2014 Season Preview: Defensive Liabilities

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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.

The Infield
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.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Right Field
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.

Outfield Arms
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.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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.

Squeezing four outfielders into three spots could lead to creative rotations

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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.

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

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.

Yankees’ shaky infield defense a bad match for ground ball pitching staff

The infield defense will not be pretty in 2014. (via SBNation)

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%
Matt Thornton 50.7% 51.4%
Ivan Nova 53.5% 50.3%
Hiroki Kuroda 46.6% 47.5%
David Robertson 50.9% 47.5%
CC Sabathia 44.7% 46.4%
David Phelps 42.5% 42.7%
Shawn Kelley 33.1% 31.8%
MLB Average 44.5% 44.7%

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.

Girardi hedges against Granderson remaining in center field

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.

Catcher defense, starring Jose Molina and Tony Pena

He might be boneheaded sometimes, but maybe Cervelli isn't the worst defender. (Elsa/Getty Images)
He might be boneheaded sometimes, but maybe Cervelli isn’t the worst defender. (Elsa/Getty Images)

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.