Yankees’ shaky infield defense a bad match for ground ball pitching staff


The infield defense will not be pretty in 2014. (via SBNation)

Thanks to the busy offseason, Brett Gardner will be the Yankees’ only player in both the 2013 and 2014 Opening Day lineups, and he’ll be at a different position. All of that roster turnover is a good thing given how poor the team’s offense was last summer. The Yankees will score some more runs this year, but that isn’t the only part of the team that will change with the new additions. The defense will as well, especially on the infield.

Last year’s Yankees boasted above-average defenders in Gardner, Robinson Cano, Lyle Overbay, and Ichiro Suzuki. Chris Stewart was solid but I’m referring to the four infielders and three outfielders, the guys who handle the majority of balls in play. Jayson Nix was reliable but unspectacular while Vernon Wells and Eduardo Nunez were negatives. The defensive stats say the 2013 Yankees were a better than average defensive team (+21 DRS and +12.5 UZR) but Gardner is the only returning starter now that Ichiro has been pushed into a bench role.

Cano and Overbay have been replaced by Brian Roberts and Mark Teixeira, Nix and Nunez by Derek Jeter and Kelly Johnson, and Wells by Jacoby Ellsbury. The only clear upgrade there is Ellsbury, who is an elite defender. Teixeira has always been stellar in the field and I don’t think his wrist injury will impact his glovework much, if at all. Johnson has been generally above-average at second throughout his career but he is moving to third, where he has only 118 innings of experience. Roberts has been more or less an average defender at second but has barely played the last few years, so who knows what he can do defensively. Jeter has clearly been below-average in the field for a while now, even before the leg injuries.

Regardless of whether Alfonso Soriano or Carlos Beltran is in right, it’s clear the strong part of the Yankees’ team defense is their outfield. Gardner, Ellsbury and a potted plant would rate as one of the best defensive outfields in the game. The infield is a different story. Unless Brendan Ryan gets more playing time than expected, Teixeira will be their only obviously above-average defender on the infield. If Johnson shows his inexperience at third while Jeter and Roberts show their age at short and second, the infield could actually be pretty terrible defensively in 2014.

Therein lies the problem. Thanks to homer friendly Yankee Stadium, the Yankees have geared their pitching staff towards ground ball pitchers. That makes sense. Ground balls don’t go over the short porch for homers. Here are the team’s seven 40-man roster pitchers with at least two years of MLB experience:

2013 GB% 2011-13 GB%
Matt Thornton 50.7% 51.4%
Ivan Nova 53.5% 50.3%
Hiroki Kuroda 46.6% 47.5%
David Robertson 50.9% 47.5%
CC Sabathia 44.7% 46.4%
David Phelps 42.5% 42.7%
Shawn Kelley 33.1% 31.8%
MLB Average 44.5% 44.7%

Kelley is the only one of the seven who is an extreme fly ball pitcher. The other six guys have sat right around league average or been comfortably above. Adam Warren (45.3%) and Preston Clairborne (44.8%) were average ground ballers last season while Michael Pineda (36.6%) was a big time fly ball pitcher with the Mariners in 2011. That was two years and one major shoulder surgery ago, so who knows what he’ll do this year. Masahiro Tanaka could be a ground ball pitcher because of his diving splitter or he could be a fly ball guy like Dan Haren, his most popular comp. We won’t know until he pitches in an actual MLB game.

There is a pretty big disconnect between the strengths of the pitching staff and the team’s defense. The Yankees’ best defenders are in the outfield but three (perhaps all five depending on Tanaka and the outcome of the fifth starter competition) of their starters and two of their late-game relievers tends to keep the ball on the ground. Kelley and probably Pineda will love the Gardner-Ellsbury outfield but the other key members of the staff are going to hate the infield defense behind them, unless they learn how to make sure everything is hit towards Teixeira. I’d bet against it.

Fly balls have gotten a pretty bad rap in recent years, especially since the new Yankee Stadium opened. Yes, fly balls do occasionally go over the fence for homers, but they’re also relatively high-percentage outs when they stay in play, especially with Gardner and Ellsbury on the roster. Ground balls don’t go for homers but they do find holes for base hits. Given the crop of infielders and the team’s uncanny ability to use defensive shifts at the wrong time (confirmation bias, but you know what I’m talking about), there figure to be a lot of grounders sneaking through for hits and leading to extended rallies in 2014. The starters will wind up throwing more pitches and that means the questionable middle relief crew will see more innings in general.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much the Yankees can do to improve their infield defense at the moment. They could play Johnson at second and Ryan at short, but we all know Jeter will play the field as long as he’s physically in one piece. Other infield candidates who may sneak onto the roster are unlikely to offer much help — Nunez can’t field, Scott Sizemore is coming off two knee injuries, and Dean Anna isn’t considered a strong defender — so the team is stuck with what they have. Asking the pitchers to change their styles to get more fly balls is not realistic, but they could emphasize strikeouts. They’ll have to in big situations this summer because converting ground balls into outs will be no sure thing this summer.

Categories : Defense, Pitching


  1. TWTR says:

    Girardi and the suits above him will definitely be in a delicate situation if Jeter has lost significant mobility. My guess is that he will DH v. LHP quite often since it allows him to stay fresh and his bat obviously plays much better from that side. So that could offset some of the expected defensive shortfall.

    • Mickeyd7 says:

      The Yankees could start Brendan Ryan at Short , and move Jeter to 3rd base. This would not cost any money and the Yankees would have better IF defense.

      • lightSABR says:

        But it would be a blow to the offense, since it would mean removing either Kelly Johnson or Brian Roberts from the lineup. Not that either is anything special, but both are better than Brendan Ryan with the bat.

  2. ruralbob says:

    Nice to see Cano showing off that D in the embedded video – hustling to second to make the DP.

  3. Farewell Mo says:

    If they don’t sign Drew, they should play Ryan at SS, Johnson at 2nd and Jeter at 3rd which would give them 3 average to above average defenders at the 4 positions

    I don’t understand why this is so taboo for the Yankees. It was good enough for Cal Ripken but not for Jeter? Jeter has worked so hard for almost 20 years maintaining his pristine image I find it hard to believe he’s gonna throw a fit and come off looking selfish, at least publicly

    • TWTR says:

      What makes you think that the majority of fans/media would view him as selfish no matter how ill-advised it might be for him to remain at SS?

      • Farewell Mo says:

        If the Yankees asked him to move to 3rd and he made a big stink, something like Posada did in Boston, you don’t think the fans would perceive him as being selfish or something less than the consummate team player?

    • Preston says:

      First, I don’t know that we want Brendan Ryan playing everyday anyways. Second, it isn’t as easy as some people make it out to be to shift positions. Michael Young actually became a worse defender at 3b in 2009 than he was at SS in 2008, Alex went from an excellent SS to a mediocre 3b after the move, and although we don’t have UZR for Cal I think it’s telling that he went from a .980 fielding percentage at SS in 1996 to a .949 at 3b in 1997. Moving him off of SS might make the defense worse not better.

      • jjyank says:

        Agreed, especially the part about Ryan. If we’re only talking about defense, he’d be great to have out there every day. But remember, that also means his bat will be in the line up every day.

    • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead says:

      Even a worst case infield of Jeter, Johnson, Roberts and Tex is going to be average, right? I don’t understand quite this level of panic.

      • LK says:

        You think a defense made up of 40-year-old Jeter, Kelly Johnson who has never played significant innings at 3B in his career, and Roberts after all those injuries is going to be average? I would be absolutely THRILLED if that infield was average defensively.

        • Preston says:

          Jayson Nix, Brendan Ryan, Luis Cruz, David Adams and Lyle Overbay were all plus defenders last season. Offense is just way more important than defense. If Jeter, Tex and Johnson can hit league average or better than I don’t care if a few GBs sneak through.

          • LK says:

            “If Jeter, Tex and Johnson can hit league average or better than I don’t care if a few GBs sneak through.”

            Oh, I tend to agree there. I’m just a little skeptical of the first part of that.

        • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead says:

          Roberts has always been average defensively, even last year(actually slightly better than average). Why is he falling off of a cliff now? His injury history makes me worried he’ll miss time, not that he’ll be a terrible defender one year after being fine at 2nd.

          I don’t think it’s any more reasonable to assume that KJ would be a disaster at 3rd, there’s a very real chance he’ll be fine there(he’s been OK if inconsistent at 2nd). Jeter is a certain disaster, but that will be limited if he DH’s once-twice a week and Ryan is at SS.

          I’m not erring on the side of “He’s going to be terrible” with every infielder, non-jeter division.

          But what part of that is irrational? You’re free to think tails is gonna come up, I’m free to believe in heads.

          • LK says:

            You get to be optimistic, you just don’t get to include “worst case” in your optimistic assessment. I think that’s fair, no?

            • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead says:

              It is. I withdraw “worst case”.

            • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead says:

              However, you have to withdraw “absolutely THRILLED!”

              • LK says:

                I will not. You guys probably think I’m quite the downer, but nobody’s happier than me when watching Yankees baseball, even if they’re only doing a little better than expected :).

                • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead says:

                  I generally don’t think that. I think you have good, productive, reasonable discussions. I haven’t meant to imply you were being an idiot, at all.

                  Plus, I prefer the new reading of “absolutely THRILLED”, in that, you have such low expectations that when Jeter successfully fields a ground ball, you’ll have a shit-eating grin on your face.

                  That would actually be a great way to watch sports.

                • Jorge Steinbrenner says:

                  You’re willing to live the collateral damage of having lou agree with you?

                  *walks away slowly*

                  • LK says:

                    Well I tend to ignore who says what, so I’m not sure lou’s past history, but if he’s managed to create an impression around here I’m guessing there’s some pretty batshit comments of his out there.

              • Jorge Steinbrenner says:

                How RAB Backroom Deals Get Made: The Inside Scoop.

  4. Sam says:

    I hope the Yankees really consider using Brendan Ryan as a late-inning replacement for Jeter. However, I don’t see the captain being particularly welcoming to that idea. It would definitely give a major boost to the infield defense up the middle.

  5. JGYank says:

    Cano probably should have been covering there.

    I think the defense should ok. The outfield will great and will limit xbh. the small rf will hide Beltran and soriano and we can DH them. Tex will save runs by preventing errors. Roberts and johnson should be average. Mccann should good if not average. Jeter is the only bad defender in the infield and he will DH at times and will be replaced in the late innings by Ryan. Unless Nunez gets playing time or Ryan/Gardy/Ells/tex gets injured I think the defense should above average.

  6. Preston says:

    I am a bit nervous about Kelly Johnson being penciled in as the everyday 3b when he’s played all of 118 big league innings there. And it’s not like we have a ton of experienced options behind him. Dean Anna has played 53 games at 3b over 6 years in the minors. Scott Sizemore wasn’t a very good 3b before the knee injury, and I don’t even want to watch the games if Nunez is making throws from the hot corner.

    • Farewell Mo says:

      I agree. I’m concerned whatever value he adds with his bat he might give back with the glove.

      I like him much better at 2nd where he at least has a track record.

      • Preston says:

        On the flip side, his range from 2b might make him above average at 3b (he’s a below average defender at 2b) and less defensive wear and tear might help his offense. Who knows. But there doesn’t seem to be a plan B if he can’t cut it and signing Stephen Drew wouldn’t really clear up the uncertainty because Drew has exactly zero innings at 3b.

    • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead says:

      I’m on the Sizemore/Anna train at 3rd, let Johnson rotate between 2nd and 3rd to give Roberts the rest he desperately will need.

      • Preston says:

        Dean Anna is definitely an interesting wild card in all of this. If he could actually hit like Steamer and Oliver project him to then the Yankees INF might actually shape up to be pretty good. I’d like to see him play in ST before I get too excited about him though. I’m not counting on Sizemore for anything. He has missed two full seasons to ACL injuries, even if he’s healthy he might not be mobile enough to field either 2b or 3b, and even if he can play the field he might be so rusty from all the missed time he won’t be able to touch big league pitching. I like the pick-up, and the throw it against the wall and see what sticks approach in general, but I think the fragile Roberts is a safer bet to contribute than Sizemore and that’s saying something.

    • RetroRob says:

      Don’t worry. Just go under the assumption that Johnson is our 2B’man once Roberts hurts himself! Of course, that leaves a problem at third, with Sizemore hopefully getting a shot above Nunez.

  7. Donnie23 says:

    DH Jeter against lefties and when Nova is pitching. Done.

  8. LK says:

    We can tackle this a million different ways if we want, but we’re always coming to the same conclusion: this infield just isn’t good enough.

    • lou says:

      I think you hit the nail on the head. But we keep having the same convo just about every day. This team has gotten better but doesn’t erase the fact that the infield is horrible. I don’t see this team as a PS team unless they make some upgrades and not some “replacement” guy.

      • Jorge Steinbrenner says:

        lou = replacement commenter level.

        • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead says:

          I love people who “don’t see a team as a WS team” before the season. Guess what? You’re probably right! It doesn’t even matter how great the team looks, the odds are, they will not be in the World Series.

          Gotta love going out on a limb.

          • The Great Gonzo says:

            Show of hands, who saw the Red Sox as a WS level team 12 months ago? No one? Not even Red Sox fans, who are the most irrational sports fans in the history of sports or fandom?

            All righty then…

            • vicki says:

              not even proud to say i did. told all my sox fan friends, who had decided they just weren’t that into baseball anymore, that i thought so too. i’m their god now.

              • vicki says:

                i should say i didn’t think they’d WIN the ship, because of pitching. even gods didn’t see those performances coming.

    • mitch says:

      True, but I think the article paints a little bit of an unfair picture of their defense. If you stick Ryan at short with the other 8 guys their defense would be pretty damn great. Jeter is the problem. Signing Baker/Drew or trading for a 2B/3B isn’t going to change that.

      • JGYank says:


      • LK says:

        You’re right that Ryan would make their defense look way better, though at the end of the day all he does is shift the problem to the offense. The bottom 3rd of the order could look pretty ugly if he’s playing every day.

        But I basically agree that the biggest issue is that they’re going to play Jeter no matter his performance, and there’s basically every reason to be skeptical of that.

    • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead says:

      Maybe, although from this article we’d have an above average 1B, probably average 2B and 3B, and a terrible SS.

      At worst, slightly below average defensively.

      IMO the problem is offense, not defense, with this group.

      • LK says:

        I think counting on Roberts to average at 2B, and particularly Johnson to be average at 3B when he’s never played there, isn’t the most likely outcome. And after tearing his ACL twice I think Sizemore’s D is even more of an issue.

        Ryan obviously would help the defense immensely, but he’s so bad at hitting he gives it all back.

        • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead says:

          Why, why is it unreasonable to assume Roberts is going to be average at 2B? There’s no “reasonable” reason to assume that.

          I haven’t talked about hitting. Obviously offense is a concern. This article was about defense.

        • Preston says:

          He hasn’t “never” played there. He’s played 118 excellent innings there. His UZR/150 is +24.4. Now we just hope that this isn’t small sample size noise and that he can actually hack it over there. But there is a chance that he actually is above average, giving us an above average fielder at both INF corners. And I have no problem counting on Roberts being around league average in the field. I just question how often he’ll actually be out there.

          • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead says:

            Exactly this.

            I appreciate that there’s reason to doubt. But there’s also reason to be slightly optimistic(about a defensively average infield, I don’t think anyone’s excited about the overall state).

          • Jorge Steinbrenner says:


          • LK says:

            I don’t think you can say his 118 innings at 3B were excellent, since I don’t think UZR tells you anything at all in 118 innings. He has very little experience at 3B. Expecting him to be average there isn’t crazy, and I’m not saying it is. I hope it happens because I’m a Yankee fan, but that doesn’t mean I think it will.

            • Preston says:

              He made positive plays in those 118 innings. Just because it’s not predictive doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

              • LK says:

                I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s better that UZR liked him for that 118 innings than the alternative. And assumedly the Yankees’ scouts liked his D too or they wouldn’t look like they’re about to play him at 3B full time. I’m not expecting him to be a disaster over there or anything. I tend to be pretty conservative with these things, that’s all.

        • Jorge Steinbrenner says:

          Yes, you have questions, and they’re valid questions. I just think this is one of many uncertainties we’re dealing with the infield right now. It’s not necessarily going to all trend solidly downward.

  9. Jorge Steinbrenner says:

    It seems to me, from reading this, that we’re talking a whole lot of guesswork and uncertainty with the infield rather than looking at evidence. I understand why that’s so, and am not faulting Mike for it, but this feels more “uncertain” than “shaky” right now to me.

    We can pull all the numbers on the pitching staff and outfield we want right now, but there’s not much we can do but guess on the infield. It is what it is at the moment.

    • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead says:

      Bingo. Totally am on board with “uncertain”.

    • jjyank says:

      Totally agreed. The infield is a concern for me, but I’m going refrain from using words that have gotten popular around here such as “horrible”, “train wreck”, “terrible”, etc.

      We’re guessing on Roberts, Kelly, Sizemore, and the rest. Nobody can say for certain what exactly their defense will look like. We know Jeter will be bad and Tex will be good, but that’s about it.

      • Jorge Steinbrenner says:

        “Uncertain” isn’t the greatest place to be. I’m simply open to it being better than “shaky” based on lack of solid info other than what Preston cited above.

        That being said, I don’t think LK’s being unreasonable at all. He’s simply expressing a more negative take. That’s fine. REALLY PEOPLE IT IS FINE.

        • jjyank says:

          Of course it’s not the greatest place to be. I just don’t think it’s the worst either, which a lot of people on here seem to think judging by some of the comments over the last few weeks.

        • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead says:

          It’s fine until he starts calling it crazy to believe the opposite, or that it’d be THRILLING if a realistic scenario came to pass.

        • I'm a looser and a trader baby so why don't you kill me? says:


  10. Jeremy says:

    fact is, if they get a lot of weak ground balls they will be outs. Obviously range won’t be a strong suit, but properly positioning guys, and pitchers hitting their spots will go a long way.

    • vicki says:

      yes, i agree. there’s groundballs, and then there’s groundballs. sabr and fantasy people got really excited about gb pitchers, without discerning. an average – even below average – infield, with a little positioning can do a lot with weak grounders. but it starts with the pitcher. when those groundballs go through for extra-base hits you’ve got trouble.

      and while i’m excited for mccann’s bat, and his mettle, teams are going to run all over him. strikeouts are ideal. and everybody knows high strikeout guys tend to give up a higher percentage of flyballs (there are exceptions of course).

      • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead says:

        Actually there’s a lot of SABR work being done to differentiate between strongly hit and weakly hit baseballs, both of the GB and FB variety.

        In fact, may defensive metrics are purely subjective, based only on the determination of who was watching the game and how hard they thought the play was.

  11. King of Fruitless Hypotheticals says:

    I hope Girardi’s Binder has a section called “Late Inning Defensive Replacements” this year–Ichiro, Ryan…

    Robertson keeping the Houdini cloak is paramount–his K’s make IF range much less important in clutch situations.

    Ugh. How much longer until we start?!

  12. TWTR says:

    Watching that Jeter GIF, on what amounts to a loop, is wearing me out.

  13. I'm a looser and a trader baby so why don't you kill me? says:

    Fear of the Day (FotD)™: this post is entirely correct.

    • Jorge Steinbrenner says:

      It could be. Just also be open to it not being as bad. Our fears do not necessarily have to acknowledge the positive spin, though. They occur in their own space.

  14. Maybe we could get Miguel Cabrera as a defensive relacement at third and the ghosts of Ernie Banks for SS and Ted Williams for LF. Nobody cares terribly much about defense if a guy can hit. Unfortunately, Jeter looks like Mickey Mantle at the end and the others are not even Alvaro Espinosa.

  15. Eselquetodolosabe says:

    Getting my baseball fix in. Serie Del Caribe; DR vs Cuba. 4 nil, DR leading. If you guys want to see bad defense, turn this game on and watch Cuba….wow, scary.

  16. johnnyb93 says:

    Ellsbury is an “elite defender” only when he isn’t required to throw the ball.

    • lightSABR says:

      Fangraphs has him very slightly below average at throwing the ball – averaging about two runs per season lost compared to average.

      So, not an elite outfield arm, but far from a disaster, and if I have to choose between a CF with elite range and average arm, and a CF with an elite arm and average range, I’m going to pick Ellsbury every time.

  17. Rob says:

    I think the Yankees will be DH’ng, benching and late defensive replacing Jeter enough to limit the majority of potential problems with his d, that should also keep him fresher and maybe more mobile for games he’s actually in (as will his 2013 “rehab year” instead of coming off 7 months of everyday baseball on his legs and ankle) Either way, I think it’s always been bad business to bet against Derek Jeter & the concerns around him shouldn’t be as dire just cuz ‘oh well he’s 39 how many 39 year olds can …..?” Lest we forget, this is living legend, Hall OF Fame bound Derek god dmn Jeter and now he’s more rested than he’s ever been, more focused, with a massive chip on his shoulder and a damn strong line up around him. I also think Brendan Ryan is expendable, if his defense isn’t astronomically better than a guy like Dean Anna and if he’s not going to hit at all, he doesn’t need to be on the team anymore. Yankees could easily eat his no money. I think the yankees infield answers are starting the year with platoons at 2b and 3b. They can afford to take 4 decent half players to make up 2 whole positions. Johnson/Roberts(who’s also a huge wildcard for this team if healthy btw) could put up almost average 2b defense while putting together close to 28+ hrs and 90+ rbis and combination of defense and platoon bat can be made from the winners of Spring Training competition between Seizmore, Dean Anna, Eduardo Nunez, Breandan Ryan and their non roster invites/ AAA guys. That would actually make the infiled d better and provide decent offensive production from the 8 and 9 spots in the lineup.

    • ALZ says:

      Brendan Ryan is considered very good defensively infielder.

      • lightSABR says:

        The Fielding Bible folks say he’s the best in the game. The stats don’t love him as much last year, but in 2012, DRS says he saved 27 runs above average, which is just unbelievable.

        But it just goes to show how much more important offense is than defense.

        Amazing offensive shortstop with terrible defense: Derek Jeter, future first-ballot Hall of Famer, team captain, face of Major League Baseball, makes eight figures per season when he’s 40. And wins Golden Glove awards basically on the strength of his bat.

        Amazing defensive shortstop with terrible offense: Brendan Ryan, journeyman, benchwarmer, 23rd man on the 25-man roster, face of nobody and nothing – does anyone even know what he looks like? – will barely make eight figures over his whole career.

  18. Rod Laver says:

    Hopefully these guys make a play for Drew. Stick Drew at 3B and do a Johnson/Roberts platoon at 2B. Instant upgrade.

  19. Big Lebowski says:

    The second part of this article’s title got deleted. It read:
    “…But Hey, lets give it the old college try”

  20. Big Lebowski says:

    The second part if this article’s title was deleted. It read:
    “…But Hey, let’s give it the old college try”

  21. Michael says:

    This is a nicely written piece which hits the core issues for the Yankees in 2014. All these batters will have to do is tap the ball up the middle past the pitcher and a hit may result.

    My guess is that Ryan plays a whole lot. Maybe half the games. Roberts and Jeter will need plenty of rest anyway. There’s a reason the Yankees gave him such a nice contract.

  22. Derrick says:

    If the worst part about the 2014 Yankees is their infield defense, they’re definitely making the playoffs. I would never have thought someone would even suggest getting fly ball pitchers because the infield defense is below average. You’re supposed to get the best pitchers, regardless if they’re fly ball pitchers or ground ball pitchers. The infield defense will be fine so long as they make all of the routine plays. They don’t have to be spectacular. Guys like Cano are obviously great to have, with their excellent range and superior arms, but we just need guys who play their positions properly, don’t make mental mistakes, and make all the routine plays.

  23. Sam says:

    Good news guys….Yankees just signed Chuck Knoblauch to platoon with Brian Roberts.

  24. brenden ryan says:

    SS is the most important defensive position in the game. A lot of teams punt offensively at SS to get a slick fielder. Now that we have McCann we won’t have a crappy hitting catcher and can afford to shore up the defense by making one shift. Move Jeter to 3rd. He can still throw and his limited range won’t matter as much with the rangiest SS in MLB allows Jeter to stay closer to the bag. And to not hurt his ego the Yankees can blame the whole move to 3rd on A-Rod so everyone is happy, except A-Rod.

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