Yankees turn to A-Rod for help with Didi’s defense

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Things have gone a little more smoothly lately, but the start of the Didi Gregorius era has been quite the roller coaster these first few weeks. He had some adventures on the basepaths, isn’t doing much at the plate, and his defense has been shockingly erratic. Simply put, he looks like a young player trying to do too much to impress his new team.

I’m not sure anyone realistically expected Didi to be a force at the plate this year, and the base-running mistakes are kinda whatever. He hasn’t had any problems on the bases since that first homestand. The name of his game was defense. Gregorius was brought in to solidify the infield defense and while he has made a few highlight reel plays early on, he has made several physical and mental mistakes in the field. It’s been painful to watch at times.

The Yankees have and will continue to be patient with Gregorius, which is absolutely the right move in my opinion. He has a chance to be the long-term solution at shortstop and the club simply doesn’t have another player like that in the organization. At least not anywhere close to the big league level. The success or failure of Didi’s time in pinstripes shouldn’t be determined by the first month of his first year with the team.

That said, the Yankees want to see some improvement from Gregorius. So, in an effort to get him right into the field, the team brought in a former two-time Gold Glove winning shortstop for help: Alex Rodriguez. The Yankees — specifically third base/infield coach Joe Espada — asked A-Rod to give Didi some pointers at short before last night’s game. “Just the basics,” said Alex to Brendan Kuty.

“It was more just game situations,” added Espada. “I think just kind of working on his game clock. Knowing runners, outs, when to charge a ball, when to stay back on a ball. Situations that we have been working on throughout spring training and throughout the season. But I wanted Alex to be out there to give him that kind of insight that I probably, as a coach, can’t give him.”

Despite all his off-field issues, A-Rod has always been considered a really good teammate who is willing to help others, especially young players. He’s a baseball machine, hands down the smartest and most instinctual player I’ve ever seen, so asking him to help Gregorius makes total sense. A-Rod knows the shortstop position and he also has experience having all eyes on him as a newcomer to New York. He’s a resource the Yankees are tapping into.

But, at the end of the day, this will come down to Gregorius’s ability to make or not make the necessary adjustments. No one can take ground balls or play the field for him. The Yankees are smart to remain patient and I’m sure Didi knows what a tremendous opportunity he has in front of him. He’s the starting shortstop for the New York frickin’ Yankees, after all. Getting comfortable here takes time. Hopefully Alex’s help can speed up the process for Gregorius.

“It takes time to come here and play in this arena,” said Espada. “I coached third in Miami for four years but it’s not the same as coaching third in New York. I don’t call it stage fright. I think it just takes time.”

Looking at the new left side of the infield using Inside Edge data

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

With Derek Jeter retired and Alex Rodriguez basically a non-factor, the Yankees had to rebuild the left side of their infield this offseason, and they did that by trading for shortstop Didi Gregorius and re-signing third baseman Chase Headley. The Yankees are hoping those two will hold things down on the more glamorous side of second base for at least the next four years, the term of Headley’s deal. (Gregorius has five years of team control remaining.)

Headley performed very well during his limited time in pinstripes this past season while Gregorius has a little more than a full year of MLB time under his belt, so he’s more of an unknown. Both guys have similar profiles though — they’re defense-first players who do their best work catching baseballs, not hitting them. Headley’s been an average or better hitter basically his entire career, though his glove is his calling card. Gregorius definitely fits the all-glove, no-bat profile.

At the very least, the Yankees will have a much better infield defense next season, especially on the left side. How much better defensively? Substantially, really. On the order of two or three wins, I think. Maybe more. To get a better idea of just how improved the defense at short and third will be next season, let’s look at some Inside Edge data and compare the 2014 Yankees to the incoming Gregorius and returning Headley.

Shortstop

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Jeter was a disaster in the field this past season. I mean, he’s been below-average in the field pretty much his entire career, but the 2014 season was his worst defensively. The combination of age and his broken ankle late in 2012 sapped whatever mobility he had left, and his arm left something to be desired as well. The Cap’n put Mark Teixeira‘s scoop tool to work at first base this summer.

The Inside Edge data shows just how terrible New York’s defense at shortstop was during the 2014 season:

1-10% (remote) 10-40% (unlikely) 40-60% (about even) 60-90% (likely) 90-100% (almost certain)
2014 Yankees 0.0% 11.1% 35.3% 64.3% 95.3%
2014 MLB AVG 3.7% 24.1% 49.2% 74.1% 97.2%
2012-14 Gregorius 14.3% 25.0% 52.6% 69.2% 98.2%

Inside Edge is fairly straight forward. Batted balls are recorded by human stringers (so there is some scorer bias) and are split into six groups — the five in the table above plus “impossible,” which register at 0% league-wide — depending how difficult the play will be for the defender. For example, batted balls considered “likely” to be turned into an out are plays that are made 60-90% of the time, with the league average at 74.1%. Got it? Sure you do.

The 2014 Yankees, who had Jeter at short for 78.3% of their defensive innings, made no very difficult plays (“remote”) at shortstop and were comfortably below the league average when it came to making “unlikely,” “about even,” and “likely” plays. Long story short, anything not hit right to the shortstop was converted into an out at a considerably below-average rate. Jeter was that bad in the field. Everything was an adventure.

Gregorius, on the other hand, has been above-average at making every type of play since breaking into the league with the exception of “likely” plays, where he’s been a tick below-average but not Jeterian. Other young middle infielders like Adeiny Hechavarria and Dee Gordon have a similar Inside Edge profile and the thought is they have occasional lapses in concentration and botch the routine play. Tougher plays like “remote” and “unlikely” are all instinct. There’s no thinking.

In theory, those lapses in concentration can be fixed. Then again, they might not even be the problem. It’s just a theory. Baseball America has consistently ranked Gregorius among his organization’s top prospects throughout his minor league career, and over the years their defensive scouting reports have said “his hands are still somewhat erratic” (2010), “his hands are his biggest drawback defensively” (2011), and “he showed improved consistency (with his hands)” (2012). Hands that are “somewhat erratic” but showed “improved consistency” seem like the kind of thing that could contribute to his below-average rate of making “likely” plays.

Either way, the Yankees are getting a substantial defensive upgrade at short by replacing Jeter with Gregorius. Even with those bad hands or lapses in concentration or whatever, Gregorius has made plays at a much higher rate than Jeter these last few years, and it’s expected he will continue to do that going forward. His youth and athleticism mean Didi is more likely to improve going forward than crater and became a below-average gloveman. It’s been a very long time since the Yankees had an everyday shortstop as good as Gregorius defensively.

Third Base

Between the hobbled A-Rod and Kevin Youkilis and the defensively blah Jayson Nix, Yangervis Solarte, and Kelly Johnson, the Yankees have dealt with some really shaky hot corner play the last few years. Headley was a breath of fresh air after coming over at the trade deadline. He made every play he was supposed to make — that was an accomplishment for the 2014 Yankees — plus more than few highlight reel plays.

The Inside Edge data for the team’s third basemen this past season is pretty interesting:

1-10% (remote) 10-40% (unlikely) 40-60% (about even) 60-90% (likely) 90-100% (almost certain)
2014 Yankees 0.0% 41.2% 76.9% 77.5% 95.8%
2014 MLB AVG 2.7% 25.9% 57.9% 76.5% 95.9%
2012-14 Headley 2.4% 22.0% 72.9% 85.6% 97.4%

According to Inside Edge, the Yankees were well-above-average at making “unlikely” and “about even” plays at third base in 2014 and basically average at “likely” and “almost certain” plays. When it came to making something more than the routine play, the 2014 Yankees were collectively better than the 2012-14 version of Headley.

Of course, the 2014 Yankees and 2012-14 Headley are not mutually exclusive since he did play a few hundred innings at third for New York this summer. Let’s compare Headley’s defense to the team’s other third baseman this past season:

1-10% (remote) 10-40% (unlikely) 40-60% (about even) 60-90% (likely) 90-100% (almost certain)
2014 Non-Headley NYY 3B 0.0% 30.0% 75.0% 77.4% 94.2%
2014 Headley with NYY 0.0% 57.1% 80.0% 77.8% 99.1%

The team’s non-Headley third baseman were actually above-average at making non-routine plays and about average making “likely” and “almost certain” plays, so the hot corner defense wasn’t a total disaster. Headley, however, managed to improve on all of that across the board. So yeah, the Yankees were getting pretty good glovework at third, but Headley took it to another level.

Now, defense is like anything else in baseball, players can have good defensive years and bad defensive years. It’s like batting average. Robinson Cano hit .306 in 2007, .270 in 2008, then .320 in 2009. Did his talent level change those three years? No, that’s just baseball. The same applies to defense. The various defensive stats (not just Inside Edge) say 2014 was either the best or second best (behind 2010) defensive season of Headley career. He was still above-average from 2011-13, but not as good as 2014.

Given his track record, there’s a chance Headley’s defense going forward won’t be as good as it was this past season, and again, that isn’t to say it will be bad. To go back to Cano for an example, he hit .342 in 2006 and then .308 from 2007-14. He was awesome in 2006 and slightly less awesome from 2007-14. Headley’s defense was outstanding in 2014. It’ll probably be slightly less outstanding going forward, and that’s okay. As long as he continues to be above-average, he’ll be an upgrade on what the team was running out there the last two years.

Going from Jeter to Gregorius will be a substantial improvement for the 2015 Yankees. In fact, it might be the single biggest defensive upgrade at any position in baseball. Maybe second biggest behind the Allen Craig to Jason Heyward move the Cardinals made, but, either way, New York will be considerably better at short next year. They’ll be better at third base as well, just less so. With a ground ball-centric pitching staff, the improved defense on the left side of the infield figures to be very noticeable. It was an upgrade that had to be made.

2014 Season Review: The Outfield Defense

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Yesterday afternoon, we looked at the mess that was the Yankees’ infield defense this past season. It wasn’t a mess all year, just most of the year. Things got substantially better once Chase Headley, Stephen Drew, and Martin Prado were acquired at the trade deadline. By then it was too late though. The damage had already been done the first four months of the season.

The outfield defense is another matter. The Yankees built a strong defensive outfield by pairing Jacoby Ellsbury with Brett Gardner, two of the best outfield glovemen in baseball. The generally immobile Carlos Beltran was slated for right field but the plan was to replace him with the still solid Ichiro Suzuki in the late innings, so the damage would be minimized. Ellsbury and Gardner were going to be the stars of the outfield show.

Because of injuries and ineffectiveness and all that, the Yankees had three players (Beltran, Ichiro, Alfonso Soriano) start at least 20 games in right field in 2014. Gardner was the only player to start 20+ games in left field (Chris Young started 16) and Gardner and Ellsbury were the only players to start 20+ games in center — Gardner started exactly 20 and Ellsbury started 138. Gardner and Ellsbury started in the outfield together in 120 of the team’s 162 games.

Overall, the Yankees’ outfield ranked 20th in baseball at -11 DRS and 18th with -7.1 UZR, which doesn’t pass the sniff test. Ellsbury was hit with -5 DRS and +0.5 UZR this year — one-year sample, yadda yadda yadda — continuing a recent trend of Yankees’ center fielders grading out poorly while playing alongside Gardner. It happened with Curtis Granderson a few years ago as well. I don’t buy Ellsbury being an average defender (per UZR) and certainly not a below-average one (per DRS). He was excellent. Right? I’m not the crazy one. DRS and UZR are.

For the hell of it, here are Gardner’s (left field only) and Ellsbury’s defensive spray charts from this past season:


Source: FanGraphs

Source: FanGraphs

One of these days commoners like me will be able to put together defensive heat maps that compare players — or entire outfield units — to the league average defensively. Something like this. Alas.

Anyway, those big blobs of green and spots of red doesn’t really tell us much. They look kinda cool if you know what you’re looking at, but that’s about it. Here are some more straight forward numbers on balls hit to the outfield. This table includes routine pop-ups, scalded line drive, and regular ol’ fly balls. If it made it to the outfield in the air, it’s included here.

Total Plays NYY BABIP MLB BABIP MLB Rank
Left Field 566 .4629 .4528 16th
Center Field 656 .3247 .3671 2nd
Right Field 536 .4683 .4284 28th
All Fields 1,758 .4310 .4315 16th

More balls fall in for hits in right and left field than center because those are the pull fields — hitters tend to hit for the most authority when they pull the ball, not when they go back up the middle. More batters are right-handed — there were 1.27 plate appearances by a righty for every one plate appearance by a lefty in 2014, including switch hitters — and that’s why hitters around the league had a higher BABIP to left field than right. Make sense? Good.

Ellsbury ran down almost everything so it makes sense the Yankees had the second lowest BABIP on balls hit to center in baseball this year. Only the Desmond Jennings-led Rays were better (.3159). Beltran and Soriano and almost everyone else they ran out there in right field stunk defensively this summer, so it’s no surprise the team had the third highest BABIP on balls hit to right. Left field is where it gets a little weird, because the Yankees are only middle of the pack there in terms of BABIP even though Gardner manned the position.

We’re used to Gardner being a top notch defender. One of the best in baseball. The numbers have said so for years and our eyes agreed. That wasn’t so much the case this year though. Gardner was good, don’t get me wrong, but he wasn’t as good as he has been the last few years. There were a few more balls hit over his head in particular, and the spray chart above reflects that. Maybe it was just an adjustment period as Gardner moved back to left field after playing center last year. Maybe he’s just slipping in the field. Maybe he’s mad at the team for signing Ellsbury and displacing him. Who knows? Whatever it was, Gardner’s glove wasn’t as good as we’re used to seeing.

There’s more to being an outfielder than simply catching fly balls, of course. Not every ball will be caught, and that’s when the throwing arm comes into play. This postseason has exposed all baseball fans to Alex Gordon, who shuts the running game down even when he doesn’t make a throw. Opponents know his arm is strong and accurate, so they don’t even bother testing him. Throwing runners out is both sexy and just one piece of the outfielder arm puzzle. Here’s how the team’s outfielders did at holding and throwing out runners:

Opp. Hold Rate Throw-Out Rate MLB Hold Rate MLB Throw-Out Rate
Gardner 160 64.4% 1.9%
All NYY LF 204 64.7% 1.5% 63.5% 2.2%
Ellsbury 165 44.8% 0.6%
All NYY CF 203 45.8% 0.5% 43.5% 1.9%
Ichiro 98 45.9% 2.0%
All NYY RF 176 42.0% 2.3% 46.0% 2.4%

Gardner was more or less league average at holding and throwing out runners this year. Left field isn’t a big throwing position anyway. The only real throws are to home plate, not the other bases. Ichiro has a strong arm in right but he takes for-frickin-ever to get rid of the ball, limiting its effectiveness. He was still roughly a league average-ish thrower while the team’s other right fielders were below-average. Blame Beltran and Soriano, mostly.

Ellsbury, on the other hand, was actually a bit above-average at preventing runners from taking the extra base but he rarely threw anyone out. In fact, he threw out exactly one runner trying to advance on a base hit this season. Just one. Here’s the play, which happened in early-September:

Ellsbury threw out two other runners on bases this year — he doubled Nelson Cruz off first when Cruz forgot how many outs there were, and he threw Dustin Pedroia out trying to stretch a single into a double. Saying Ellsbury’s arm is not strong would be an understatement. It’s one of the weakest outfield arms in baseball. He compensates for it by getting to the ball quickly and with a quick release, sorta like Hideki Matsui back in the day. Throwing is clearly Ellsbury’s biggest weakness as a player. That’s life.

The Yankees received three different levels of defense in the three outfield spots this year. They got good defense in left field, the bigger of the two corners in Yankee Stadium. They received excellent defense in center, and right field was pretty terrible despite the cozy dimensions in the Bronx. Throwing was an issue in all three spots though it was hardly a disaster. The outfield was clearly the strength of the team’s defense this year, and fly ball pitchers like Michael Pineda, David Phelps, Chris Capuano, and Vidal Nuno benefited the most.

2014 Season Review: The Infield Defense

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

It wasn’t hard to see the bad infield defense coming. Coming into the season, the Yankees’ best infield defender was their first baseman, who was coming off a season lost to wrist surgery. They had a soon-to-be 40-year-old coming off major ankle/leg injuries and a broken down 36-year-old manning the middle infield, and their third baseman was a second baseman by trade. It was a far cry from the 2009 infield, which was arguably the best in baseball history.

To make matters worse, the Yankees built a ground ball pitching staff because Yankee Stadium is tiny and fly balls equal homeruns. Their starters ranked third in the league with a 45.1% ground ball rate this year even though noted ground ballers CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova combined to make only 12 starts. There were plenty of poor throws, booted grounders, and balls that simply scooted by defenders for base hits and extended innings in April and May.

Early in the year, the bad infield defense was the most consistent part of the team. It showed up every night and impacted the game. Derek Jeter and Brian Roberts were predictably poor at shortstop and second base, respectively, and third base was shaky regardless of whether Kelly Johnson or Yangervis Solarte was playing. Mark Teixeira showed considerable rust following the long layoff, compounding the problem. Their best infield gloveman (Brendan Ryan) started the year hurt and was then glued to the bench because he can’t hit.

The Yankees tried — and sorta succeeded, actually — to compensate for their range-challenged infield by employing the infield shift. A lot. Like almost every batter featured a non-traditional infield alignment. Heck, the team acknowledged part of the reason they signed Roberts and Johnson was their familiarity with the shift after playing with the Orioles and Rays (and Blue Jays). Oh sure, there were plenty of balls that beat the shift but that’s inevitable. Here’s a nugget from Ken Davidoff in early-June:

Baseball Info Solutions utilizes the measure “Defensive Runs Saved” then breaks that into two categories: non-shift and shift.

Heading into Wednesday’s action, the Yankees ranked last in the major leagues — 30th out of 30 clubs — in both categories. They had minus-16 runs saved without the shift — in other words, their porous defense was responsible for allowing 16 more runs than the average defense would have allowed given the same balls hit in the same spots.

With the shift, the Yankees were at minus-4 runs saved, an improvement of 12 runs.

“While they have struggled to get outs when shifted relative to the rest of the league, because they are so range challenged it actually makes sense for them to shift aggressively so that they can put their infielders in a position to have to move the least to make a play,” Joe Rosales, a research associate at BIS, wrote in an email. “If they weren’t shifting as much as they have been, things would look even worse.

There is no publicly available shift data (yet), though all throughout the season various reports said the Yankees shifted their infielders as much as any team in baseball aside from the Astros. I don’t think we need any numbers to confirm the Yankees’ infield really stunk defensively when aligned normally and stunk slightly less when shifted against certain batters though. We all watched the games.

The shift wasn’t enough, so Brian Cashman and his staff sought out to improve their infield defense at the midseason because they had to. Roberts and Johnson weren’t hitting or fielding, and Solarte cooled off so much that he was shipped to the minors. If they couldn’t get the offensive helped they needed — there were very few impact bats on the market at the trade deadline — then improving the run prevention was the next best thing.

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

The infield overhaul started on July 22nd, when the Yankees acquired Chase Headley from the Padres. Right away it was obvious he was a massive, massive, massive upgrade at third. That guy can really pick it. The overhaul continued nine days later, when the team swung deals for Stephen Drew and Martin Prado at the trade deadline. Drew was slated to play second base everyday, but his bat landed eventually him on the bench and put Prado at second on a full-time basis.

Drew is a shortstop by trade and he was playing second base literally for the first time as a professional — he had never play a position other than shortstop in his career, Majors or minors — and there were some growing pains early, but I thought he settled in quite nicely and was an asset in the field later in the season. Prado was primarily a third baseman the last few years, though he had plenty of second base experience and looked natural there when pressed into duty.

Quantifying defense is tough — there are some pretty good stats out there, but they’re far from perfect — so there’s only so much we can do. Here’s how the Yankees’ infield performed on all ground balls before and after the trade deadline, with no adjustment for hit velocity or trajectory or anything fancy like that:

Games Ground Balls NYY BABIP MLB BABIP
Before Deadline 107 1,279 .2611 .2489
After Deadline 55 636 .2390 .2590

Imperfect analysis but that’s a big improvement! The Yankees went from having the eighth highest BABIP in baseball on ground balls before the trade deadline to having the fifth lowest after July 31st. Simply put, they were turning more ground balls into outs after acquiring Headley, Drew, and Prado.

The revamped infield showed more range and surer hands — Teixeira appeared to shake off the rust as the season progressed as well — after the trade deadline and the numbers back that up. The infield defense went from big problem to … well, let’s call it a smaller problem. I hesitate to call it an asset. Jeter was still an issue at shortstop but there were extenuating circumstances. The Yankees weren’t going to move him off the position with his retirement only weeks away. No chance.

So, the Yankees did the next best thing. They updated the guys playing alongside Jeter at second and third bases, and the improvement was noticeable. The routine plays went back to being routine and every so often a not-so-routine play was made as well. The infield defense was terrible for the first four months of the season and it cost the Yankees games. The help at the trade deadline was a big upgrade but it came too late to help the team make the postseason. The Yankees now have a clean slate (so to speak) at the non-first base infield spots and are able to fill them to above-average defenders this winter.

The Yankees’ Five Biggest Outs of 2014

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Yesterday we looked at the Yankees’ five biggest hits of the season, so now it’s time to turn around and look at their five biggest outs. Not offensively, defensively. These are the most important outs the pitching staff and the defense recorded this past season. Again, we’re going to use win probability added (WPA) because it’s nice and easy. Perfect? No. Good for an exercise like that? You bet.

Unlike big hits, big outs are a little less dramatic. Watching an outfielder catch a fly ball or a second baseman field a routine grounder isn’t as exciting as watching a hit fall in and someone run around the bases in a big spot. But outs are important too, and given all the close games the Yankees played this year, they had more than their fair share of important outs. Here are the 2010 and 2012 biggest outs posts. I guess I never did one for 2011 and 2013. I’m such a slacker.

t-5. May 9th: Warren, McCann team up for strike ’em out, throw ’em out double play (video, 1:27-1:35)
t-5. August 7th: Shane Greene gets Victor Martinez to bang into twin killing (video above, 0:51-0:59)

Once again, we have a tie for fifth place. And, technically, each one of these plays involves two outs because they’re double plays, but we’ll count them as one to make life easy. The Yankees led the May 9th game against the Brewers by the score of 4-2 in the seventh inning when Masahiro Tanaka allowed back-to-back one-out singles. In came Warren, who helped escape the inning by fanning Overbay, his ex-teammate. Jordan Schafer was running on the pitch and McCann threw him out. Beautiful. A little less than three months later, Greene had runners at the corners with one out in the sixth inning against the Tigers. The Yankees were nursing a 1-0 lead at a time when they were weren’t scoring a whole lot of runs. Martinez, who finished third in MLB with a 166 wRC+ this season, jumping on an 0-1 sinker and banged into an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play. Both double plays were worth +0.19 WPA.

4. May 11th: Warren strikes out Overbay (no video)

Same series, same matchup, different game. In the series finale in Milwaukee, the Yankees and Brewers were tied at 5-5 in the bottom of the ninth after Mark Teixeira clubbed a game-tying solo homer off Francisco Rodriguez in the top half. Overbay stepped to the plate with a runner at third and one out after Rickie Weeks doubled and moved to third on a wild pitch. All Overbay needed to do was hit the ball in the air and the game was over. Instead, Warren threw him five straight changeups (!) and got him to swing through three of them for the big strikeout. There’s no easily accessible video anywhere but I assure you it looks like almost every other “left-handed batter swinging over a right-handed changeup” you’ve ever seen. The strikeout was the second out of the inning and it registered +0.20 WPA, but ultimately it didn’t matter. Two pitches later, former Yankee Mark Reynolds singled through the left side of the infield for the walk-off win. Wah wah.

3. July 29th: David Robertson gets Adrian Beltre to fly out

This was either the best worst game or the worst best game of the season. I can’t decide. The Yankees were up 1-0 after one inning. Then they were down 3-1 after three innings. Thanks to a seven-run sixth and a two-run seventh, they had a nice 10-4 lead. Then the Rangers scored four runs in the bottom of the seventh to make it 10-8, but that was fine, the Yankees scored two more in the top of the eighth to stretch their lead to 12-8. Texas scored a run in the eighth and the Bombers took a 12-9 lead into the ninth.

Robertson started the ninth with a strikeout (cool!) before Leonys Martin slapped a one-out single (no!). Then Robinson Chirinos drew a walk to bring the tying run to the plate. Yuck. Rougned Odor moved the runners up with a ground out, then Robertson walked Shin-Soo Choo to load the bases because that’s pretty much the only thing Choo does. Elvis Andrus followed with a single to center, scoring Martin and pinch-runner Dan Robertson to cut the lead to 12-11. Alex Rios drew a walk to reload the bases and set things up for Beltre. Robertson did get ahead in the count 0-2 on Beltre, but three straight balls followed. Bases loaded, two outs, bottom of the ninth, full count … and Beltre unloaded on an inside fastball. I thought it was gone off the bat. I really did. Instead, Brett Gardner retreated in left, turned back towards the infield, and caught the routine fly ball for the 27th out. Ex-frickin-hale. That fly ball was worth +0.27 WPA.

2. August 3rd: Robertson gets lucky

They say it’s lucky to be better than good, but sometimes you have to be both. The Yankees and Red Sox were playing one of their typical ESPN Sunday Night Games, which meant a back and forth game with a lot of runs that somehow resulted in a one-run game in the ninth. This time the Yankees were on the good end of that one-run lead. Robertson came in to protect an 8-7 lead and immediately walked the leadoff man — light-hitting rookie catcher Christian Vazquez — on four pitches. Not ideal.

Luckily for Robertson, the Red Sox and Chase Headley bailed him out. Brock Holt sliced a hard line drive to left field, but Headley was perfectly positioned and snared what looked like a double into the corner off the bat. Pinch-runner Mookie Betts took off on the pitch, so Headley was able to double him off first base easily. The twin-killing was worth +0.28 WPA. Robertson got Dustin Pedroia to ground out weakly to second base to end the game as the next batter, preserving the win. He’s pitched his way out of so many jams over the years. About time the defense paid him back.

1. August 7th: Robertson get a double play from Miggy

That’s right, two of the Yankees’ five (well, six, really) biggest outs of 2014 came in the same game, in the span of about four innings. Greene made that 1-0 lead stand up through eight innings, but Joe Girardi send him back out for the ninth and he allowed a first pitch leadoff single to Ian Kinsler. That ended Greene’s afternoon and brought Robertson into the game.

Once again, Robertson walked the first man he faced, though this time it was a good hitter (V-Mart) on five pitches instead of a bad hitter on four. Miguel Cabrera, who was not in the starting lineup that day due to his various nagging injuries, came off the bench to pinch-hit for J.D. Martinez. Even with those injuries, it was not exactly a comfortable situation. Robertson left a fastball out over the plate to Cabrera, but he hit the top of the ball and grounded it back up the middle. Second baseman du jour Brendan Ryan fielded it cleanly, stepped on second for the force, then fired to first for the double play. Here’s the WPA graph:


Source: FanGraphs

That little spike in the ninth inning is the walk to V-Mart and the double play. The double play ball was worth +0.31 WPA, which is pretty ridiculous for a pair of outs. It takes a lot to record a high WPA on a defensive because the odds are always in favor of an out being made. Kinsler moved to third on the play and was stranded there when Don Kelly lined out softly to Ryan to end the game as the next batter. No surprise that Robertson was on the mound for the three (really five) biggest outs of the year. His job is to get precisely those outs.

Yankees at their best when Jeter is the DH

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
(Jim Rogash/Getty)

For the fourth time in the last nine games, Derek Jeter started at DH last night. That comes after he started only four of the team’s first 121 games at DH. Carlos Beltran‘s elbow injury relegated him to full-time DH duty for a few weeks, but even when Beltran was on the disabled list, Jeter was still playing shortstop every day while guys like Alfonso Soriano and Brian McCann got regular turns at DH. All these recent starts at DH are a change of pace for the Cap’n.

Joe Girardi, naturally, isn’t making too much of it. He simply chalked it up to giving a veteran player some extra rest late in the season when the opportunity presents itself. Here’s what he told Chad Jennings prior to last night’s game:

“I’m in the mode that I’m just taking it day by day,” Girardi said. “But with Carlos being able to go into the outfield once in a while, it gives me more flexibility to do this. … We’ve had some long stretches. We have a lot of lefties coming up the next five days after today where he’s going to play (probably at shortstop), so try to give him a little blow when I can. And I thought today was probably a good day. Two plane flights in two days, and as I said, we have day games after night games, so we’re going to need him in there a lot.”

“I don’t think I can play him much more than I’ve played him,” Girardi said. “He’s played in all but about 10 games maybe, maybe a few more than that, but there was a time when he missed three because his leg was bothering him. But when you get in these long stretches, these 13-game stretches, I’ve usually given him on day off. And that might be all he gets in this.”

Jeter is completely unfazed by the starts at DH — “I don’t know how many times I’ve done it … My job is to come here, and when I’m in the lineup, play,” he told Jennings — and that isn’t surprising at all. The Yankees have used that DH spot as something of a revolving door to rest their older players over the years, a practice that has caught on around the league. The full-time DH like David Ortiz is a dying breed. Jeter, McCann, Beltran, and Zelous Wheeler (!) have all started a game at DH at some point in the last week, so the revolving door is in full effect.

At this point though, the best Yankees team doesn’t have a revolving door at DH. The best Yankees team right now, in late-August and September of 2014, has Jeter at DH full-time. He hasn’t hit at all this month — .222/.237/.278 in August even after last night’s 2-for-4 — but you and I both know the Yankees aren’t going to drop him in the lineup, let alone take him out of the lineup entirely. Not with only a month of regular season baseball left in his career.

The best thing the Yankees can do at this point is take Jeter out of the field and play Stephen Drew, the far superior defender, at shortstop. The trade-off for the improved infield defense is Drew’s weak bat — he’s over 200 plate appearances now, so “he didn’t have a proper Spring Training” is no longer a valid excuse for his lack of production — as well as Beltran’s awful right field defense, though the latter is a small issue thanks to the ground ball heavy pitching staff. Well, everyone in the rotation except Michael Pineda is a ground baller. Prioritizing outfield defense makes sense when he’s on the mound.

We all know turning Jeter into a full-time DH just isn’t going to happen. He’ll still see his fair share of time in the field, but he started four of the last nine games at DH and that seems like a decent framework going forward, no? I mean, there are only 32 games left in the season. Four out of nine works out to 14 games at DH and 18 at short the rest of the way. The Yankees are still in the race for the second wildcard spot (despite their best efforts in the summer months) and improving the defense by giving Jeter more time at DH the last 32 games makes sense.

All of this is contingent on Beltran’s elbow, obviously. If he can’t play right field, he’ll play DH regularly and Jeter will play shortstop, end of story. If that is not the case though, if that third cortisone shot makes Beltran’s elbow a non-issue these next four and a half weeks, the Yankees could have him and Jeter essentially split their time between DH and the field. Work it around Pineda’s pitching schedule, off-days, the opposing starter (no Drew against lefties, etc.), whatever. The best Yankees team right now has less Jeter in the field and it seems like they’ve acknowledged that these last nine games. Now they just have to continue doing it.

Deadline pickups already paying big dividends in the field

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Heading into the trade deadline, it was clear the Yankees needed to beef up their offense. They were getting very little from right field and second base in particular, plus third base became a black hole as soon as Yangervis Solarte returned to Earth. The Yankees needed to do something to add to their lineup, something more than wait for Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran to turn their seasons around.

Improving the offense wasn’t their only need at the trade deadline. The Yankees also needed to upgrade their infield defense because it was disastrous. Truly one of the worst infield defenses I have ever seen and it would have been a lot worse if not for the club’s emphasis on shifting to compensate for the lack of range. The bad defense was the most consistent part of the team too — every day the infield would cost them. It was amazing to watch, really.

The Yankees are locked into Derek Jeter at short and Mark Teixeira at first for better or worse, though there was nothing standing in way of acquiring upgrades at second and third bases. Acquire those upgrades is exactly what they did, swinging a deal for Chase Headley last month and bringing in Stephen Drew just before the trade deadline. Headley has long been a solid gloveman and while Drew would be playing out of position at second base, his athleticism and quickness made him a decent bet to outperform Brian Roberts.

Headley’s bat hasn’t been anything special yet (86 wRC+ in 58 PA), but he has been outstanding in the field. He gobbles up everything hit his way and seems to really excel at going to his right for backhanded stops. Drew has been with the team for only five games, and while he hasn’t done much with the bat either (64 wRC+ in 18 PA), he’s looked pretty comfortable at second. We haven’t gotten much of a look at him, of course, but Roberts was bobbling routine plays towards the end of his time with the Yankees. Drew hasn’t done that.

With some help from the indispensable Baseball Savant, here is a quick and dirty look at how the Yankees have fared at turning ground balls into outs this season. Real basic stuff, how many grounders are being converted into outs with no adjustment for hit quality or hit location or anything like that. Obvious sample size caveats apply:

Total Grounders BABIP Grounders Per Error
Before Headley Trade 1,164 .255 28.4
Since Headley Trade 198 .227 66.0
Since Drew Trade 67 .194 67.0

The AL average is a .250 BABIP on ground balls this season, so the Yankees were just a touch worse than that before acquiring Headley. Even with all the shifts and whatnot, they were still a bit below-average because of the general lack of range and sure-handedness they had around the infield. It felt a lot worse, to be honest.

Since acquiring Headley though, that has dropped to a .227 BABIP, much better than the league average. The infield has also cut their rate of making an error — errors aren’t the best way to measure defense, but I’m mentioning them because the Yankees did seem to have a knack for getting to the ball and failing to make the play for much of the year — basically in half. That isn’t all because of Headley, but he is a big part of it. Solarte was sneaky bad in the field and Kelly Johnson never looked comfortable at the hot corner (or first base, for that matter).

The infield defense has improved even more since Drew arrived, though it has been less than a week, so who really knows. The numbers do match up with the eye test though, and that’s always cool. You don’t need to be a trained scout to see how improved defensively the infield has been the last few weeks. Headley is a tremendous upgrade over what the Yankees had at the hot corner for most of the year. Drew looks comfortable at second and has been better than Roberts.

Going from below-average defenders to above-average defenders at two of the four infield spots is a big, big deal. The Yankees had a weirdly built roster earlier in the season in that their best defensive players (Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury) were marginalized by a pitching staff that focused on getting ground balls to avoid cheap homers at Yankee Stadium. Thanks to the Headley and Drew additions, the Yankees now have an infield defense better suited for the strength of the pitching staff, and their impact in the field has been obvious.