Monday Links: All-Star Game, Shifts, Teixeira

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

Got some stray links to pass along before the Yankees wrap up their four-game series with the Royals in Kansas City later tonight.

Jeter Remains Atop AL All-Star Voting At Shortstop

MLB released the updated voting results for the All-Star Game starting lineup yesterday, and Derek Jeter remains the leading vote-getter at shortstop. He’s about 160,000 votes ahead of Alexei Ramirez and is the sixth highest vote-getter in the league overall. There’s no way Jeter belongs in the Midsummer Classic based on his performance, but he’s a megastar and the face of baseball. People want to see him in his final year and that’s what the All-Star Game should be all about.

No other Yankees are leading their respective positions in the voting, though Brian McCann does rank second behind Matt Wieters at catcher. Wieters is currently on the disabled list with an elbow injury and is not close to returning. McCann may end up starting the game in his place. Mark Teixeira ranks fifth at first base while Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, and Brett Gardner rank fifth, eighth, and 13th in the outfield, respectively. The full voting results are right here. Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano, Josh Donaldson, Nelson Cruz, Jose Bautista, Mike Trout, and Melky Cabrera are in position to start the game alongside Jeter and potentially McCann.

Bad Without Shifts, Sightly Less Bad With Shifts

The Yankees have been using infield shifts to the extreme this season, at least in part due to their range-challenged infield. It’s not just Jeter either. Yangervis Solarte and Brian Roberts aren’t the rangiest of players either. And yet, every game we see balls get by the shift, though that is unavoidable. Balls are always going to get through any defensive formation.

According to Ken Davidoff, the Yankees rate as the worst defense in baseball at -16 runs saved when not using the shift. When they do use the shift, they’re at -4 runs saved, which also rates as the worst in baseball. Compared to the rest of the league, the Yankees are terrible defensively. Compared to themselves, the Yankees with the shift are less terrible than the Yankees without the shift.

“If they weren’t shifting as much as they have been, things would look even worse. So, it’s not that the shift itself has been ineffective, but the Yankees’ infield defense overall that has been ineffective, with or without the shift,” said Joe Rosales, a researcher at Baseball Info Solutions, to Davidoff. Watching a ball get through the shift is frustrating, but without them, there would be far more balls sneaking through the infield.

The Story Behind Teixeira’s Fake Talk Show

I mentioned this in the open thread last night, but, in case you missed it, Mark Teixeira has a fake talk show on YES called Foul Territory. It’s actually pretty funny and the clips came out of nowhere. I’m not sure anyone thought Teixeira is capable of doing something funny. I know I didn’t. He’s always come off as rather business-like and uninteresting, to be honest.

Dan Barbarisi dug into the story behind Foul Territory, which was Teixeira’s idea and a way to help new Yankees feel welcome. It’s not a coincidence the only player interviews are McCann, Ellsbury, and Masahiro Tanaka (one with Roberts is forthcoming). The shows have a general framework but otherwise do not have a script and are ad-libbed. It’s pretty amazing, really. There are two more clips coming (Roberts and Jeter) and Teixeira is open to recording more if the demand is there.

“I wanted a way for the new guys to get broken in, in kind of a funny way—not necessarily hazing, because I’m hazing myself more than anything,” said Teixeira to Barbarisi. “If the fans want (more episodes), we’ll have to give it to them.”

The Wrong End Of The Hard-Hot Spectrum

And finally, ESPN stats guru Mark Simon posted some data on hard-hit balls this morning. Long story short, the Yankees don’t rank very well. They rank 23rd in the league with a .145 HHAV (hard hit average, or hard-hit balls per at-bat) offensively and 26th in the league with a .165 HHAV on the pitching side. The hitters aren’t hitting the ball hard and the pitching staff is allowing a lot of hard-hit balls. That … is a pretty bad combination. Throw in a generally bad team defense and it’s a minor miracle this club is 31-31 after 62 games. It could be much, much worse.

Yanks’ injuries and defensive problems are more than just bad luck

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

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.

(Jared Wickerham/Getty)
(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

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.

Yankees no longer shifting behind Hiroki Kuroda

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.

The new, shifty Yankees

Even with a man on base, the Yankees still shifted David Ortiz on Sunday.
Even with one out and a man on base, the Yankees still shifted against David Ortiz on Sunday.

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.

2014 Season Preview: Defensive Wizards

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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 and Brendan Ryan

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.

DRS: -28
UZR: -20.6 (-40.7/150!)
TZ: -17
FRAA: -11.4*

* 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.

Mark Teixeira

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.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Ichiro

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.