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.
aOuts: Actual number of outs recorded.
dOuts: 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.