2014 Season Preview: Defensive Liabilities

Spring Training Game Thread: Pineda, Part Two
Jorge Mateo among Baseball America's top 20 summer league prospects

I suppose the silver lining of last season’s terrible offense was a strong team defense. The Yankees employed guys like Ichiro Suzuki, Chris Stewart, Lyle Overbay, Luis Cruz, Alberto Gonzalez, Reid Brignac, and Brendan Ryan as regulars at various points of the year, guys who can’t hit but can play some solid defense. The club sported a collective +12.5 UZR and +21 DRS in 2013, rates that are only slightly above-average (13th and 10th in MLB, respectively) on a team-wide scale.

The roster has turned over substantially this past offseason, especially on the position player side. That should greatly improve the lineup, but it will also impact the team defense. Some of the players the Yankees acquired over the winter are very good defenders but others simply are not. Not every player the team added is a two-way threat. Far from it. Let’s look at where the Yankees are vulnerable in the field thanks to subpar defenders.

The Infield
Last month I detailed how the team’s ground ball heavy pitching staff is not a good mix for their generally shaky infield defense, particularly at the non-first base spots. Mark Teixeira is a stud in the field and I have no reason to think a wrist injury will severely compromise his glovework. Maybe he’ll lose a step or two or some hand-eye coordination with age, but I don’t think the injury will have a huge factor on his defense.

Derek Jeter has moved around well in the field and on the bases this spring following all the leg injuries, but he’s still a negative on defense. We all know that. Brian Roberts has looked surprisingly agile during Grapefruit League play, so maybe he’ll be a positive in the field, at least while he’s healthy. Kelly Johnson comes into the season with only 118 career innings at third base and only 18 innings at first base, where he’s expected to be the starter and backup, respectively. He’s muffed a few hard-hit balls in camp so far, the kind that earned the position the nickname the “hot corner.”

The backup plans aren’t much better. Eduardo Nunez is inconsistent at best and an unmitigated disaster at worst defensively, and Scott Sizemore is coming off back-to-back left ACL surgeries. He hasn’t played enough in camp for us to get an idea of how he’s moving in the field. The various scouting reports indicate Dean Anna is an adequate to solid defender. Teixeira should be fine at first but all of the other infield spots come with defensive questions. I think the Yankees would be pretty happy if the infield graded out as a league average unit come the end of the season.


Right Field
As of right now, it seems like the plan is to have Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Beltran split right field and DH duties most of the time in 2014. There have been some rumblings Brett Gardner could wind up in right with Soriano in left, but that seems unlikely to happen. The Soriano/Beltran timeshare in right field appears to be the way things are heading.

Aside from one defensive inning in right field during Game Five of the 2003 World Series, Soriano has never played the position. Moving over there at 38 years old may not be an easy transition, and that doesn’t even consider his weak throwing arm. Runners will be going first-to-third on him all day. Beltran was once a top flight defender but he has slowed down considerably with age and injury, to the point where he’s graded out as a below-average defender over the last few years by the various defensive stats. Regardless of whether Soriano or Beltran starts, the Yankees will have a subpar gloveman in right.

It’s not all bad though. First and foremost, right field in Yankee Stadium is pretty small, so there’s isn’t much ground to cover in the first place. Two, with Gardner in left and Jacoby Ellsbury in center, Ellsbury figures to shade towards right to help cover the gaps. Three, Ichiro will almost certainly come off the bench as a defensive replacement for right field whenever the game is close. Even if Ichiro is traded or released or whatever, Zoilo Almonte can do the same job. Whenever they’re in right though, both Soriano and Beltran will be liabilities.

Outfield Arms
I mentioned this with Soriano in right, but it’s worth pointing out the Yankees have some weak outfield arms in general. Beltran’s is by far the best and might be the team’s best right field arm since Raul Mondesi way back in the day. Ellsbury’s arm is laughably weak and downright Damon-esque while Gardner’s is solid at best. Not particularly strong but accurate. Soriano’s arm is both weak and not accurate while Ichiro’s strong arm plays down because he takes forever to get rid of the ball. Gardner and Ellsbury more than make up for their arms with their range, but don’t expect to see many plays at the plate this summer. Beltran’s the only regular with a quality arm.


Brian McCann‘s Arm
McCann does a lot of things well, specifically hit and frame pitches. He is also said to be very good at blocking balls in the dirt and working with pitchers. The one thing McCann does not do well is throw. Last season he threw out only 24 of 100 attempted base-stealers, below the 27% league average. The year before it was 22%, and in case you’re thinking this might be related to his October 2012 labrum surgery, McCann threw out only 24% of base-stealers from 2006-11. He’s simply not good at shutting down the running game.

In order to compensate for McCann’s arm, the pitcher will have to make sure to pay attention to runners on first base. CC Sabathia should have it the easiest as a left-hander, but runners have been successful in 70% of their stolen base attempts the last three years. Hiroki Kuroda has held runners to a 62% success rate since coming to New York and Ivan Nova has held them to a 63% success rate in his relatively short big league career. Masahiro Tanaka … who in the world knows. Frankie Cervelli has an excellent arm (after some mechanical tinkering last spring) but McCann is going to be the starter because he does so many things well. One of those things is not throwing and it’s something the Yankees will have to deal with this summer. It’s the essence of taking the bad with the good.

* * *

The Yankees have premium defenders at first base and in both left and center fields. The rest of the team will probably be net negative in the field, which is not ideal in an offensive ballpark in a tough division with a sketchy middle relief crew. This club is going to have to out-hit and out-pitch their defensive shortcomings in 2014.

Spring Training Game Thread: Pineda, Part Two
Jorge Mateo among Baseball America's top 20 summer league prospects
  • Justin

    I think the world would end if you ever said something positive about Ichiro.

    • ropeadope

      Conversely, I think the world would manage just fine, but Mr. Axisa certainly isn’t taking any chances.

    • Need Pitching & Hitting

      “It’s not all bad though … Ichiro will almost certainly come off the bench as a defensive replacement for right field whenever the game is close.”

      Seems positive.

      • I’m One

        Seems like a statement that is not negative. I wouldn’t call it positive, it’s just saying he’s better than what he’d be replacing.

        I’m sure Mike has made at least one positive comment about Ichiro somehwere. In general, while Mike hasn’t mad many positivie comments about Ichiro, I believe most of what he has said has merit. We just may not want to agree with it.

        • Jorge Steinbrenner

          I thought he made a nice comment about Ichiro once. It turns out he’d just misspelled “Jeter.”

        • Preston

          He constantly says he’s an above average fielder and base-runner. What else can he say that’s positive? he’s never hit for power or taken walks (he actually walks less now though). He certainly doesn’t make up for it by hitting for great average. I guess you could call it a positive that he doesn’t strike out a lot?

      • Justin

        I was talking more about this…” while Ichiro’s strong arm plays down because he takes forever to get rid of the ball.”

        I’m sure Ichiro’s arm isn’t exactly what it used to be, but this guy has been gunning runners out his whole career, even with the little hitch he has. He has to throw that little negative thing in without just complimenting him outright.

        • Need Pitching & Hitting

          It’s a valid point though.
          How do you discuss the impact OF arms without acknowledging that the impact of Ichiro’s strong arm is at least somewhat blunted by the very slow release?
          Just pointing out that he has a strong arm wouldn’t be a very useful analysis of the situation.

        • Dalek Jeter

          That “little hitch” as you call it is quite possibly the slowest release I’ve seen, just about ever. Even Damon got rid of the ball faster than Ichiro.

          • RetroRob

            My guess is players with weak arms usually have some of the quicker releases to try and compensate. I never paid much attention to Damon since I knew didn’t matter.

            Ichiro probably has always had that delay because his arm was so strong that it allowed him to load and still gun down the runner. As he’s aged, his arm strength has weakened (although is still stronger than most), so some runners he used to nail are probably slipping in. Overall, though, I suspect most runners still hesitate to run on Ichiro.

    • Dalek Jeter

      It’s sort of hard to be positive about a guy who has been just awful since being acquired who we then signed to a 2 year deal.

      • Justin

        He’s batting .280 as a Yankee with an almost .700 OPS playing in very his late 30’s and providing above average defense, but keep repeating things that other people do and say he’s been awful, don’t use actual facts.

        • Need Pitching & Hitting

          Actual fact:
          140 hitters with enough PA’s to qualify for the batting title last year.
          Ichiro was 136th in wRC+, 136th in wOBA, 136th in OPS.

          Does awful at the plate but just well below average overall strike you better?

          And what does being in his late 30’s have to do with whether he’s been awful or not? Having an excuse doesn’t change his performance.
          In fairness, he was much better than awful for them in 2012.
          2013 though, was another matter entirely.

    • Kiko Jones

      Unsettling that Ichiro has fallen into the “guys who can’t hit” category. Damn…

  • ropeadope

    I’m sure Mike has made at least one positive comment about Ichiro somewhere.


    • ropeadope

      Failed reply to I’m One.

      • I’m One

        Can’t see that from work. Would I get a good laugh out of it?

        • ropeadope


          Sorry, but you’ll understand once you return home.

        • ropeadope

          To clarify, I wouldn’t go so far as to say a “good laugh,” but possibly midway between a smile and a half-hearted chuckle.

  • pat

    It’s bad 3/4 of our starting infield is tagged on an article titled “Defensive Liabilities”

    • Dalek Jeter

      Meh, the mid-2000s teams proved you can hit your way through bad defense. Especially if we also have good pitching.

      • pat

        Lol, yes, but it’s not Robbie and Arod at 2nd and 3rd. Unfortunately it’s something called a Kelly Johnson and the reanimated corpse of Brian Roberts.

        • Dalek Jeter

          Kelly Johnson is good enough offensively where if his worst is slightly below average defense he’ll be a positive, and as Mike said the reanimated corpse of Brian Roberts (very funny btw, I actually giggled) has looked surprisingly spry out there.

          Man, it’s spring training, if this isn’t the time to be overly optimistic I don’t know when is.

        • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead

          And those somethings have the potential to be fine on defense.

        • Dirk Diggler

          Kelly Johnson in albeit a small sample size was rated excellent at 3B last season. And if you’ve watched the Spring games, it looks like he really has a knack for the position. He came up through the minors as a shortstop after all.

          And by what metric is Roberts a defensive liability?

  • Dirk Diggler

    Roberts and Johnson are not defensive liabilities.

    And the Yankees may field the greatest defensive outfield of all time with Soriano in RF…

    Seriously…try to picture a ball falling in a gap in the New Yankee Stadium with Gardner, Ellsbury, and Soriano out there…

    • OldYanksFan

      Let’s not forget that if you replace Jeter with Ryan, our overall Infield Defense is at least average, if not slightly above average.

  • LarryM Fl

    As long as the plays are made that should be made than we’ll be OK. Its the special plays or regular plays that are made and not made which turn the season around.

  • dkidd

    it’s a sign of how well the spring is going (knock wood) that infield d has moved to second place (behind injuries) on my list of worries

    much more bullish on the rotation, bullpen and offense than i was a month ago

  • NCS

    Gardner and Ellsbury can cover most of the field by themselves, I think even a worn-down Beltran should be able to handle what’s left over just fine. When Ichiro is out there, we’ll have the best OF defense in the game.

    It’s awesome that Cervelli is good at throwing now. Remember in 2011 when he kept throwing those loopy curveballs into the outfield?

  • JGYank

    It shouldn’t be a big issue if it’s one at all. When Ryan, Ichiro, and Cervelli are out there that’s a pretty good defense especially in the outfield. Tex will save the rest of the infield from throwing errors and McCann can still block pitches and frame them. Jeter is sure-handed and Roberts is a bit of an unknown. I think it’s important for Johnson to have a smooth transition to 3rd especially with Jeter’s range next to him. He’s been decent elsewhere and hopefully that continues. We should see plenty of web gems from left and center.

    Could be worse overall.

  • Mick rivers

    RAB, can you be any more pessimistic. Your last three posts are so lame it’s ridiculous. There an upside to this years team. Yanks will be unstoppable this year. Your constant whining is weak. If it weren’t for down on the farm I’d be a former reader.

    • Tommy

      Shut the Hell up. You crybaby little bitch.

  • Hawkeye

    My question for Mike is this: Ellsbury can run down a lot of balls, but has a weak arm- he’s a plus. McCann can frame pitches, block balls, handles pitchers well, but has a weak arm- he’s a liability. Not a lot of consistency in those evaluations.

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

      A catcher’s throwing arm is way more important than a center fielder’s.