A look at the Yanks’ infield defense from ’03-’12


Pastalunging. (Alex Trautwig/Getty)

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…

xOuts aOuts dOuts Primary Infield
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.
: Actual number of outs recorded.

: 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.

Categories : Defense


  1. Matt says:

    The BABIPs in the table are strictly for ground balls, correct? They’re not BABIPs for all batted balls?

  2. Rich in NJ says:

    I have thought that acquiring a SS/3B, who can hit, that can share PT with Jeter and A-Rod as they age/decline has been there biggest need, by far, over the last few years, and is/was worth spending a large portion of their surplus assets on.

    • Cris Pengiucci says:

      Yes, but it’s difficult to find someone that fits the mold and is willing to split time at SS/3b while not being the primary player at this position.

      • Rich in NJ says:

        That’s true of a veteran who they might try to sign as a free agent (or was acquired via trade who was near free agency), but if it was a ML ready prospect or a young veteran who is several years from free agency, he would have no choice. It was something I thought Montero should have been saved as trade bait to acquire.

        • I am not the droids you're looking for... says:

          Well Seattle is in big on Martin apparently so clearly Jesus isn’t their C of the future. Maybe they’d make him available in a trade and we can send him to AAA to learn 3B and SS.

          • Rich in NJ says:

            Martin’s numbers at Safeco won’t be pretty either, but that’s hardly the point. Montero was (and probably still is) a valuable asset that could have been used far more productively, as I said before he was traded.

            • Cris Pengiucci says:

              In hindsight, yes, although that could change in the next year or so. At the time, it seemed like a good deal for both sides. Sure, Pineda had some concerns due to his less than stellar second half. It’s not as if Montero didn’t have his own warts as well.

            • Robinson Tilapia says:

              …..for an unnamed young super-duper utility guy. Gotcha.

              I understood that, if you were going to fire that bullet, a pitcher was your best bet. It just may have been the wrong pitcher.

        • Cris Pengiucci says:

          The Yankees tried that with Pena and Nunez. Each had their own issues. There’s no one else in the system with the appropriate skills right now, leaving a trade as the only option. Being that the trading team or another team interested in that player may view him as a starter, cost would presumably be high. Not necessarily the wisest user of resources (unless ARod & Jeter become unplayable in the field).

          • Rich in NJ says:

            Pena doesn’t count because he can’t hit at all; Nunez obviously has more upside, but never hit particularly well in the mL. I’m referring to a high end talent.

            As for your other post, I would never trade a hitter for a pitcher under 26.

            • Rich in NJ says:

              Well, almost never.

              • Cris Pengiucci says:

                And the Montero situation is one that I would, when considering that there was really no place for him on the Yankees. He isn’t a catcher and ARod and Jeter will get more and more at bats at DH. Could someone better have been found in trade? Perhaps, but Pineda seemed like a good choice at the time.

                • Rich in NJ says:

                  Pitchers under 26 are particularly susceptible to arm injuries, and Pineda already had one. Plus, his uptick in velo was relatively recent. Couple that with the fact that they had no other ML ready bats, and the risk was not reasonable.

                  • jjyank says:

                    Yeah, but the point was to get a pitcher who could play for the league minimum to help with the $189 budget. Top tier pitchers over 26 generally won’t fit that mold.

                    It didn’t work out, and I would probably agree with you if there was no budget. But it’s clear to me that they targeted Pineda in an effort to find a top-end starter who was only making peanuts.

                  • Preston says:

                    Pitcher velocity and K rates and thus often times production peak early. If you don’t want young pitchers you’re going to have mostly mediocre and expensive pitchers. You don’t know that CC Sabathia or Justin Verlander are going to be durable workhorses who maintain elite stuff until they’ve done it, at which point you have to pay for it.

                    • jjyank says:

                      Just look Tim Lincecum’s 2012 season as the opposite of your example. It’s easy to say Montero should have been traded for the next Verlander, but we don’t have crystal balls.

                    • Rich in NJ says:

                      “It’s easy to say Montero should have been traded for the next Verlander…”

                      Who said that?

                    • Robinson Tilapia says:

                      I don’t think he literally meant someone was making that claim.

            • Robinson Tilapia says:

              High end talent that can be utilized to spell your SS and 3B. What a great use of high end talent that is.

              • Preston says:

                Trade the farm for Manny Machado so we can upgrade over Jason Nix!

              • Rich in NJ says:

                Given that one will be 39 next season, and the other 38, yeah, it is.

                • Cris Pengiucci says:

                  Again, if it’s someone that can be used to slowly replace one of them and become the next starter (while filling in at both positions until one opens up nearly full time), great. I’m for that. But, who is that player and what does he cost? You’re probably taking a chance on a minor leaguer that could fill the role. Similar to what the Yankees thought Nunez (or to a lesser extent, Pena) could do. Unless you’re willing to give up a lot of talent, it’s a crap shoot.

                • Robinson Tilapia says:

                  I will spot you the possibility that, as a one-year solution, should either of these guys completely break down, it’s not a bad way to break in a potential replacement. I’m of the school of thought, though, that thinks that Alex and Jeter will be out there longer than you or I will want them there, in which case the best use of this nonexistant player is probably tradebait.

                  I actually thought the hypoothetical Montero scenario in which he was traded for that guy was more absurd.

                  • Rich in NJ says:

                    I agree with you that they will likely be playing longer than we may want, but if you play them less over that period, you may be able to keep them more productive longer, and if you acquire a talented backup, then their absence/decline won’t be as noticeable. That’s important because they have relied on great production from the left side of the IF for so long.

                    They have (or more accurately had) so few other valuable trade assets, that leaves Montero, if only because of the scarcity of high end tradeable assets.

                    • Cris Pengiucci says:

                      Actually they had (at the time) several other significant trade pieces when they let Montero go. Banuelos wasn’t yet injured. EPrior to and (to a lesser extent) during the ’11 season, Betances hadn’t yet fallen off a cliff. If you stretched it a bit, you had Phelps, Warren & others that could have been pieces in a trade (not prime chips, but solid secondary ones).

                    • Rich in NJ says:

                      Banuelos did not have a particularly good 2011 season, so his value was down. Betances value wasn’t that high either.

                      Neither was as significant as Montero at that point in time.

                • Preston says:

                  The amount of players that can play adequate SS and hit well enough to be a good offensive 3b are extremely rare. And when they come around teams don’t trade them. Even if there was such a player available, Jesus Montero probably wouldn’t have been enough to trade for them. And if we got such a player he should start everyday. Your hypothetical has no basis in reality.

                  • Rich in NJ says:

                    Just in the past few weeks, Reyes and Escobar were trade. Ramirez was traded during the season.

                    So you’re just wrong.

                    • Cris Pengiucci says:

                      Reyes’ contract makes him that deal a non-starter for the Yankees. And again, he’s a starter, not a back up player to ARod and Jeter. And, can he play 3B?

                    • Rich in NJ says:

                      The point is that high end 3B/SS get traded, contrary to what he said.

                    • Preston says:

                      Dude, your nuts. One day you’re panicking about signing Martin with the 2014 cap looming, the next you’re advocating trading for Jose Reyes’s backloaded contract so he can backup Jeter and A-Rod. I don’t even know what to say to that. Yunel Escobar is only slightly above average as a hitter and was terrible a year ago, and has been considered addition by subtraction by the last two clubs he was with. I thought you were talking about trading for an elite prospect when you said “high end talent”, which while it would be nice is just not feasible. I didn’t know you wanted to get an established big league player and then telling him he’s going to back up Jeter and A-Rod. I guess you were upset when we didn’t get Hanley Ramirez too.

                    • Robinson Tilapia says:

                      To his credit, he never actually said the team shoulc acquire Reyes or Escobar. He just pointed them out as an example.

                      That being said, they’re not a representative example of what he’s been referring to.

          • Rich in NJ says:

            I missed this: “Not necessarily the wisest user of resources (unless ARod & Jeter become unplayable in the field).”

            Actually it is because given what they are paid, it makes it far more likely that that money will be spent on productive players far longer.

            • Cris Pengiucci says:

              They are each currently “playable”. Not the best, (some might argue not even good) but they’re not moving away from their position easily. If (and that’s a big if) a young, cost controlled player, that projects to become and every day player in the future, were available in trade, then yes, I agree. I don’t see that right now. The Yankees have tried to find that person and haven’t succeeded to date.

    • NYYROC says:

      One guy who comes to mind is Jhonny Peralta. Just for sake of discussion, because I believe Det. has option on him. He has played a lot of SS & 3B and is (I think) 31 years old. Hits pretty well. But he has had 500+ PA every year since 2005 and if he is FA would certainly get multi year deal. Not likely he would take a utility role unless NYY could guarantee him 500 ABs and give him multi-years. Probably moot since can’t see Det. letting him go.

      • Robinson Tilapia says:

        You hit the nail on the head, though. There’s not going to be a player like that who will take a utility role, and it’s not likely that a utility guy will see that many at-bats unless your starters need that much time off… which case maybe your utility guy should be your starter.

        Even the Eric Chavezes of this world are an extreme rarity.

        All this talk of this MLB-ready guy who has a top talent and can spell Alex and Jeter……unless Rich in NJ is planning on nailing Manny Machado and molding their offspring in his image, we’re talking about something extremely hard to find.

  3. Jersey Joe says:

    Could Polanco learn SS? If he gets back to form, would he make sense as a SS/3B who can hit a bit?

    • Preston says:

      Polanco hasn’t been good offensively since 2008 and hasn’t played shortstop since 2005. At 37 coming off of the worst season of his career I’d rather stick with Nix.

  4. CP says:

    The next ground ball homer I see will be my first.

    FWIW, there were two hits in 2010 that were classified as ground balls and turned into HRs (none in the last two seasons):

    One was an inside the park homer by Chris Denorfia on Aug 5 and the other was an inside the park homer by Andre Torres on July 4. I find it interesting that the Torres HR is listed as a groundball in the 1B-2B hole. Not sure how that happened.

  5. Robinson Tilapia says:

    Great article, Mike. Almost Larry-like.

    • Cris Pengiucci says:

      Had to look at the author to be sure it wasn’t. A lot of data analysis there.

      • Robinson Tilapia says:

        I love this stuff, as it so often (maybe not this time in some ways) runs counter to some of the narrative we hear here over and over. It’s also the thing I don’t have the time or knowledge to look at myself….ever.

  6. Herby says:

    Infield defense is pretty complicated…so I’ll stick to one particular aspect of it, and then base my entire judgement of the infield defense on it…sounds pretty lame to me.

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