The Yankees will never be mistaken for a pitching and defense team, especially over the last 10-15 years. They’ve fielded some stellar individual defensive players during that time, but as a whole they’ve been consistently below*average. Heck, the 2005 Yankees were arguably the worst defensive team in baseball history. That club was brutal.
The additions of Mark Teixeira and Brett Gardner have improved the defensive situation in recent years, but not enough to bring the Yankees to league average, nevermind above-average. Today I want to look at the team’s infield defense over the last ten years, which is as far back as reliable batted ball data goes. Rather than use UZR or DRS or FRAA or some other complicated defensive metric, I’m going to use regular old BABIP. It tells us how many balls in play were converted into outs, which is exactly what we’re looking for here. We don’t care about who has the most range or the strongest arm, just the number of batted balls the defense turned into outs.
Infield defense is pretty complicated because there are all sorts of plays that need to be made. Ground balls are the most common, but there are also line drives, pop-ups, the double play pivot, and in the case of first baseman, receiving throws from other infielders. I’m going to keep this simple and stick to ground balls exclusively. Apologies for the tight and busy table, but here’s the data…
||1,917||0.250||0.238||1,461||1,438||-23||A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Tex|
|’11||1,962||0.250||0.238||1,495||1,472||-24||A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Tex|
|’10||1,885||0.246||0.231||1,450||1,421||-28||A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Tex|
|’09||1,844||0.230||0.238||1,405||1,420||15||A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Tex|
|’08||2,029||0.256||0.240||1,542||1,510||-32||A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Giambi|
|’07||1,981||0.244||0.245||1,496||1,498||2||A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Phillips|
|’06||2,003||0.240||0.245||1,512||1,522||10||A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Giambi|
|’05||2,152||0.246||0.239||1,638||1,623||-15||A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Tino|
|’04||1,998||0.238||0.245||1,508||1,522||14||A-Rod, Jeter, Cairo, Clark|
|’03||2,037||0.256||0.236||1,556||1,516||-41||Ventura, Jeter, Soriano, Giambi|
xOuts: Expected number of outs based on the league BABIP.
aOuts: Actual number of outs recorded.
dOuts: The difference between actual and expected outs, so aOuts – xOuts.
The Yankees have converted fewer ground balls into outs than expected in six of the last ten years, and we’re talking big (red) numbers too — an average of 25 fewer outs than expected per year over the last three seasons plus two other seasons of 30+ fewer outs. It doesn’t seem like a lot — 25 fewer outs than average is one extra ground ball squeaking through every six or seven games — but it is a lot when you consider that fielding ground balls is just one aspect of defense. Combine the missed ground balls with a poor outfield defense (missed fly balls) and botched double plays and all that, and it adds up in a hurry.
Derek Jeter is the one constant in our sample and we all know he’s a below-average defender at short. The ground ball problems aren’t all on him though. Jason Giambi had a huge hand in it for a long time, as did Alfonso Soriano (to a lesser extent). Alex Rodriguez was a defensive liability both early in his Yankees career (learning a new position) and in recent years (breaking down and losing mobility). Below-average defense isn’t an isolated event; turning fewer batted balls into outs results into more pitches for the pitcher, more wear and tear on the bullpen throughout the season, and so on. It’s a continually compounding problem.
The good news is that ground balls are generally harmless. The vast majority of grounders that get through the infield turn into singles, but a few will result in doubles and triples if they’re hit hard enough and down the line. The next ground ball homer I see will be my first. The Yankees have compensated for their defensive woes in recent years by targeting high strikeout pitchers — seriously, look at the staff strikeout rate the last few seasons — who tend to take non-catcher fielders right out of the equation. I think the Yankees have a truly elite defense on the right side of the infield, but they’re very much lacking on the left side. There isn’t much they can do about it now outside of moving Jeter or A-Rod to DH full-time, so they’ll have to continue targeting pitchers who can miss bats and record outs by themselves.