Archive for Defense
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:
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|
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|
|All NYY LF||204||64.7%||1.5%||63.5%||2.2%|
|All NYY CF||203||45.8%||0.5%||43.5%||1.9%|
|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.
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.
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|
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Last season was forgettable in more ways than one, but one thing I did not forget is the way it was written off almost universally as bad luck. They had too many injuries to overcome and really, who could see them coming? Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman and Randy Levine told anyone who would listen how proud they were of the guys for hanging in right until the very end. We heard it at every press conference this winter.
The problem with that whole idea was that many of the injuries weren’t bad luck. Curtis Granderson having bones broken by pitches not once, but twice? Yeah that’s bad luck. Derek Jeter having a series of leg issues after coming back from a fractured ankle? That’s not bad luck at all. Kevin Youkilis‘ back? Travis Hafner‘s shoulder? As predictable as injuries get given their histories. Mark Teixeira‘s initial wrist injury was not expected, but the fact that he eventually needed surgery surprised no one. There was much more than bad luck at play.
This season, the Yankees are going through almost the same thing right now. Michael Pineda has a shoulder injury after missing two years following shoulder surgery. CC Sabathia is on the DL for the third time in four years because his twice surgically repaired knee is acting up. Teixeira’s wrist has been fine, but his legs have been giving him trouble, as they did in 2010 (blown hamstring) and 2012 (calf strain). Carlos Beltran‘s elbow is an issue and, wouldn’t you know it, Frankie Cervelli is hurt again. The only surprise injuries this year are Ivan Nova‘s blown out elbow and Shawn Kelley‘s back, though Kelley landing on the DL is not surprising in and of itself. He has a long history of elbow problems.
The Yankees made their bed with potential injuries this year, and the same is true defensively. By far the most consistent aspect of the team is the defense. It is consistently bad and it hurts them in some way every single game. It’s remarkable, really. They never get away with a mistake. Beltran and Jeter have been poor defenders for years, presumed third baseman Kelly Johnson had only a handful of experience at the position before being relegated to the bench by Yangervis Solarte, who has his own defensive issues. Brian Roberts? The guy barely played the last four years and the rust has been evident, especially when it comes to throwing. The only defensive surprise has been Teixeira’s issues.
When Cashman & Co. sought to fix last year’s roster over the winter, it seems like the focus was simply adding the best players available. That’s good, don’t get me wrong. But there didn’t seem to be much regard for actual needs. The Yankees already had a top notch center field defender and leadoff man in Brett Gardner, yet they added another one in Jacoby Ellsbury. With Gardner and Ellsbury joined by slugger Alfonso Soriano in the outfield, they added another slugging outfielder in Beltran. The lack of power and on base skills still exists. Among the four big offseason pickups, only Brian McCann and Masahiro Tanaka filled actual positional needs.
The roster puzzle pieces don’t fit well together. The Yankees built an amazing outfield defense with Ellsbury and Gardner while more or less punting glovework on the infield. That unit is supposed to support a pitching staff that focuses on ground balls because Yankee Stadium is tiny and they don’t want to give up many homers. Do you see the problem here? It’s backwards. Either the infield needed to be the strongest part of the defense or the pitching staff had to start allowing the ball to be hit in the air. The Yankees have tried to compensate for the infield defense with shifts, but Mark Simon recently noted they have been hurt by the shift more than any other team in baseball. (Part of that is just how often they use them, more shifts means more chances to get burned.)
I don’t mean for this to come off as complaining, but I guess it sounds like that anyway. The point I’m trying to make is that all the injuries and shaky defense are not bad luck problems, they’re roster design problems. There was this sense of “let’s get the best players we can and figure out how it all works later” throughout the offseason. The roster is prone to injury because there are so many older and/or injury prone players, and it’s prone to bad defense because pitching staff is emphasizing the bad defenders. You need good players to succeed and the Yankees acquired several good players this winter. They were just good players who didn’t address the team’s biggest weaknesses.
I did not notice this during Tuesday’s game, but, according to Danny Knobler, the Yankees have stopped shifting their infielders behind Hiroki Kuroda. He simply isn’t comfortable with it. The Rays don’t shift behind David Price for the same reason. Knobler says New York’s other pitchers will groan whenever a base hit goes through the vacated hole created by the shift, but that’s normal. It’s human nature.
The Yankees went into Friday’s game with a .310 BABIP as a team, higher than the .298 AL average. That’s not really surprising, the defense has been a mess, particularly on the infield and in right field. They’re even botching plays on balls they get to. Kuroda has a .311 BABIP, so there’s no difference between how many balls are being converted to outs behind him compared to the rest of the staff. We don’t know how long they haven’t been shifting behind him though. It sounds like they were doing it earlier in the season and recently stopped. Either way, the pitcher has to be comfortable. That’s the most important thing.
I’m not sure there has been a more discussed topic this year than infield shifts. The YES booth talks about them all the time, pointing out who is playing where and wondering why hitters don’t just bunt (so easy!). Same conversation, game after game, night after night. Shifts are the hot topic right now and they aren’t going away anytime soon.
The Yankees are no stranger to using infield shifts. We’ve seen them shift over the last two or three seasons from time to time, but this year they have cranked it up a notch and are among the leaders in shifts. During Sunday night’s game, the ESPN broadcast put up a graphic showing that the Yankees had used 79 shifts in their first dozen games, second only to the Astros (127). The Brewers were a distant third with 48 shifts. Brian Cashman, Joe Girardi, and others told Pete Caldera they were planning to use more shifts this season back in Spring Training and they weren’t joking.
Using the shift requires quite a bit of data. You need to know the hitter’s tendencies, the pitcher’s tendencies (and preferences), your infielders, all sorts of stuff. It’s not as simple as telling the third baseman to mosey on over into shallow right field. At least not if you want to do it correctly. Buster Olney explained all the work and preparation the Yankees put into their new shift-happy ways earlier this week:
In order for this to happen, there needs to be a complete buy-in, from the front office to the last relievers in the bullpen, and as Yankees manager Joe Girardi explained it, the numbers were presented to the field staff during the winter — and the field staff embraced the idea. Then, early in spring training, the Yankees talked about the changes to come in a team meeting, and some of the most important voices in that first conversation were players who had been on teams that had used defensive shifts — Kelly Johnson, who had played with Toronto and Tampa Bay, and Brian Roberts, who played with the Orioles.
The Yankees practiced the shifts they would use in their daily workouts during spring training, and in the second half of the exhibition season, they began employing them in games. Yangervis Solarte has been the moving part in a lot of cases, shifting from third base to the right side of the infield against a lot of left-handed hitters, and the Yankees have shifted a lot against right-handed hitters as well.
The moment that may have demonstrated the Yankees’ complete devotion to defensive shifts happened early in the series against Boston, when Mick Kelleher — who oversees the coordination of the Yankees’ infield defense — employed a redesigned alignment against the speedy [Jackie Bradley Jr.], who doesn’t have a lot of track record in the big leagues. [Red Sox manager John Farrell] said before Sunday’s game that it’s not often you check the spray charts of your own hitters, but the Yankees’ decision to shift against Bradley made him wonder what data they had seen, and he had gone back and checked the direction of where Bradley had hit the ball in the past.
The Yankees used the shift the eighth most times in baseball last season according to Jeff Zimmerman, or, rather, they had the eighth most balls put in play while the shift was in use, if that makes sense. When the infield was aligned normally, opponents had a .307 BABIP against New York. When the Yankees used a shift, opponents had a … .325 BABIP. More hits were falling in whenever the Yankees shifted, which is the exact opposite of what’s supposed to happen. That agreed with the anecdotal evidence, that’s for sure.
Shift data is not yet available for this season, so we don’t know how effective they have been early in 2014. It seems like they are working more often than not — as with every defensive alignment, shifts will simply not work sometimes, with Mike Carp’s two-run single on Saturday standing out (video) — but there is no real way to confirm that right now. For what it’s worth, opposing teams had a .255 BABIP on ground balls against the Yankees prior to yesterday’s games, which is way worse than the AL average (.236) and identical to last season (.255). The shift is about more than ground balls though; Dean Anna was perfectly positioned to field some line drives on Sunday night.
“You’re going to be burned on it. You just want to have more instances of run-saving circumstances than run-yielding circumstances,” said assistant GM Billy Eppler to Ken Davidoff. “If you had a crystal ball, if you could conceive of what happens before it happens — if you could jump in your DeLorean and go back in time — you could turn every ball in play into an out. A perfect opponents’ BABIP is .000. The average is between .302 and .305. You want to beat that. If you beat that, you’re going to be pleased.”
The Yankees have held opponents to a .296 BABIP on all balls in play prior to yesterday’s doubleheader, down from .302 last year and their lowest since 2010 (.281 BABIP). The AL average prior to yesterday’s doubleheader was actually a .294 BABIP, down a bit from the number Eppler mentioned. The Yankees are right there — the difference between a .294 and .296 BABIP is one extra hit every 20 games or so — at the league average. Average isn’t bad! Especially not with a range-challenged infield. For what it’s worth, Davidoff cites data showing the Yankees are tied for the MLB lead with two runs saved via shifts in 2014.
I was worried about the infield defense before the season, especially considering the team’s generally ground ball heavy pitching staff. The infield defense has been a problem at times, no doubt about it — Ivan Nova‘s start against the Orioles stands out in particular — but I expected it to be a lot worse, honestly. Shifts appear to have helped compensate for the lack of range, and, really, using them is more of a necessity than anything for this team. This isn’t a fad. Shifts are here to stay like specialized relievers and pitch counts. The Yankees have aggressively adjusted their defensive approach and are a better team for it.
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 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.
UZR: -20.6 (-40.7/150!)
* 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.
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.