Believing in Austin Romine’s defense

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Not long before the Rangers signed A.J. Pierzynski, Jon Heyman said the Yankees were still unable to get excited about the long-time White Sox backstop. Despite their need for catching help, the 35-year-old who hit 27 homers last season just wasn’t doing it for them. Instead, Heyman says the Yankees are “looking to go” with Austin Romine behind the plate next year, the youngest of their four (don’t forget Bobby Wilson!) internal catching solutions.

Romine, 24, has had some of the blush come off his prospect rose these last two seasons due to back injuries. He’s appeared in just 111 games since 2011 with only 97 starts behind the plate. That’s a lot of development time lost at a crucial age, yet the Yankees are apparently open to using him as their primary big league backstop in 2013 because of his defense. Defense from the catcher position is something the team has become obsessed with in recent years, basically since they were able move Jorge Posada to DH full-time two years ago.

“He’s a plus, plus defender … He can really play the position,” said VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman to Chad Jennings last week. You have to take quotes like that with a huge grain of salt because of course an organization is going to speak highly of its prospects. There’s nothing to be gained by doing otherwise. Romine could be a terrible defender (he’s not according to various scouting reports) and the Yankees could be well aware of it, but they’d never admit it. Remember how they insisted Jesus Montero could catch in the show and then did everything in their power to avoid using him behind the plate in September 2011? Kinda like that. Actions speak louder than words.

The Yankees are unlikely to make a meaningful catching addition before Spring Training just because the market is barren at the moment, both free agency and trades. That could change in an instant if some team decides to unload some salary, but I wouldn’t count on it. Sending Romine to Triple-A for everyday reps while Chris Stewart and Frankie Cervelli handle big league duties would be the easiest solution for the club and possibly the best both in the short- and long-term. However, if they do take Romine north out of camp and use him as the primary backstop at the outset of the season, it would speak volumes about their true feelings of his defense. It would be a massive vote of confidence.

A look at the Yanks’ outfield defense from ’03-’12

(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Two weeks ago I looked at the Yankees’ infield defense over the last decade using a real simple BABIP-based analysis. The club was a well-below-average defensive team against ground balls in six of the last ten years, including each of the last three years and four of the last five. With an aging Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter on the left side of the infield, the poor infield defense wasn’t a surprise.

Today I’m going to shift to the outfield and look at how the Yankees have done when it comes to converting fly balls into outs. Not counting infield pop-ups because they’re in their own little analytical world, fly balls turn into outs far more often than ground balls and line drives. It’s worth noting that available batted ball data, which reliably dates back to 2003, is not perfect. Baseball Info. Solutions records the data with human stringers who watch each game and classify each batted ball. Ground balls are pretty straight forward, but one person’s fly ball is another’s line drive. There is some scorer bias involved. We’re going to stick to regular old fly balls today. Here’s the data, and apologies in advance for the cluttered table…

#FB NYY BABIP AL BABIP xOuts aOuts dOuts Primary Outfield
2012 1,339 0.133 0.128 1,168 1,161 -7 Ibanez, Grandy, Swisher
2011 1,414 0.124 0.137 1,220 1,239 19 Gardner, Grandy, Swisher
2010 1,456 0.118 0.139 1,254 1,284 30 Gardner, Grandy, Swisher
2009 1,418 0.118 0.136 1,225 1,251 26 Damon, Melky, Swisher
2008 1,358 0.137 0.138 1,171 1,172 1 Damon, Melky, Abreu
2007 1,542 0.130 0.137 1,331 1,342 11 Matsui, Melky, Abreu
2006 1,591 0.140 0.141 1,367 1,368 1 Melky, Damon, Abreu
2005 1,499 0.154 0.133 1,300 1,268 -32 Matsui, Bernie, Sheff
2004 1,619 0.153 0.133 1,404 1,371 -33 Matsui, Bernie, Sheff
2003 1,559 0.150 0.128 1,359 1,325 -34 Matsui, Bernie, Mondesi

xOuts: Expected number of outs based on the league BABIP.
: Actual number of outs recorded.

: The difference between actual and expected outs, so aOuts – xOuts.

Just to be clear, homeruns are not counted in the fly ball total because they aren’t a ball in play. A ball isn’t in play if the defender doesn’t have a chance to catch it, which they can’t do when it sails over the fence.

As you probably remember, the Yankees had some miserable defensive teams in early-to-mid-aughts. The Hideki Matsui and Bernie Williams-anchored outfields from 2003-2005 were good for 30+ fewer outs converted than the league average, which is an enormous number. Adding Melky Cabrera and (to a lesser extent) Johnny Damon to the mix improved things greatly in 2006, though the Yankees were still league-average. Bobby Abreu was a defensive nightmare who prevented the unit from being above-average.

The 2009 season is when things really improved. Abreu’s wall-fearing ways were replaced by Nick Swisher, who is a solid defender and far better than his predecessor. Brett Gardner also started to earn more playing time. The 2009-2011 outfields were well-above-average as the Matsuis and Damons and Abreus were replaced, though the 2012 defense took a hit when Raul Ibanez handled left field in the wake of Gardner’s injury. The Yankees have boasted an average or better outfield defense (with regards to fly balls) in six of the last seven years, and in several of those seasons they were much better than the league average.

As I mentioned two weeks ago, ground balls are relatively harmless. They usually go for singles when they sneak through the infield and that’s the end of it. Fly balls, even the ones that don’t go over the fence for homers, are much more dangerous. Misplayed fly balls often turn into extra-base hits, which can be a nightmare for the pitcher. It’s one thing to have a man on first after a ground ball finds a hole, but it’s another when a fly ball dunks in and a man is instantly on second or third. The Yankees have done an excellent job of turning their outfield ranks over in recent years while improving the fly ball catching ability without sacrificing offense.

A look at the Yanks’ infield defense from ’03-’12

Pastalunging. (Alex Trautwig/Getty)

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…

xOuts aOuts dOuts Primary Infield
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.
: Actual number of outs recorded.

: 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.

Report: Yankees considering moving Gardner to center in 2013

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.

Cano & Teixeira take home Gold Gloves

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.

Russell Martin was nominated for the Gold Glove at catcher, but Matt Wieters deservingly took home the award. No other Yankees were nominated. The full list of winners can be found here.

Teixeira takes home 2012 Fielding Bible Award

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.

Brett Gardner won the left field award in both 2010 and 2011, but his season-long injury took him out of the running this year. Alex Gordon won it instead.

The five biggest outs of the 2012 season

(Leon Halip/Getty Images)

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.

(Leon Halip/Getty)

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. doesn’t have a highlight video of the double play, but don’t worry. Here’s a .gif. WPA: +0.33

* * *

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.