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

The Yankees and the importance of marginal wins
Andruw Jones to sign with team in Japan
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Two weeks ago I looked at the Yankees’ infield defense over the last decade using a real simple BABIP-based analysis. The club was a well-below-average defensive team against ground balls in six of the last ten years, including each of the last three years and four of the last five. With an aging Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter on the left side of the infield, the poor infield defense wasn’t a surprise.

Today I’m going to shift to the outfield and look at how the Yankees have done when it comes to converting fly balls into outs. Not counting infield pop-ups because they’re in their own little analytical world, fly balls turn into outs far more often than ground balls and line drives. It’s worth noting that available batted ball data, which reliably dates back to 2003, is not perfect. Baseball Info. Solutions records the data with human stringers who watch each game and classify each batted ball. Ground balls are pretty straight forward, but one person’s fly ball is another’s line drive. There is some scorer bias involved. We’re going to stick to regular old fly balls today. Here’s the data, and apologies in advance for the cluttered table…

#FB NYY BABIP AL BABIP xOuts aOuts dOuts Primary Outfield
2012 1,339 0.133 0.128 1,168 1,161 -7 Ibanez, Grandy, Swisher
2011 1,414 0.124 0.137 1,220 1,239 19 Gardner, Grandy, Swisher
2010 1,456 0.118 0.139 1,254 1,284 30 Gardner, Grandy, Swisher
2009 1,418 0.118 0.136 1,225 1,251 26 Damon, Melky, Swisher
2008 1,358 0.137 0.138 1,171 1,172 1 Damon, Melky, Abreu
2007 1,542 0.130 0.137 1,331 1,342 11 Matsui, Melky, Abreu
2006 1,591 0.140 0.141 1,367 1,368 1 Melky, Damon, Abreu
2005 1,499 0.154 0.133 1,300 1,268 -32 Matsui, Bernie, Sheff
2004 1,619 0.153 0.133 1,404 1,371 -33 Matsui, Bernie, Sheff
2003 1,559 0.150 0.128 1,359 1,325 -34 Matsui, Bernie, Mondesi

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.

Just to be clear, homeruns are not counted in the fly ball total because they aren’t a ball in play. A ball isn’t in play if the defender doesn’t have a chance to catch it, which they can’t do when it sails over the fence.

As you probably remember, the Yankees had some miserable defensive teams in early-to-mid-aughts. The Hideki Matsui and Bernie Williams-anchored outfields from 2003-2005 were good for 30+ fewer outs converted than the league average, which is an enormous number. Adding Melky Cabrera and (to a lesser extent) Johnny Damon to the mix improved things greatly in 2006, though the Yankees were still league-average. Bobby Abreu was a defensive nightmare who prevented the unit from being above-average.

The 2009 season is when things really improved. Abreu’s wall-fearing ways were replaced by Nick Swisher, who is a solid defender and far better than his predecessor. Brett Gardner also started to earn more playing time. The 2009-2011 outfields were well-above-average as the Matsuis and Damons and Abreus were replaced, though the 2012 defense took a hit when Raul Ibanez handled left field in the wake of Gardner’s injury. The Yankees have boasted an average or better outfield defense (with regards to fly balls) in six of the last seven years, and in several of those seasons they were much better than the league average.

As I mentioned two weeks ago, ground balls are relatively harmless. They usually go for singles when they sneak through the infield and that’s the end of it. Fly balls, even the ones that don’t go over the fence for homers, are much more dangerous. Misplayed fly balls often turn into extra-base hits, which can be a nightmare for the pitcher. It’s one thing to have a man on first after a ground ball finds a hole, but it’s another when a fly ball dunks in and a man is instantly on second or third. The Yankees have done an excellent job of turning their outfield ranks over in recent years while improving the fly ball catching ability without sacrificing offense.

The Yankees and the importance of marginal wins
Andruw Jones to sign with team in Japan
  • http://www.twitter.com/_swarlesbarkley Drew

    Ahh the original Rauuuuullll in ’03

  • Robinson Tilapia

    I bet folks thought 2012 be worse than that based on all that Raul out there.

    • Cris Pengiucci

      Kinda shows that Swisher and Granderson really aren’t that bad. I have to believe negative value is largely, if not exclusively, attributable to Ibanez.

      • Bubba

        The same outfield had a pretty good drop from 2010 to 2011 (granted very good to good), so while Raul was kinda scary out there I don’t think it can all be laid at his feet. I would hazard a guess that the proposed swap of Gardner and Granderson is as much about Granderson being a poor centerfielder as it is about Gardner being a good one.

    • King of Fruitless Hypotheticals

      Are you certain? Wasn’t Jones out there a few days?

      • Cris Pengiucci

        Probably not enought to have any sort of statistical relevance.

  • Mister D

    Abreu’s wall-phobia was one of the weirder baseball quirks I can remember.

    • Mike HC

      I just think he was trying to avoid injury.

    • Kevin Schappert

      Abreu was a horrible OF– Matsui not much better

    • MannyGeee (2 WAR a month Playa!)

      God, I remember those games… He was infuriating when his feet hit the warning track dirt. Swish may not make all the plays, but he at least gets to the wall with no worries.

    • ThatstheMelkyMesaWaysa

      So was Knoblauch’s phobia of throwing the ball to first.

  • Mike HC

    Here is to looking forward to Gardner, Granderson and Ichiro in 2013. That could easily be the best defensive outfield in baseball.

    • G

      As long as they swap Granderson and Gardner.

      • Mike HC

        Yea, I was assuming that swap.

    • RetroRob

      Whoops, I posted the same note as you did.

    • Herby

      And assuming some part of Gardner’s body doesn’t explode the moment he hits the grass this spring.

  • RetroRob

    Gardner in CF, Granderson in LF and Ichiro in RF will probably be the best-defensive OF unit the Yankees have had in a long time. I do wonder, though, if it makes more sense to have Ichiro in LF and Granderson in RF because of the larger ground to cover in LF. Granderson should still rate well in LF because while he has lost range as he’s aged, he should still rate as a positive in LF based on the competition. Not sure, beyond it’s time to put Gardner in CF.

    • monkeypants

      WOuld you rather have Ichiro’s arm in RF, though?

      • Cris Pengiucci

        Put Ichiro’s arm on Granderson and have him play RF? Seriously, I agree that due to the stronger arm, Ichiro should play RF and Granderson LF.

      • RetroRob

        I’d put Ichiro and his arm in RF, although RF at YS is forgiving because it’s shorter, where LF is not. I could be convinced it makes more sense to put the stronger fielder in LF at YS, but overall it’s Ichiro in right.

    • Kevin Schappert

      Agreed–but get Grandy out of center too many misplays on deep balls–but overall a great defensive unit–Tho Swish was very underrated OF (and overrated as hitter)

      • Knoxvillain

        Swisher was never overrated as a hitter. If anything he was underrated.

  • Rocky Road Redemption

    Weird that it’s SWISHER who seems to make the biggest positive influence of all the outfielders. Dude was a highly underrated fielder.

    • G

      Swisher is definitely a good fielder, barrel rolling aside, but I’m pretty sure Gardner has easily the greatest positive effect on the defense.

    • art vandelay

      “DUUUUUDE BROOOO, i’m pretty good in the OF” – swisher

    • vin

      We shouldn’t overlook the fact that Gardner played about half a season’s worth of defensive innings in ’09, compared to 25% in ’08. I’m sure that helped.

  • King of Fruitless Hypotheticals

    Dumb Question Of The Day:

    How many outs equates to a win?

    (or is it asking too much to translate dOuts to WAR?)

    • Need Pitching & Hitting

      About 10 runs equate to a win.
      As far as how many outs equate to a run, idk, but it would depend on the nature of the out (whether it prevented a single or xbh, for example).

      • Mister D

        The linear weight difference b/w an out and a double is, I think, around 3/4 of a run. That would give a good conservative estimate, I would think.

        • Need Pitching & Hitting

          Sounds good.

        • King of Fruitless Hypotheticals


          Granderson-Gardner-Ichiro is going to be pretty high…

    • Cris Pengiucci

      Not dumb, as most of us probably don’t know the answer. (I sure don’t.)

    • G

      27 duh every1 on this bored iz 2 stoopid for me.

      Ahahaha but seriously, no idea. Good question actually. Does such an equation even exist?

      • Robinson Tilapia

        The definitive answer.

        • G

          Was going to add /…’d but I already forget that guy’s name…

          • Robinson Tilapia

            This even goes beyond my time, but I always think of Gene Rayburn from “The Match Game” when I think of “the definitive answer.”

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      It really depends on what the out would have been had the ball fallen in. If we assume every out would have been a single (not a safe assumption at all), it’s approximately 22 outs per win. It would be fewer outs/win when you start factoring in doubles and triples.

  • Jersey Joe

    If we sign Ichiro, is there a righty OF bat we could trade for with Dickerson and Eppley?

    • Robinson Tilapia

      I could imagine Eppley could get you a negligible bench guy, but you’re probably better off keeping Eppley and signing that guy off the scrap heap.

      I assume Dickerson gets you an org minor leaguer.

      • Need Pitching & Hitting

        Even just a RH version of Dickerson could be useful (not sure who that is).

        • Robinson Tilapia

          Chris Rickerson.

          • dkidd

            chris daikon-son


            • Robinson Tilapia

              That will put us over the celery cap for sure.

  • CashmanNinja

    Darn…I was personally hoping we could somehow get Choo, but looks like it’ll be the Reds. I suppose that really makes Stubbs available now? Wonder what kind of package it’d take to get him.

    • CashmanNinja

      And never mind because it looks like Stubbs will go to Cleveland… great.

      • RetroRob

        Do not want Stubbs at all. He’s bad.

        Choo, however, would have been a solid option.

    • Knoxvillain

      It’s alright. Choo is a platoon player and Stubbs just sucks.

      • CashmanNinja

        I wouldn’t say Choo is a platoon player. The splits may not be as good as you’d like, but I’ve always been fond of him. Although I’m not fond of the contract he’ll want next year, hence why I didn’t think it would take a huge package to get him. Stubbs, while having a down year in the OBP department (and that’s putting it kindly), still offers some pop, speed, and defense. He’s like a less grittier version of Brett Gardner, but with some power. Oh well.

  • vin

    I guess a Grandy, Gardy, Ichiro/Cody Ross OF would be good enough next year. Seriously need a RHB OFer Cashman. Any day now. Thanks.

  • fat jeter

    cool idea. now look at 96 – 02 when were actually winning shit and had a bunch of nobodys and platoon candidates in LF. it would be interesting to see if there is a disparity and what side the disparity falls on.

  • The Real Greg

    Sorry to break in but Rosenthal says we signed Youkilis.

    • CashmanNinja

      1 year, $12 mil. I’ll take it. If it was a multi-year deal (especially at that much money per year), I’d be extremely livid. But I can live with him for just 1 year. It’s not like we had other options available. It was him, Nix, Adams, or Eduardo at this point. I’ll take the vet who can at least throw the ball in the vicinity of 1st base, especially for just a year.

  • OMG! Bagels!

    So was the parting of the ways with Swisher just a matter of money? It still feels weird that it was “see ya” so easily.

  • 42isNotMortal

    So basically at their recent worst, the Yanks gave away a hit/out every 5 games (2003-05), while at their best taking away a hit about every 5 games as well in 2010.

    That doesn’t seem especially significant. Maybe it becomes so when including things such as Gardner’s foot speed and proper angles turning gap doubles into cut off singles, which by itself is probably more difficult to quantify.

    Whatever the case, 30 outs over the course of a season doesn’t seem critical to me, but after last years Orioles 1-run win extravaganza, I’m sure I’m wrong. Does anyone know how many of these expected outs not being recorded on average leads to a run?

  • neaks

    What about comparing % of time opposing runners took the extra base? That would capture more about outfield defense than just whether they catch fly balls – it would indirectly assess arm strength, arm accuracy, and route taken to the balls they don’t catch.