Archive for Defense
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.
I suppose the silver lining of last season’s terrible offense was a strong team defense. The Yankees employed guys like Ichiro Suzuki, Chris Stewart, Lyle Overbay, Luis Cruz, Alberto Gonzalez, Reid Brignac, and Brendan Ryan as regulars at various points of the year, guys who can’t hit but can play some solid defense. The club sported a collective +12.5 UZR and +21 DRS in 2013, rates that are only slightly above-average (13th and 10th in MLB, respectively) on a team-wide scale.
The roster has turned over substantially this past offseason, especially on the position player side. That should greatly improve the lineup, but it will also impact the team defense. Some of the players the Yankees acquired over the winter are very good defenders but others simply are not. Not every player the team added is a two-way threat. Far from it. Let’s look at where the Yankees are vulnerable in the field thanks to subpar defenders.
Last month I detailed how the team’s ground ball heavy pitching staff is not a good mix for their generally shaky infield defense, particularly at the non-first base spots. Mark Teixeira is a stud in the field and I have no reason to think a wrist injury will severely compromise his glovework. Maybe he’ll lose a step or two or some hand-eye coordination with age, but I don’t think the injury will have a huge factor on his defense.
Derek Jeter has moved around well in the field and on the bases this spring following all the leg injuries, but he’s still a negative on defense. We all know that. Brian Roberts has looked surprisingly agile during Grapefruit League play, so maybe he’ll be a positive in the field, at least while he’s healthy. Kelly Johnson comes into the season with only 118 career innings at third base and only 18 innings at first base, where he’s expected to be the starter and backup, respectively. He’s muffed a few hard-hit balls in camp so far, the kind that earned the position the nickname the “hot corner.”
The backup plans aren’t much better. Eduardo Nunez is inconsistent at best and an unmitigated disaster at worst defensively, and Scott Sizemore is coming off back-to-back left ACL surgeries. He hasn’t played enough in camp for us to get an idea of how he’s moving in the field. The various scouting reports indicate Dean Anna is an adequate to solid defender. Teixeira should be fine at first but all of the other infield spots come with defensive questions. I think the Yankees would be pretty happy if the infield graded out as a league average unit come the end of the season.
As of right now, it seems like the plan is to have Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Beltran split right field and DH duties most of the time in 2014. There have been some rumblings Brett Gardner could wind up in right with Soriano in left, but that seems unlikely to happen. The Soriano/Beltran timeshare in right field appears to be the way things are heading.
Aside from one defensive inning in right field during Game Five of the 2003 World Series, Soriano has never played the position. Moving over there at 38 years old may not be an easy transition, and that doesn’t even consider his weak throwing arm. Runners will be going first-to-third on him all day. Beltran was once a top flight defender but he has slowed down considerably with age and injury, to the point where he’s graded out as a below-average defender over the last few years by the various defensive stats. Regardless of whether Soriano or Beltran starts, the Yankees will have a subpar gloveman in right.
It’s not all bad though. First and foremost, right field in Yankee Stadium is pretty small, so there’s isn’t much ground to cover in the first place. Two, with Gardner in left and Jacoby Ellsbury in center, Ellsbury figures to shade towards right to help cover the gaps. Three, Ichiro will almost certainly come off the bench as a defensive replacement for right field whenever the game is close. Even if Ichiro is traded or released or whatever, Zoilo Almonte can do the same job. Whenever they’re in right though, both Soriano and Beltran will be liabilities.
I mentioned this with Soriano in right, but it’s worth pointing out the Yankees have some weak outfield arms in general. Beltran’s is by far the best and might be the team’s best right field arm since Raul Mondesi way back in the day. Ellsbury’s arm is laughably weak and downright Damon-esque while Gardner’s is solid at best. Not particularly strong but accurate. Soriano’s arm is both weak and not accurate while Ichiro’s strong arm plays down because he takes forever to get rid of the ball. Gardner and Ellsbury more than make up for their arms with their range, but don’t expect to see many plays at the plate this summer. Beltran’s the only regular with a quality arm.
Brian McCann‘s Arm
McCann does a lot of things well, specifically hit and frame pitches. He is also said to be very good at blocking balls in the dirt and working with pitchers. The one thing McCann does not do well is throw. Last season he threw out only 24 of 100 attempted base-stealers, below the 27% league average. The year before it was 22%, and in case you’re thinking this might be related to his October 2012 labrum surgery, McCann threw out only 24% of base-stealers from 2006-11. He’s simply not good at shutting down the running game.
In order to compensate for McCann’s arm, the pitcher will have to make sure to pay attention to runners on first base. CC Sabathia should have it the easiest as a left-hander, but runners have been successful in 70% of their stolen base attempts the last three years. Hiroki Kuroda has held runners to a 62% success rate since coming to New York and Ivan Nova has held them to a 63% success rate in his relatively short big league career. Masahiro Tanaka … who in the world knows. Frankie Cervelli has an excellent arm (after some mechanical tinkering last spring) but McCann is going to be the starter because he does so many things well. One of those things is not throwing and it’s something the Yankees will have to deal with this summer. It’s the essence of taking the bad with the good.
* * *
The Yankees have premium defenders at first base and in both left and center fields. The rest of the team will probably be net negative in the field, which is not ideal in an offensive ballpark in a tough division with a sketchy middle relief crew. This club is going to have to out-hit and out-pitch their defensive shortcomings in 2014.
For all the talk about their shaky infield, the Yankees figure to boast one of the strongest outfield units in baseball this season. They have two legitimate starting caliber center fielders in Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, as well as two veteran, middle of the order corner outfield bats in Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Beltran. Fitting all four guys into one lineup will take some creativity on Joe Girardi‘s part but nothing crazy.
Girardi confirmed earlier this week that Ellsbury will be his everyday center fielder because duh. They didn’t give the guy $153M not to play center field. Since the Ellsbury and Beltran signings, I think the general assumption has been that Gardner will move back to left field everyday while Soriano and Beltran split time between right and DH. Obviously you want Gardner in the field for his defense, and considering their ages, giving Soriano and Beltran regular turns at DH makes sense.
It’s a wonderful plan in theory, but it is a little more complicated than that. Soriano has never played right field in his entire professional career and neither he nor Beltran have spent much time at DH. In fact, they’ve combined to start only 36 games at DH since 2005. Aside from Soriano’s return to New York in the second half last year, both guys spent the entirety of that 2005-13 period in the National League, so when they were in the lineup, they played the field.
“I don’t know,’’ said Soriano to George King earlier this week when asked about his spot in the lineup. “They said something about DH and left field. I want to be in the lineup, it doesn’t matter where … If I am the DH I will have to make adjustments. When the team is playing defense I will have to find a way to keep my body warm and ready.’’
Being the DH is tough, especially for a veteran player used to playing the field everyday. Baseball players are creatures of habit, and when the routine they’ve spent years crafting has to change, it can be a tough adjustment to make. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but it is something to consider. For all we know, both guys could make that adjustment immediately and make this a non-issue.
The right field thing is a little different, particularly for Soriano. Like I said, he’s never played right field before, so if the Yankees do plan to use him and Beltran in what amounts to a right field/DH platoon, he’ll have to learn the position in Spring Training after spending most of his career in left. Again, it’s not impossible, but it is an adjustment that will have to be made by a veteran player with a routine already in place.
It’s possible that Soriano will not have to make that adjustment, however. The Yankees could instead keep him in left field, where he’s comfortable, and put Gardner in right field. Gardner has never played right field in his career either, but his athleticism and relative youth should make the transition easier for him than it would be for Soriano. His speed would also allow him to simply outrun his mistakes. Gardner has a better arm than Soriano and that should be considered as well — runners are going to go first-to-third on singles all day, everyday against Soriano.
“I played [left field] for a couple of years a few years ago. I feel comfortable over there,” said Brett Gardner to Chad Jennings the other day when asked about moving out of center. “I told Joe I can play right too if he needs me to. I’ll do whatever I’m needed to do to help the team win. Wherever I’m playing out there, wherever I’m hitting in the lineup, whatever he needs me to do, I’ll be ready.”
Gardner has already broached the idea of playing right field, so I assume he is on board with the idea. Aside from learning the position, the issue here is that right field in Yankee Stadium is tiny and it would be a waste to stick such a good defender there. There’s more real estate to cover in left and that’s where you want the rangier outfielder. That’s not a deal-breaker but it is something to keep in mind.
If the Yankees want to keep Soriano comfortable and play him in left, the best solution might be a rotation based on whether the team is home or away. At home, Gardner could play left with Beltran in right. On the road, Soriano could play left while Gardner is in right. That way Gardner’s range is used in Yankee Stadium’s spacious left field and Soriano gets to play his usual position.
That arrangement does sound great in theory, but it is a little more complicated than it seems. How will Gardner handle shifting back and forth between positions? Most guys like to have one set position and know where they’re playing everyday. Long homestands and road trips will also throw a wrench into things, especially if the team wants make sure Soriano and Beltran get regular turns at DH to stay fresh.
The Yankees are all but guaranteed to have an excellent outfield defense because of Gardner and Ellsbury, but it will be interesting to see how they handle the right field/DH rotation with Soriano and Beltran. Someone is going to wind up playing out of position most days, it’s just a question of who.
Thanks to the busy offseason, Brett Gardner will be the Yankees’ only player in both the 2013 and 2014 Opening Day lineups, and he’ll be at a different position. All of that roster turnover is a good thing given how poor the team’s offense was last summer. The Yankees will score some more runs this year, but that isn’t the only part of the team that will change with the new additions. The defense will as well, especially on the infield.
Last year’s Yankees boasted above-average defenders in Gardner, Robinson Cano, Lyle Overbay, and Ichiro Suzuki. Chris Stewart was solid but I’m referring to the four infielders and three outfielders, the guys who handle the majority of balls in play. Jayson Nix was reliable but unspectacular while Vernon Wells and Eduardo Nunez were negatives. The defensive stats say the 2013 Yankees were a better than average defensive team (+21 DRS and +12.5 UZR) but Gardner is the only returning starter now that Ichiro has been pushed into a bench role.
Cano and Overbay have been replaced by Brian Roberts and Mark Teixeira, Nix and Nunez by Derek Jeter and Kelly Johnson, and Wells by Jacoby Ellsbury. The only clear upgrade there is Ellsbury, who is an elite defender. Teixeira has always been stellar in the field and I don’t think his wrist injury will impact his glovework much, if at all. Johnson has been generally above-average at second throughout his career but he is moving to third, where he has only 118 innings of experience. Roberts has been more or less an average defender at second but has barely played the last few years, so who knows what he can do defensively. Jeter has clearly been below-average in the field for a while now, even before the leg injuries.
Regardless of whether Alfonso Soriano or Carlos Beltran is in right, it’s clear the strong part of the Yankees’ team defense is their outfield. Gardner, Ellsbury and a potted plant would rate as one of the best defensive outfields in the game. The infield is a different story. Unless Brendan Ryan gets more playing time than expected, Teixeira will be their only obviously above-average defender on the infield. If Johnson shows his inexperience at third while Jeter and Roberts show their age at short and second, the infield could actually be pretty terrible defensively in 2014.
Therein lies the problem. Thanks to homer friendly Yankee Stadium, the Yankees have geared their pitching staff towards ground ball pitchers. That makes sense. Ground balls don’t go over the short porch for homers. Here are the team’s seven 40-man roster pitchers with at least two years of MLB experience:
|2013 GB%||2011-13 GB%|
Kelley is the only one of the seven who is an extreme fly ball pitcher. The other six guys have sat right around league average or been comfortably above. Adam Warren (45.3%) and Preston Clairborne (44.8%) were average ground ballers last season while Michael Pineda (36.6%) was a big time fly ball pitcher with the Mariners in 2011. That was two years and one major shoulder surgery ago, so who knows what he’ll do this year. Masahiro Tanaka could be a ground ball pitcher because of his diving splitter or he could be a fly ball guy like Dan Haren, his most popular comp. We won’t know until he pitches in an actual MLB game.
There is a pretty big disconnect between the strengths of the pitching staff and the team’s defense. The Yankees’ best defenders are in the outfield but three (perhaps all five depending on Tanaka and the outcome of the fifth starter competition) of their starters and two of their late-game relievers tends to keep the ball on the ground. Kelley and probably Pineda will love the Gardner-Ellsbury outfield but the other key members of the staff are going to hate the infield defense behind them, unless they learn how to make sure everything is hit towards Teixeira. I’d bet against it.
Fly balls have gotten a pretty bad rap in recent years, especially since the new Yankee Stadium opened. Yes, fly balls do occasionally go over the fence for homers, but they’re also relatively high-percentage outs when they stay in play, especially with Gardner and Ellsbury on the roster. Ground balls don’t go for homers but they do find holes for base hits. Given the crop of infielders and the team’s uncanny ability to use defensive shifts at the wrong time (confirmation bias, but you know what I’m talking about), there figure to be a lot of grounders sneaking through for hits and leading to extended rallies in 2014. The starters will wind up throwing more pitches and that means the questionable middle relief crew will see more innings in general.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much the Yankees can do to improve their infield defense at the moment. They could play Johnson at second and Ryan at short, but we all know Jeter will play the field as long as he’s physically in one piece. Other infield candidates who may sneak onto the roster are unlikely to offer much help — Nunez can’t field, Scott Sizemore is coming off two knee injuries, and Dean Anna isn’t considered a strong defender — so the team is stuck with what they have. Asking the pitchers to change their styles to get more fly balls is not realistic, but they could emphasize strikeouts. They’ll have to in big situations this summer because converting ground balls into outs will be no sure thing this summer.
Via Brian Heyman: Joe Girardi hedged a bit when talking about Curtis Granderson‘s position yesterday. “We’ll decide that as time goes on,” said the skipper. “We’ve talked about Grandy; we just want to get him healthy … We might toy around with some other things (with Granderson), left, right, other things. He’s getting reps everywhere right now.”
Granderson, 32, has been playing all three outfield spots during his rehab in Extended Spring Training. Brian Cashman has said they will keep him in center when he returns from his broken forearm, though this stuff is never official until he actually gets back out on the field. The team’s best all-around outfield probably has Granderson in left, Brett Gardner in center and Vernon Wells in right, but I’m guessing we’ll see some kind of rotation when (if) everyone’s healthy. Hopefully they make a final decision soon though, I’m sure everyone involved would like to have some clarity.
You’re already familiar with the standard defensive stats. Load up any player’s FanGraphs page and you’ll see plenty of them laid out for you: UZR and DRS primarily, along with some other experimental stats and of course the traditional ones. Where these stats have always fallen short comes at perhaps the most important defensive position. Other than stolen base rate, we don’t have many solid ways of measuring catcher productivity.
Part of the problem in evaluating catchers involves the number of variables involved. Does he call a good game? (Does he call the game at all?) Can he frame a pitch to steal his pitcher strikes that would have, with a less skilled framer, be called balls? How many potential wild pitches can he keep in front of him? Does he have the footwork necessary to make quality throws to second — and does he have a strong and accurate arm in general? And then we have the general, overarching question: how does he handle the pitching staff? That can be reworded as, do the pitchers like throwing to him?
While stolen base numbers are readily available, they don’t reflect solely on the catcher. If you read Jonah Keri’s article on stolen bases, you see that runners go on pitcher movement. If the pitcher has any deficiencies when delivering the ball with men on base, the catcher will likely have poor stolen base numbers. If a staff has more than one or two pitchers who are poor at holding on runners, a catcher could have numbers that teach us nothing about his true throwing abilities. That leaves us with even less an understanding of a catcher’s true defensive abilities.
In the past few years a few researchers have attempted to quantify some aspects of catcher defense. In 2011 Max Marchi got the ball rolling on catcher framing. (Though my main man Dan Turkenkopf attempting framing analysis three years earlier.) A few months later Bojan Koprivica studied catcher blocking skills. In between those two Mike Fast released his extensive report on catcher framing. Somewhere along the way, Baseball Info Solutions started tracking how many runs catchers can save by throwing out runners and preventing them from stealing in the first place (Stolen Base Runs Saved, or rSB, which can be found on FanGraphs). A little over a year ago, Max Marchi tried to put it all together. So we are making progress. It’s just difficult to tell what’s accurate at this point.
Earlier this week, James Gentile of Beyond the Boxscore explored a simpler catcher framing metric. While the results are interesting, there was one part of the article that stuck out to me. Via a Ben Lindbergh article Gentile points to a recent Baseball Tonight podcast, in which Jose Molina discusses his framing. Remember, Molina comes out on top of almost every framing study, which is presumably a big reason why the Rays signed him to a two-year contract after the 2011 season, despite his flaws on offense. For his part, Molina credits none other than Tony Pena and Joe Girardi with his phenomenal receiving skills.
It was 2008. Mike Mussina and Tony Pena, with Joe Girardi, the coaches there. But mostly Tony told me that if I turned a little bit side to side, either way, either corner, I’m going to get more strikes. With Mussina, he wasn’t throwing that hard at the time. So I was always open to learning new things. We worked on it, I got a little bit better at it. And it started working. I guess it worked, right? It was 20 wins for him that year, so it just worked, and from that point on, I think I took advantage of that.
This should come as little surprise. Pena has always been known as a knowledgeable guy who works extensively with the Yankees’ catchers. Molina had always carried a reputation as a quality defender (but that could have been the Nichols Law of Catcher Defense). But given the numbers Gentile presents, it does appear that he picked up a little something from Pena and Girardi. Of the top 10 catching seasons since 2002, Molina holds four spots, and all but one came after the Yankees acquired him. The lone standout is 2007; Molina became a Yankee that July.
One of the reasons people lamented the loss of Russ Martin centers on his framing abilities. He ranked right behind Molina in Mike Fast’s study, and watching him everyday in 2011 and 2012 helped confirm that evaluation. The man was swift behind the plate. At the same time Francisco Cervelli, Martin’s replacement, is seen as a poor receiver who stabs at the ball rather than cradling it — not to mention his poor stolen base results. And forget Chris Stewart. The Yankees acquired him last year with an eye towards his defensive reputation. Yet in a season-plus I haven’t noticed Stewart display any standout skills behind the plate.
A look at Gentile’s numbers yields a different result. In his top 10 catchers since 2002, the list that Jose Molina owns, you’ll see both Cervelli and Stewart. Cervelli’s 2011 season ranks No. 2, while Chris Stewart’s 2012 ranks No. 8. So perhaps there was a reason the Yankees let Martin walk after last season without as much as a courtesy offer. Perhaps they believed that they already had two capable catchers on staff.
(And maybe, though we’ll hardly know it, the pitchers prefer throwing to Cervelli over Martin. It sure seems that way for CC Sabathia, who used Cervelli in 2010 and 2011 and Stewart in 2012.)
This isn’t to say that these stats are definitive. Again, the position of catcher involves more complexity than any other. But it is nice to see that at least one method of evaluation appreciates the catchers the Yankees currently carry. Though having Pena and Girardi work with them could be the most valuable aspect of all.
Via Andrew Marchand: Brian Cashman reiterated the team will indeed bring Curtis Granderson back as the center fielder once his fractured right forearm heals up. “I don’t think so,” said the GM when asked if there was a chance of keeping Brett Gardner in center.
I don’t the switch is as cut-and-dry as it seems, especially since there’s at least a small chance it could impact Granderson’s offense. This isn’t as simple as sticking Ichiro Suzuki in left last year because they weren’t putting anything at stake offensively. I definitely think they should reconsider though, because it will be a defensive upgrade (how much exactly? not sure) and the Yankees will need to squeeze every ounce of production from their roster if they plan to contend for a playoff spot.
The old adage says a run saved on defense is as good as a run created on offense, and a number of teams have put that theory to the test in recent years. The 2010 Mariners are the perfect example of a club that went all-in on pitching and defense, and they absolutely stunk because there is a slight problem with that theory: creating a run on offense happens far more often than saving a run on defense. Just consider the opportunities, a hitter is guaranteed at least three plate appearances in every game while not being guaranteed anything as far as balls hit to their defensive position.
The absolute best defenders in baseball save about 20-25 runs over an average defender at the position in a given year according to the various metrics. That’s Brett Gardner territory, he’s a legitimate +20 defender in left field. Two players were +20 defenders by UZR last year while DRS says there were eight. On the other hand, 48 players created at least 20 runs offensively (by wRAA) with a handful of others within a few swings. So yes, a run saved is as good as a run created on offense, but creating runs on offense happens much more frequently.
Anyway, I bring this up because the Yankees have lost quite a bit of offense for the early part of the season. Mark Teixeira (wrist) and Curtis Granderson (forearm) will be out until May, and let’s not forget about Alex Rodriguez either. He outhit Kevin Youkilis last year — 114 wRC+ in 529 plate appearances vs. 102 wRC+ in 509 plate appearances — despite playing the final few weeks of the season with one good hip. A-Rod will be out until the All-Star break and is bigger loss than many people want to admit. No Nick Swisher or Eric Chavez will also sap the lineup.
Because they lost so much offensive firepower and don’t have any standout hitters to replace them, the Yankees should focus on doing what they can to save runs early in the season. None of the left field candidates are expected to hit much, but many of them also figure to stink on defense as well. Think Juan Rivera, Matt Diaz, Ronnie Mustelier … those guys. Bad offense and bad defense is a bad combination. Melky Mesa stands out as the best outfield defender in the competition, though like the other guys he will probably be below-average on offense. He is a safe bet to save a few runs with his glove though, and taking that production might be better than trying to squeeze a tiny bit of offense from someone else.
On the infield, there’s nothing the Yankees will be able to do to replace Teixeira’s glove. He has few peers on defense, but first base is also one of the least important defensive positions. They can survive with a below-average gloveman there for a few weeks. The left side of the infield is another story entirely, and the Yankees are guaranteed to have a poor defender at short. Derek Jeter was never good to start with, but now his mobility could be sapped even further by the ankle injury. Eduardo Nunez can’t make routine throws and it seems less and less likely that he’ll actually figure out it. With a ground ball-heavy rotation (outside of Phil Hughes, obviously), that could be a problem.
Ken Rosenthal says the Diamondbacks are looking to trade veteran infielder John McDonald, who can’t hit a lick (58 wRC+ in nearly 2,500 PA) but grades out excellently on defense, particularly at short. He’s cheap ($1.5M this year) and would make a lot of sense for New York’s bench, especially early in the season when Jeter will spend plenty of time at DH. If Nunez or Jayson Nix were safe bets to hit at an above-average rate, it would be a different story. None of these guys is likely to hit much, but at least McDonald would give the team above-average defense for their ground ball staff.
The Yankees were very willing to sacrifice offense for the sake of defense at the catcher position this winter — nevermind that Russell Martin was a strong defender himself, but don’t get me started again — and they should be willing to do it while Granderson and Teixeira on the shelf. It’s not like they’re sorting through a bunch a .350 OBP/.175 ISO hitters here, which should make the decision even easier. I’ve said many times before that I’m an offense over defense guy, but that’s only if the offense is a reasonable guarantee*. Since the Yankees don’t have any solid hitters to stick in the lineup, emphasizing defense might be the best approach for April.
* There are no guarantees, but you know what I mean.
The Yankees have a history of fake Spring Training competitions — the 2010 fifth starter’s competition stands out the most — though this spring’s catching competition both is and isn’t legit. Austin Romine has almost no chance of making the team because both Chris Stewart and Frankie Cervelli are out of options, so in that sense the competition is fraudulent. Neither Stewart nor Cervelli has a first grasp on the starting job though, and those two are in a real competition for playing time.
We don’t learn much after just ten Grapefruit League games, but one thing is very obvious so far this year: Cervelli’s throwing has been demonstrably better than it was from 2010-2011. He threw out 36.4% of attempted base-stealers as a minor leaguer from 2005-2008, then he threw out 43.5% of attempted base-stealers during his big league time in 2009. Something changed though, and that number dropped to just 14.1% in the show from 2010-2011. That defensive decline is a big reason why the Yankees traded for Stewart at the end of camp last year and surprisingly demoted Cervelli to Triple-A.
“It made my mind stronger,” said Cervelli to Mark Feinsand about the demotion. “I kept learning that nothing comes easy … Right now, I look at the past and I think it was the best. Maybe last year, the first two months in Triple-A was bad. The frustration, you don’t understand it in the moment, but when you have a little time and you think a little fresh, you realize things happen for a reason – and always a positive reason.”
Cervelli credited his parents — who spent a lot of time with him last summer — for helping him get over the disappointment of being demoted and focusing on the things the Yankees wanted to improve, including his throwing*. Frankie has thrown out five of six (!) attempted base-stealers during his five games behind the plate so far this spring. Obviously that is an unsustainable pace, but his throws have been strong and right on the bag at second as opposed to short-hopping the infielder or winding up in center field as they had in recent years. The improvement is noticeable.
“Rushing,” said Cervelli to Chad Jennings when asked what he was doing wrong before. “I tried to throw the ball too hard and I tried to get the ball before it was in my glove. Now I work relaxed behind the plate. Same energy, but I just try to be more relaxed and let my body go … The past few years in the big leagues, I had bad habits. Maybe frustration, or if you don’t play every day, you want to do things perfect. I was a little young, too. You’re a little desperate sometimes. When you get more mature and have more experience, play every day like last year, you start to get that feeling.”
Cervelli threw out 30.0% of attempted base-stealers with Triple-A last year — on par with his 2005-2008 performance — then went to winter ball and threw out nine of 14 attempted base-stealers (64.3%) in his 21 games. No one will ever confuse him with Yadier Molina, but Cervelli had a track record of throwing runners out at a better than average rate before falling to some bad habits (to use his words) in recent years. His performance these last ten months or so suggest he’s back to where he needs to be.
“I just think he worked hard at it,” said Girardi to Feinsand about Cervelli’s throwing. “He had a chance last year to catch every day. He also went to winter ball, and I think he worked really hard at it. As I said, I think he got a little out of whack from maybe rushing or trying to do too much, and he was able to go down there and really get it back together like he had when he first came up for us throwing the baseball. It’s shown up.”
Cervelli will turn 27 later this week, and among the team’s catching options, he has (by far) the best chance to contribute offensively this summer. That doesn’t mean he’ll be above-average or anything, just less below-average than Stewart or Romine. If his throwing and defensive improvements are real and not just a small sample/early-Spring Training fluke, his value to the team could be much greater than anticipated. We need to see more before we can say he’s over those bad habits for certain, but the early returns are very encouraging.
* Brian Cashman spoke more about the things the Yankees wanted Cervelli to improve during an on-air interview this weekend, which you can watch here. Apparently Frankie will no longer go into a Tony Pena-esque crouch as he had in the past. I thought that was interesting.