot on inaccurate as you can get.

    There is no case in which i could say he is the Best defensive out fielder in baseball.

    Watch him play,

    1) Get a very late jump on most balls
    2) Constantly out of position and tries to make up for it in speed
    3) In late innings he does not defend well against extra base hits
    4) Arm more accurate but weak.

    I have been watching baseball for 56 years, he is a joke at the plate and nearly a bigger joke in the field

    • Sweet Dick Willie

      And yet the decision makers (Cashman, Girardi et al), who are paid to observe, evaluate and decide such matters, think otherwise.

      • Mike Myers

        “Arm more accurate but weak” More accurate and weaeker that who?

        Thank you for your reasearch backed insight. You must be a scout for the Astros.

      • Robinson Tilapia

        For the MLB Network, I’m Harold “Ralph” Reynolds.

    • Manny’s BanWagon

      That’s B.S.

      Gardner may not be the superhuman defensive outfielder UZR makes him out to be but I believe he is still well above average and among left fielders, elite when it comes to defense.

    • DM

      Watch him play??!!?!?!?

      You’re on the wrong board, pal.

      You’ve entered the Platonic Realist realm known as RAB.

      Where fangraphs is the path to some Kantian noumenal world –i.e., the REAL reality (if it isn’t, who cares? you can always massage some numbers, exclude others, throw out the evidence in front of your face until you reach your preconceived subjective preferences)

      But if you continue on your current path, your senses will only serve to deceive you. (and you’ll be attacked on this board)

      Dont you know that you are blind b/c you have eyes?

      Dont you know that you are deaf b/c you have ears?

      If you have issues with the above, you’ll have to come sit in the Aristotle section with me — lest you face their wrath.

    • Tom Zig

      I’ve been watching baseball for 26 years and I’m only 25. So there.

  • RetroRob

    The recent catcher blocking information has now been incorported into FanGraphs’ catcher defensive ratings. I don’t agree with that. Way too early for something that should now be under heavy review before it’s accepted as gospel.

    I’d also rather have a catcher with better framing skills than blocking skills. The former should have a much more positive impact on the pitching staff.

    • Plank

      UZR was just as raw when it got incorporated. Now it’s gospel.

  • whitey

    Gardner is not good defensively? That ‘s why we have certain kids that have adults follow them around.

  • murakami

    Gardner has been invented by UZR.

    • Preston

      To a certain extent I think that this is true. UZR is not a perfect metric. It does not take into account things like park factors and defensive alignment. Andrew McCutchen is by all visual accounts a fine CF, yet prior to last year the Bucs used almost exclusively a no triples alignment that killed his UZR because balls were constantly falling in front of him. New manager this season and his UZR reflects his actual talent level. Similarly Carl Crawford has to me long been overrated as an defender. If he was really so great, he’d have played CF. But his glove work and weak arm don’t allow him to be a true CF. However in the Trop, he was able to use his speed to make a lot of plays other LFers just can’t make. This year in Boston the benefit of his speed was mitigated and he was shown to be a poor fielder. Gardner is not the super human defender that some make him out to be. But he is better than Crawford in both his glove work and throwing, and LF in YS helps utilize his best asset, his speed. So while I don’t think Gardner’s defensive value would translate as well to CF, or that he’d be as valuable in a different park, but he really is saving all of those runs for us.