2014 Season Review: The Outfield Defense

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

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:


Source: FanGraphs

Source: FanGraphs

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
Left Field 566 .4629 .4528 16th
Center Field 656 .3247 .3671 2nd
Right Field 536 .4683 .4284 28th
All Fields 1,758 .4310 .4315 16th

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
Gardner 160 64.4% 1.9%
All NYY LF 204 64.7% 1.5% 63.5% 2.2%
Ellsbury 165 44.8% 0.6%
All NYY CF 203 45.8% 0.5% 43.5% 1.9%
Ichiro 98 45.9% 2.0%
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.

Sherman: Beltran spurned larger offer from Royals to sign with Yanks

Via Joel Sherman: The Royals offered Carlos Beltran a larger contract than the three-year, $45M deal he took from the Yankees last offseason. The exact details of Kansas City’s offer are unknown, but Sherman says it did include an option for a fourth year. The Diamondbacks reportedly offered Beltran a three-year contract worth $48M last winter, so he turned down at least two larger offers to come to New York.

Beltran, 37, spent parts of seven seasons with the Royals and was named the 1999 AL Rookie of the Year while with the club. Kansas City is expected to decline Billy Butler’s option after the season and they’ll also need to replace Norichika Aoki in right, so hey, maybe they’ll be interested in trading for Beltran this winter, especially if they lose the World Series and feel they need another veteran bat. I doubt it, but stranger things have happened.

Poll: Hiroki Kuroda and the Qualifying Offer

(Leon Halip/Getty)
(Leon Halip/Getty)

One way or another, the World Series will be over within the next 48 hours. The offseason calendar kicks in the day after the new champion is crowned, and the first item of business is the qualifying offer. Teams have until the fifth day after the end of the World Series to extend the offer to their impending free agents, meaning they’ll be handed out no later than next Monday.

The Yankees have one slam dunk qualifying offer candidate in David Robertson and a bunch of other guys who are not eligible for the offer, like Brandon McCarthy, Stephen Drew, and Chase Headley. They also have one borderline candidate in veteran right-hander Hiroki Kuroda, who has yet to decide whether he will play next season. He’s contemplated retirement in each of the last two seasons before returning to New York.

The club made Kuroda the qualifying offer the last two offseasons because it was a no-brainer. Sure, he was getting up there in age, but Kuroda had pitched like a borderline ace in the previous year each time and it was only a one-year contract. A pricey one-year contract, but a one-year contract nonetheless. It was perfect. Kuroda only wanted one-year deals because he was unsure about his future and the Yankees got a quality pitcher while avoiding long-term risk.

All of that applies this winter except for the borderline ace part. Kuroda wasn’t bad this past season by any stretch of the imagination, but he wasn’t as good as he was from 2012-13 either. His 3.71 ERA was nearly half-a-run worse than the 3.31 ERA he posted last year and the 3.32 ERA the year before that. Otherwise Kuroda’s performance was pretty damn close to what he did the previous two seasons. Check it out:

FIP K% BB% HR/FB% GB% Whiff% FB velo
2012 3.86 18.7% 5.7% 13.0% 52.3% 9.6% 91.3
2013 3.56 18.2% 5.2% 10.3% 46.6% 9.9% 90.6
2014 3.60 17.8% 4.3% 10.0% 46.9% 9.9% 90.7

If you hadn’t watched a single Yankees game this summer and just looked at the numbers, you’d think he was the same old Kuroda. Everything is right in line with the last two years aside from his ERA. His line drive rate was lower than last year (21.0% vs. 22.0%) and left-handers didn’t hit him any harder (.312 wOBA vs. .322 wOBA) either. Kuroda’s numbers at Yankee Stadium this year (3.89 ERA and 3.83 FIP) were substantially worse than they were from 2012-13, however (2.57 ERA and 3.45 FIP).

The qualifying offer has been set at $15.3M this year, a touch lower than the $16M Kuroda earned in 2014. It’s a very reasonable salary for a mid-rotation workhorse on a one-year contract. Any hesitation to make Kuroda the qualifying offer is not based on the money (even though the Yankees don’t appear to have a ton to spend this winter). The only question is whether giving a soon-to-be 40-year-old starting pitcher with a history of fading in the second half — to be fair, Kuroda didn’t fade in 2014, he actually got better in the second half — is the best use of that money.

The Yankees need pitching this winter. That’s not really up for debate. Returning starters CC Sabathia (knee), Michael Pineda (shoulder), Masahiro Tanaka (elbow), and Ivan Nova (elbow) all have injury concerns, and others like Shane Greene and David Phelps are nice young stopgaps at this point, not rotation anchors. Adding a veteran starter or two is a necessity. If he wants to continue pitching — far from a given — is Kuroda the right veteran starter? If not given his age, does that make the qualifying offer too risky? The Yankees could end up with a pitcher they don’t feel too comfortable with in 2015.

It’s worth noting Kuroda declined the qualifying offer these last two winters and instead negotiated new contracts at a higher base salary. I’m not sure if he’ll be able to get more than $15.3M on a one-year contract this offseason but I wouldn’t rule it out at all. Kuroda’s family still lives in Los Angeles and both the Angels and Dodgers need rotation help. I’m sure many other clubs would have interest if he decided to continue pitching even with draft pick compensation attached. If Kuroda wants to continue pitching, he’ll find a job. Is that enough to justify the qualifying offer?

Qualifying offer for Kuroda?

Monday Night Open Thread

Good news, sorta. MLB, the Yankees, and the Mets are stepping up to replace the items stolen from the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center earlier this month. Among the items stolen were two of Yogi’s three AL MVP awards as well as all ten of his World Series rings. Geez. There is a $15,000 reward for any information leading to an arrest, though authorities and museum representatives fear the items won’t be recovered. That’s a damn shame.

Here is tonight’s open thread. It’s a travel day for the World Series, so there’s no baseball tonight. The Redskins and Cowboys will be on Monday Night Football and the (hockey) Rangers are playing as well. Feel free to talk about those games or anything else here.

Aaron Judge selected to AzFL’s Fall Star Game

Outfielder Aaron Judge has been selected to represent the Yankees in the Arizona Fall League’s Fall Star Game, the league announced. Here are the East and West rosters. The Fall Star Game will be played this coming Saturday night at 8pm ET and will be broadcast on MLB Network.

Judge, 22, has hit .250/.311/.475 (106 wRC+) with two homers in ten games with the Scottsdale Scorpions after a monster regular season. The Fall Star Game is designed to highlight the game’s top prospects in the AzFL, not reward strong performance. That’s why Judge is representing the Yankees and not first baseman Greg Bird, who is hitting .349/.382/.651 (171 wRC+) with a league-leading five homers in 15 games for Scottsdale.