Archive for Defense
The Yankees will never be mistaken for a pitching and defense team, especially over the last 10-15 years. They’ve fielded some stellar individual defensive players during that time, but as a whole they’ve been consistently below*average. Heck, the 2005 Yankees were arguably the worst defensive team in baseball history. That club was brutal.
The additions of Mark Teixeira and Brett Gardner have improved the defensive situation in recent years, but not enough to bring the Yankees to league average, nevermind above-average. Today I want to look at the team’s infield defense over the last ten years, which is as far back as reliable batted ball data goes. Rather than use UZR or DRS or FRAA or some other complicated defensive metric, I’m going to use regular old BABIP. It tells us how many balls in play were converted into outs, which is exactly what we’re looking for here. We don’t care about who has the most range or the strongest arm, just the number of batted balls the defense turned into outs.
Infield defense is pretty complicated because there are all sorts of plays that need to be made. Ground balls are the most common, but there are also line drives, pop-ups, the double play pivot, and in the case of first baseman, receiving throws from other infielders. I’m going to keep this simple and stick to ground balls exclusively. Apologies for the tight and busy table, but here’s the data…
||1,917||0.250||0.238||1,461||1,438||-23||A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Tex|
|’11||1,962||0.250||0.238||1,495||1,472||-24||A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Tex|
|’10||1,885||0.246||0.231||1,450||1,421||-28||A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Tex|
|’09||1,844||0.230||0.238||1,405||1,420||15||A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Tex|
|’08||2,029||0.256||0.240||1,542||1,510||-32||A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Giambi|
|’07||1,981||0.244||0.245||1,496||1,498||2||A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Phillips|
|’06||2,003||0.240||0.245||1,512||1,522||10||A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Giambi|
|’05||2,152||0.246||0.239||1,638||1,623||-15||A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Tino|
|’04||1,998||0.238||0.245||1,508||1,522||14||A-Rod, Jeter, Cairo, Clark|
|’03||2,037||0.256||0.236||1,556||1,516||-41||Ventura, Jeter, Soriano, Giambi|
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.
The Yankees have converted fewer ground balls into outs than expected in six of the last ten years, and we’re talking big (red) numbers too — an average of 25 fewer outs than expected per year over the last three seasons plus two other seasons of 30+ fewer outs. It doesn’t seem like a lot — 25 fewer outs than average is one extra ground ball squeaking through every six or seven games — but it is a lot when you consider that fielding ground balls is just one aspect of defense. Combine the missed ground balls with a poor outfield defense (missed fly balls) and botched double plays and all that, and it adds up in a hurry.
Derek Jeter is the one constant in our sample and we all know he’s a below-average defender at short. The ground ball problems aren’t all on him though. Jason Giambi had a huge hand in it for a long time, as did Alfonso Soriano (to a lesser extent). Alex Rodriguez was a defensive liability both early in his Yankees career (learning a new position) and in recent years (breaking down and losing mobility). Below-average defense isn’t an isolated event; turning fewer batted balls into outs results into more pitches for the pitcher, more wear and tear on the bullpen throughout the season, and so on. It’s a continually compounding problem.
The good news is that ground balls are generally harmless. The vast majority of grounders that get through the infield turn into singles, but a few will result in doubles and triples if they’re hit hard enough and down the line. The next ground ball homer I see will be my first. The Yankees have compensated for their defensive woes in recent years by targeting high strikeout pitchers — seriously, look at the staff strikeout rate the last few seasons — who tend to take non-catcher fielders right out of the equation. I think the Yankees have a truly elite defense on the right side of the infield, but they’re very much lacking on the left side. There isn’t much they can do about it now outside of moving Jeter or A-Rod to DH full-time, so they’ll have to continue targeting pitchers who can miss bats and record outs by themselves.
Via Danny Knobler: The Yankees are considering moving Brett Gardner to center field next season with Curtis Granderson shifting to one of the two corner spots. Gardner is the (far) superior defender and the move would improve the team’s defense overall.
This was a hot topic last offseason but some analysis suggested that the gain would be minimal. I thought Granderson’s defense took a step back this year and feel that switching the two would be a worthwhile move at this time. I don’t know if Curtis is better for left or right — left field is bigger in Yankee Stadium but he doesn’t really have the arm for right — but his spot could depend on who they acquire for the other outfield spot in the coming weeks.
Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano have won the AL Gold Glove Awards at first and second base, respectively. Cano beat out the Dustins (Ackley and Pedroia) while Teixeira beat out Eric Hosmer and the since-traded Adrian Gonzalez. It’s Robbie’s second Gold Glove (2010) and Tex’s fifth (2005, 2006, 2009, 2010). Congrats to both.
For the first time in his career, Mark Teixeira has won the Fielding Bible Award at first base for his defensive skills. Albert Pujols had won the award five times in the last six years, but he finished third in the voting behind Tex and Adrian Gonzalez in 2012. Teixeira received 95 of 100 possible points in the scoring system and was probably long overdue for this award, which I feel is a far better representation of defensive ability than Gold Gloves. Tex has a few of those already.
Yesterday we looked back at the five biggest hits of the Yankees’ season using WPA, and today we’re going to flip the coin and look at the five biggest outs recorded by the pitching staff. This list may not be as sexy or dramatic as Raul Ibanez‘s many mega-clutch homers, but a pitcher escaping a jam can feel pretty awesome in its own right.
June 27th: Rafael Soriano vs. Asdrubal Cabrera (WPA graph & box score) (video)
The Yankees were still very much in “destroy everything” mode come late-June, and they were on the verge of sweeping the Indians on this Wednesday afternoon. Soriano was pitching for the fourth time in five days though, and the workload started to show. Staked to a two-run lead with three outs to go, the first two hitters of the ninth inning (Lonnie Chisenhall and Shin-Soo Choo) reached base via a single and a walk to put instant pressure on the New York closer. Casey Kotchman lined out to left for the first out, but Lou Marson punched a single through the left side of the infield to load the bases. Johnny Damon pinch-hit for Aaron Cunningham, though Soriano was able to retire him with a hard-fought seven-pitch strikeout. The Yankees were one out away, but the tying run was in scoring position and the go-ahead run was on-base.
With his pitch count already up over 20, Soriano walked Michael Brantley on five pitches to force in a run and move the tying run to third. All of his pitches were missing up in the zone and he looked completely gassed. Asdrubal Cabrera, arguably Cleveland’s best hitter, stepped to the plate with a chance to not just tie the game, but give his team the lead with a base hit. Soriano started him off with another pitch up and out of the zone, but the second pitch — a 92 mph fastball — was ticketed for the outside corner until Cabrera lifted the ball out to left. Dewayne Wise caught the can of corn about 10-15 feet in front of the warning track for the final out of the game, a stress-free catch to end a stressful inning. WPA: +0.23
August 9th: Soriano vs. Detroit Tigers (WPA graph & box score) (video)
I have to cheat a little here, because three of the biggest outs of the five biggest outs of the season all came in the same inning. The Yankees were mired in their second half slide and had already lost the first two games in Detroit, but they rebounded to take the third game and the duo of Mark Teixeira and Eric Chavez put the club in position to steal game four as well. They hit back-to-back solo homers off Joaquin Benoit in the eighth inning to turn a 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 lead.
David Robertson was unavailable due to his recent workload, meaning eighth inning duties fell on the shoulders of David Phelps that afternoon. He managed to retire Miguel Cabrera with fly ball to leadoff the inning, but Prince Fielder followed with a single and eventually moved to second on a balk. After Phelps got Austin Jackson to fly out to right for the second out, Joe Girardi went to Soriano for the four-out save. He ended the inning with a Jhonny Peralta fly ball.
After the Yankees went down 1-2-3 in the top of the ninth, the bottom half got instantly messy as Alex Avila doubled down the left field line on Soriano’s second pitch of the frame. Two pitches after that, Omar Infante lined a single to right and moved pinch-runner Gerald Laird (!?) to third. The Tigers had men on the corners with no outs and the tying run was on third. The Yankees were looking at another tough loss in a stretch of games that already had way too many of them.
Rather than wilt, Soriano bore down and managed to escape the jam with the lead. Ramon Santiago slapped a little line drive right at Robinson Cano for the first out of the inning, a ball that wasn’t crushed but was hit hard enough to fall in for a hit had Robbie not been positioned perfectly. Quintin Berry worked the count to 2-2 but popped up weakly to shortstop, a harmless play for the second out. With the tying run still at third, Andy Dirks hacked at Soriano’s first pitch and flew out to shallow center to end the game. It was a huge escape job featuring three of the five biggest outs of the season to give New York a much-needed win. WPA: +0.20 (Dirks), +0.26 (Berry), +0.20 (Santiago).
June 13th: Cody Eppley vs. Martin Prado (WPA graph & box score)
Bet you weren’t expected to see Eppley here, were you? We’re going to have to cheat again and for a slightly different reason this time: the biggest out of the season was actually two outs on the same play.
The Yankees were on the NL park leg of their interleague schedule, and they still had not yet welcomed Robertson back from his oblique strain. Cory Wade had just slipped into full meltdown mode and Clay Rapada had appeared in each of the last four games, leaving Girardi with a very short bullpen in the series finale against the Braves. Curtis Granderson‘s two-run homer off Tim Hudson in the sixth inning gave the Yankees a one-run lead, and Girardi (wisely) went to Boone Logan against Atlanta’s middle of the order bats in the seventh inning.
That left a one-inning gap to bridge between Logan (24 pitches in the seventh) and Soriano in the ninth. The ball went to Eppley, who was only recalled a few weeks prior when Mariano Rivera blew out his knee. He immediately allowed a single to leadoff man Andrelton Simmons, putting the tying run on-base. Pinch-hitter Jack Wilson botched two bunt attempts but still got the job done with a weak ground ball to third, which moved Simmons to second in exchange for the out. Michael Bourn swung at the first pitch of his at-bat and singled through the left side. The Braves had men on the corners with one out and the tying run at third base.
Now, men were on the corners but they weren’t necessarily going to stay that way. Bourn is one of the game’s great base-stealers and it was a foregone conclusion that he would try to steal second and get himself, representing the go-ahead, in scoring position with less than two outs. Eppley threw over a few times but the hitter (Prado) couldn’t be ignored forever. The first pitch of the at-bat was a botched squeeze attempt that was fouled off to the first base side. The second pitch was a regular old swing and another foul ball for strike two, this one off towards third base.
Eppley was still throwing over to first and stepping off between pitches to keep Bourn close, and it paid off. The 0-2 pitch to Prado was a sinker on the outer half that he reached out and tapped to short for the tailor made 6-4-3 double play. Prado was out by at least a full step, maybe even two. The Yankees and Eppley — making just his 27th career appearance in the show — escaped the jam and Soriano went on to nail down the save in the ninth to finish off the sweep. MLB.com doesn’t have a highlight video of the double play, but don’t worry. Here’s a .gif. WPA: +0.33
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The Yankees recorded just one (really two) other out worth +0.20 WPA this season, and that was CC Sabathia getting a 5-2 double play with the bases loaded against the Blue Jays on August 29th. Kinda random, but you might remember the play because Jayson Nix made a real sweet turn at the hot corner. Here’s the video, and that play checked in at exactly +0.20 WPA.
Personally, I think the biggest out(s) of the season didn’t even register as a blip on the WPA radar. I think they were Nate McLouth and J.J. Hardy in the eighth inning of Game Five of the ALDS. The Orioles had the bases loaded with one out and the tying run in the scoring position against a tiring Sabathia, who then struck out McLouth and got Hardy to ground out to end the threat. Both outs checked in at +0.13 WPA, but c’mon. They were enormous because the season was as close to being on the line as it gets right there. If you’re going to force me to pick a regular season event, I’ll go with that Soriano inning against the Tigers. Sabathia’s outs in the ALDS Game Five were far, far more important however.
Quite a stir was made last offseason when former Baseball Prospectus-er and current Astros employee Mike Fast published a study quantifying the number of runs catchers saved with his pitch framing skills. That is making a borderline pitch look like a strike to the umpire and getting the call. Russell Martin rated very well in Fast’s study, as in second only to Jose Molina. Here’s a great example of Russ stealing a strike for CC Sabathia in ALDS Game One on Sunday…
At FanGraphs yesterday, Jeff Sullivan used PitchFX data to estimate how many extra strikes each team enjoyed this season, and the Yankees placed fourth in baseball (and first in the AL) at +5 strikes per 1,000 pitches. The league average is actually -5 strikes, not zero. Blame the umps. New York’s pitching staff threw 23,181 total pitches this season, so the pitching staff received approximately 232 more strikes than the league average. That doesn’t sound like much across 162 games, but it is. Past studies have calculated the difference in value between a called ball and a called strike at 0.13 runs, so Martin’s (and Chris Stewart‘s) pitch framing helped save the team a touch more than 30 runs this season. Roughly 9.5 runs equaled a win in 2012′s scoring environment, so those extra strikes were (theoretically) the difference between an AL East title and a wildcard play-in game.
It’s important to note that Sullivan’s estimations ares just that, estimations. Fast’s study was much more precise and comprehensive, and we shouldn’t attribute every single extra strike to the catcher and his pitch framing anyway. Sometimes the umpire was going to the call the pitch a strike without the catcher’s help. Even if that 30 runs saved number is off by as much as 50%, it’s still a lot of runs to save with a simple skill. Catcher defense is a very tough thing to quantify, but analysts have gotten better at it and pitch framing is one of those things that seems to impact the game much more than originally expected.
The Yankees are a few hours away from opening their best-of-five ALDS matchup against the Orioles, a team they know pretty well since they reside in the same division. The pitchers should be familiar, the hitters should be familiar, and everyone’s defensive abilities should be familiar.
The Orioles were rated as a below-average defensive team overall by the various advanced metrics this year, but they are strong up the middle with Matt Wieters behind the plate, J.J. Hardy at short, and Adam Jones in center. One thing Baltimore’s defenders do very well is stop the other team’s running game, which means the Yankees won’t be able to create much havoc on the bases these next few days.
No Stolen Bases For You
Thanks to the cannon arm of Wieters, the Orioles led the AL in throwing out attempted base-stealers and not by a small margin. Overall, they threw out 36 of 99 base-stealers (36.4%), far better than the second place Blue Jays (33.1%). Wieters threw out nearly 40% (38.6% to be exact) of the runners who tried to steal again him, which is well above the ~25% league average. Only Ryan Hanigan (48.5%), Yadier Molina (47.9%), and Miguel Montero (42.1%) were better among regular catchers, and in case you haven’t noticed, all of those guys play in the NL. Over the last two years, it’s a 37.7% throw-out rate for Wieters. The guy just shuts the running game down.
Perhaps the best way to look at this is just in terms of number of attempts. Opponents attempted a stolen base just 99 times against the Orioles this season, tied with the Cardinals for the second fewest in baseball. Only the Diamondbacks (85) had fewer steals attempted against them. The Yankees, for what it’s worth, had the fifth fewest stolen bases attempted against them this year (118). Anyway, the Bombers are called the Bombers for a reason, and that’s because they don’t steal all that much. Their 93 team steals (120 attempts) were the eighth fewest in baseball, and only four players had double-digit steals: Ichiro Suzuki (14), Alex Rodriguez (13), Eduardo Nunez (11), and Curtis Granderson (10). The stolen base isn’t a huge part of the Yankees’ offense, but it’ll likely be a non-factor in the ALDS thanks to Wieters.
The Yankees catch a little bit of a break because Nick Markakis, one of Baltimore’s all-around best players, is still sidelined with a broken thumb that will keep him on the shelf through the ALDS. He actually originally suffered the injury against the Yankees, when CC Sabathia hit him with a pitch. With Markakis out and Jim Thome healthy, the Orioles have been playing Chris Davis in right field, his worst position. He’s not especially quick or the smoothest of route takers, but the one thing he has going for him defensively is his arm, which is a rocket. Here, look…
It’s unfortunate that TBS cut to Nelson Cruz running like that, but you can still see how strong that throw was. Davis got it to third on the fly, and you probably won’t be surprised to learn that he used to pitch — “Davis also has touched 93 mph off the mound,” wrote Baseball America in their draft write-up back in 2004, the year the Yankees selected him in the 50th round but did not sign him. Anyway, enough with the nostalgia.
With Davis and Adam Jones, another former amateur pitcher who has long owned one of the strongest arms in baseball, patrolling the outfield, the Orioles are not a team that allows runners to take the extra-base very often. In situations where a runner could have gone first-to-third on a single hit to Jones, the runner held at second 69.2% of the time. The league average for center fielders is 43.8%. They don’t even run on his arm anymore. Davis only played 230 innings in right this year (and in his career), so we don’t have reliable data for him. Still though, look at that .gif. Runners beware.
* * *
The Yankees were a very station-to-station team this year, due in large part to Brett Gardner‘s injury and Nunez’s demotion to the minors. They did, however, steal 27 bases (in 33 attempts) in the final 29 games of the season thanks to Ichiro‘s scorching hit finish, A-Rod‘s return to the lineup, and Nunez’s return to the majors. In terms of taking the extra-base on first-to-thirds, etc., the Yankees attempted it only 37.3% of the time compared to the 40% league average. With Wieters behind the plate and the duo of Jones and Davis in the outfield, New York is going to have to be very judicious about trying to create offense with their legs in the ALDS.
8:40pm: Via Collins, Nunez left the game with a sore thumb. It’s not expected to be a major issue, which is good news.
5:30pm: In his third game for Triple-A Empire State since being send down late last week, Eduardo Nunez made a pair of errors this afternoon. According to Donnie Collins, the first was just a botched routine grounder and the second a missed catch at second base on a stolen base attempt. Nunez has played shortstop all three games and for whatever reason, he was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning today.
The Yankees sent Nunez down with hopes that playing regularly will improve his defense, but obviously that’s a process that will take more than three games. I’m worried about his confidence more than anything, and Collins said it appears Nunez is playing as if he’s afraid to make a mistake. I got a similar vibe watching him with the big league team in recent weeks, and again, I hope he doesn’t lose all confidence and develop the yips or something. That would suck. Hopefully he didn’t leave the game with an injury and can get back out there tomorrow to keep working.
Brett Gardner‘s injury has hurt the Yankees in more ways than one. They miss his productive bat and ability to make pitchers work at the bottom of the lineup, they miss his speed on base paths, and most of all they miss his all-world defense. I give Raul Ibanez an A+ for his effort out there, but the man is a butcher and doesn’t belong anywhere near a glove. Andruw Jones can hold his own in the outfield but is no longer the defender he was during his Atlanta days, and Dewayne Wise is a very good glove man but can’t hit a lick.
With Gardner out anywhere from another two weeks to a full month with a strain muscle in his right (non-throwing) elbow, the Yankees are stuck with sub-optimal left field options for the time being. Ibanez has started each of the last four games and six of the last nine games in left mostly because the DH spot has been rotated around. Even with Eduardo Nunez in Triple-A, the duo of Jayson Nix and Eric Chavez give Joe Girardi a chance to rest Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter somewhat regularly early in the season. Better to rest them now than risk burning them out later, I suppose.
Anyway, the Yankees are stuck with an undesirable left field situation until Gardner comes back. The personnel on the roster is unlikely to change barring injury, but the team can still maximize what they get out of these guys by optimizing their usage. Let’s take a quick look at some batted ball data (2010-present)…
You folks are smart, so you probably already know what I’m getting at here: the Yankees should employ their top defensive outfield unit whenever the fly ball pitchers are on the mound. That means Wise on the field and Ibanez at DH whenever Hughes and Pettitte start. We could also add Nova to that mix if his ground ball rate (44.6% this year) doesn’t return to previous levels (52.7% last year). Kuroda’s ground ball rate (48.6% this year), matches his career average after dropping to 43.2% last year. Perhaps reuniting with former battery-mate Russell Martin helped, or maybe it’s just an early-season fluke.
With Wise in the outfield two (potentially three) out of every five days, Girardi will be able to hide Ibanez’s defense a bit while still being able to rotate that DH spot. It’s not ideal; in a perfect world Ibanez never plays the field, but it’s going to happen until Gardner is healthy, so the Yankees should stick him out there when their top ground-ballers are on the bump to minimize the damage. It also goes without saying that Wise should replace Ibanez in the field in the late innings of close games.
Nunez is in Triple-A now, but the Yankees can also employ a similar defensive platoon on the infield. Nix is not exactly a stellar glove man, but he can spell Jeter at shortstop whenever one of the fly ball guys is on the hill with the thinking that he’ll have fewer tough plays to make. Sure enough, Nix’s only start at short so far this year came with Hughes on the mound this past Saturday. Perhaps the defensive platoon is already in place, at least on the infield. The difference may only be two or three plays a game, but every little bit counts.
While the Yankees’ offense has gotten off to a roaring start, the starting pitching has yet to catch up. They’re allowing far too many hits to drop in, and then they’re allowing home runs on top of those hits. The result is an ERA, 5.72, that ranks third-worst in the majors. Their peripherals look a bit better, thanks to the third highest strikeout rate and a bottom-third walk rate, but they’re still getting plenty of runs dropped on them. Yet it might not be all their fault.
One pitching aspect that stands out is the starters’ BABIP. At .355 its not only worst in the league, but worst by more than 20 points. As I noted in this morning’s post on Freddy Garcia, the BABIP issue is not simply a matter of pure luck. There are other factors that play into this. While poor command is the likely culprit in Garcia’s high BABIP, that’s not necessarily true for the staff as a whole. In fact, part of that huge BABIP number isn’t the pitchers at all.
A quick look at Baseball Prospectus’s team defensive efficiency bears this out in a different way. The Yankees’ fielders in general fare worst in the majors in converting balls in play into outs. When BP adjusts for park effects and converts defensive efficiency into runs, the Yankees have allowed a half run more on defense than the next worst team. They are nearly 14 runs behind league-leading Toronto.
As you might imagine by this point, the infield plays a large role in in this defensive inadequacy. To wit, on ground balls Yankees pitchers have allowed a .309 BABIP against an AL average of .225. That’s not to say they’re any great shakes against fly balls. Against those they have a .196 BABIP vs. the league average of .136. The defensive woes stretch across the entire field. And it’s killing the pitching staff.
No, poor fielding isn’t the only culprit in these inflated BABIP numbers. As with Freddy, command in general is an issue. We saw CC Sabathia with little command of his fastball in his first two outings. Phil Hughes has left many hittable pitches right over the plate. Hiroki Kuroda struggled with his command in his last start against Minnesota. And there’s Garcia himself, of course. So some of the high BABIP is due to the pitchers leaving hittable pitches over the plate. After all, the bullpen BABIP is much lower, at .307, but that’s still well above league average.
(Other evidence for poor defense killing the Yankees includes a league-worst UZR and a fourth-worst DRS.)
The pitching staff has been rightly criticized through the season’s first month. The starters simply haven’t put it together yet. Unfortunately, their fielders are doing them no favors. Both the infielders and the outfielders are not converting balls in play into outs at an acceptable rate. Getting Brett Gardner back will help the outfield, but in the infield it’s tough to fathom a huge improvement. That could be something to watch as the staff regains its form. Can they overcome these fielding inadequacies?
NOTE: Say what you will about Nunez; I expect plenty of “infield defense will improve if they don’t play Nunez” comments. But the Yankees’ problem isn’t necessarily errors. In fact, according to UZR they’re actually in the positive in terms of errors. It’s in the range department that they’re getting killed.