2014 Season Preview: Defensive Wizards

Mailbag: Rollins, Perkins, Kahnle, Nuno, 80 Tools
BP: Dante Bichette Jr. "might be turning the corner this spring"

The more deeply you examine the 2013 New York Yankees, the more unbelievable their win total seems. On the whole they did nothing well. The putrid offense, which ranked 28th in wRC+, was on display daily. Pitching? They ranked 18th in the league in ERA.

You’d think that if they couldn’t put together a decent offense that they’d compensate with a solid defense. You’d be wrong. They ranked 24th in team defensive efficiency. The guys who couldn’t hit apparently also couldn’t field well.

The 2014 Yankees figure to perform a bit better on defense. They not only brought in an upgrade in Jacoby Ellsbury, but they get back Mark Teixeira. There are a couple of other subtle upgrades, too, that could add up to at least an average defense.

Derek Jeter and Brendan Ryan

Derek Jeter as a defensive upgrade? Surely I’m just pulling your chain. Sadly, I’m not. Jeter did improve his defense for a few years starting in 2008, but by 2012 it had again declined. How can we expect he’ll provide any value in 2014, at age 40?

Defensive statistics have enough shortcomings that they’re hardly worth bringing into serious discussions. In fact, once the new fielding system becomes public, I think we’ll look back at UZR and laugh. Yet it’s troubling when not just UZR, but essentially every publicly available defensive metric says that Eduardo Nunez absolutely killed the Yankees at SS.

DRS: -28
UZR: -20.6 (-40.7/150!)
TZ: -17
FRAA: -11.4*

* This includes all defense, while the others are at SS only

Given Nunez’s deficiencies, Jeter could actually be an upgrade. Furthering the upgrade is a full year of Brendan Ryan on the bench. He’ll provide value as a late-inning defensive replacement and as an occasional starter when Jeter needs a day off. His high level of play could even offset Jeter’s to an extent, even in a fraction of the time.

There is little doubt that the 2014 Yankees will provide better defense at short than the 2013 Yankees. It’s no wonder the Yankees moved quickly to get Ryan into the fold.

Mark Teixeira

To be fair, the Yankees did find an adequate defensive first baseman in Lyle Overbay. He came nowhere near Teixeira’s offensive production, even if you erase his late-season slump. But on defense he held his own.


At the same time, Mark Teixeira is on another level. If we could precisely quantify everything a first baseman does on defense, I have to imagine Teixeira would consistently rank among the league’s top five. He might not be the quickest or most athletic guy on the diamond, but his instincts and reflexes at first more than compensate.

Just because first base is all the way at the end of the defensive spectrum does not mean it lacks importance. Sure, plenty of big lumbering power hitters can stand at first base, but few play the position well. As Ron Washington so aptly put it, “It’s incredibly hard.”

Teixeira handles it with agility and grace. It’s easy to forget the days of Jason Giambi playing first.

Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner

In the last few years Ellsbury has improved his game in center field. A few years ago the Red Sox signed Mike Cameron and moved Ellsbury to left. Perhaps that was the kick in the ass he needed. Whatever the case, he tracks balls well and has plenty of speed, making him a high quality center fielder.

The Yankees had a very good center fielder last year in Brett Gardner. Speed takes center stage in Gardner’s game. He doesn’t always get the best read, nor does he always take the best route. But he makes a lot of plays, because he can compensate with his legs. This year he’ll play center a bit, but not on a day-to-day basis. This helps the Yankees outfield tremendously.

Again taking defensive metrics with a grain of salt (to the point where I won’t quote actual numbers), Gardner produced insane numbers playing left field in 2010 and 2011. Yes, he’s good, but multiple wins good? Here’s the thing with defensive numbers: they compare players at the same position. Since left field is reserved for those lumbering sluggers who don’t have much of an arm, they typically don’t play high-caliber defense. Gardner runs laps around them.

So the Yankees marginally upgrade in center, going from Gardner to Ellsbury. But they upgrade insanely in left field, relative to the league, because Gardner will track down so many more fly balls than his peers.



His bat might not have much left in it, but Ichiro can still run down balls in the outfield. This will come in handy at various points during the 2014 season. He’s the obvious defensive replacement on the bench, giving the Yankees a lockdown outfield in later innings. But that’s not his only role.

If everyone stays healthy – and given Ellsbury’s current injury that’s far from a given – Ichiro wouldn’t get many starts. But guys get bumps and bruises. Carlos Beltran could need days off to rest his knees. Ellsbury and Gardner will need days off here and there even if they do stay healthy. In each instance, playing Ichiro in right makes a degree of sense.

In the the case of longer-term injuries I’d like to see them call up Zoilo Almonte to take more reps, since he still has at least a modicum of big league potential. Ichiro is almost certainly gone after this season, and could be gone before that under the right circumstances. But as long as he’s on the roster, he’ll provide a good defensive option in right field when the Yankees need it.

Mailbag: Rollins, Perkins, Kahnle, Nuno, 80 Tools
BP: Dante Bichette Jr. "might be turning the corner this spring"
  • TWTR

    The best thing that can be said about Jeter’s defense is that he makes all the plays within his limited range, which definitely offers some value.

    • http://www.twitter.com/_swarlesbarkley Mark Teixeira – Ghostbuster (formerly Drew) RIP Egon

      I used to play a drinking game where you take a shot every time you Michael Kay say “past a diving Jeter”. After getting my stomach pumped 6 times I stopped playing.

      • Tanuki Tanaka (Formerly Bob Buttons)


    • I’m One

      Yup. He’s sure-handed and his arm should still be strong and acurate enough to make the throws on the balls he can reach. That can make up for some of his range limitation. Now, if he can remember how to hit ….

    • Darren

      I think that is an undervalued trait. It’s really disconcerting to watch Nunez on a daily basis and even Ryan had a bad case of the bobbles last year in his limited time last year.
      Obviously it would be great if Jeter had range and would be willing to dive, but at least his weaknesses are predictable.

  • Tyler

    How does a post on the 2014 Yankee team defense not include a single mention of McCann?

    • RetroRob

      Because it’s not an area where defense will clearly be better. McCann is known as a solid catcher, strong at pitch framing, meh arm. He’s replacing Stewart, who also rates as adecent defender and who has a stronger arm.

      My belief is the McCann/Cervelli combo will be better defensively than the Stewart/Romine combo, but I don’t think that can be said for sure.

      • Darren

        This is where SABR drives me fucking crazy. Chris Stewart may have rated as a decent defender in a limited role, but after watching him last year, do you agree? I assume you watched a ton of games last year. Homeboy fell apart like Scott Weiland on Sunday morning. The last 3 or 4months were a shit show. he made Jorge look like Thurman Bench. Noodle arm and all, if McCann doesn’t kick his ass,I’m gonna be gravely disappointed.

      • Tyler

        Fair point. But McCann is not known as being a “solid” pitch framer, he is known as being one of the best at it, an elite framer. But like you said Stewart is also quite good at it as well. Hopefully this years’ combo will blow away last years’ in defense. We shall see.

  • Tanuki Tanaka (Formerly Bob Buttons)


    Might be the last time I get to use this in a while, so here’s the nth time I post this Lyle Overbay commercial.
    One of those guys that I felt sorry for last year, playing much more than he ever needed to trying his ass off to not embarrass himself out there.

  • The Other Matt

    LMFAO ! I’m literally in tears, just cause I can hear that in my head without having heard it in such a long time.

  • Bats

    The Yankees won 85 games because of one man: JOE GIRARDI.

    • TWTR

      That should earn him one of his nicknames.

  • RetroRob

    Few would argue Nunez is better defensively than Jeter. Nunez’s range isn’t all that good, and unlike Jeter does not make all the standard plays, and unlike Jeter also gets flustered when situational thinking and action is required. His greatest strength is his arm, which unfortunately is also not true.

  • lee

    i never have understood the reasoning behind putting first base at “the end of the defensive spectrum”. close to half of all outs on balls in play are recorded at first base. i wonder if any of the defensive metrics for the other infielders take in to account how many times the first baseman bales them out on a bad throw.

  • http://damanitv@yahoo.com Troy V.

    I’m very disappointed in the Yankees. They seem to lack vision and flexibility year after year. Why didn’t the Yankees just out bid the Red Sox for Grady Sizemore and the Orioles for Nelson Cruz instead of paying Jacoby Ellsbury for 21 million a year. Both Sizemore and Ellsbury represent great injury risks but the upside for Sizemore could be a gold mine and with Cruz and Sizemore instead of Ellsbury the offense is potentially deadlier and the outfield position and DH could have been in constant rotation to minimize possible fielding injuries. Plus Sizemore signed for just 750 thousand with a maximum of 6 million if all incentives are reached and Cruz who signed for just 8 million with 750 thousand in incentives saves the Yankees a lot of money with the possibility of a much bigger upside. In addition to that why didn’t the Yankees take a flyer on 3rd baseman Casey McGehee who went to the Miami Marlins for a base salary of 1.1 million and with all incentives met will only bring in 1.45 million, needless to say his potential upside could also be a major improvement over the production the Yankees got at 3rd for 2013. It seems to me that the Yankees only know how to through money at a problem, not really think outside the box and that maybe why they get boxed in. And with the money they saved not signing Ellsbury the Yankees could now approach Stephen Drew about playing 2nd base if they thought it made sense in terms of salary vs. production and defensive upgrade but instead they just added another bloated contract to an already overblown budget and if it all went bus at least it was just a bunch of one year contracts. Oh! and another thing, considering Hiroki Kuroda’s age and how he pitched last September, I think Ervin Santana would have been a better investment, but we shall see.