2014 Season Review: The Infield Defense

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

It wasn’t hard to see the bad infield defense coming. Coming into the season, the Yankees’ best infield defender was their first baseman, who was coming off a season lost to wrist surgery. They had a soon-to-be 40-year-old coming off major ankle/leg injuries and a broken down 36-year-old manning the middle infield, and their third baseman was a second baseman by trade. It was a far cry from the 2009 infield, which was arguably the best in baseball history.

To make matters worse, the Yankees built a ground ball pitching staff because Yankee Stadium is tiny and fly balls equal homeruns. Their starters ranked third in the league with a 45.1% ground ball rate this year even though noted ground ballers CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova combined to make only 12 starts. There were plenty of poor throws, booted grounders, and balls that simply scooted by defenders for base hits and extended innings in April and May.

Early in the year, the bad infield defense was the most consistent part of the team. It showed up every night and impacted the game. Derek Jeter and Brian Roberts were predictably poor at shortstop and second base, respectively, and third base was shaky regardless of whether Kelly Johnson or Yangervis Solarte was playing. Mark Teixeira showed considerable rust following the long layoff, compounding the problem. Their best infield gloveman (Brendan Ryan) started the year hurt and was then glued to the bench because he can’t hit.

The Yankees tried — and sorta succeeded, actually — to compensate for their range-challenged infield by employing the infield shift. A lot. Like almost every batter featured a non-traditional infield alignment. Heck, the team acknowledged part of the reason they signed Roberts and Johnson was their familiarity with the shift after playing with the Orioles and Rays (and Blue Jays). Oh sure, there were plenty of balls that beat the shift but that’s inevitable. Here’s a nugget from Ken Davidoff in early-June:

Baseball Info Solutions utilizes the measure “Defensive Runs Saved” then breaks that into two categories: non-shift and shift.

Heading into Wednesday’s action, the Yankees ranked last in the major leagues — 30th out of 30 clubs — in both categories. They had minus-16 runs saved without the shift — in other words, their porous defense was responsible for allowing 16 more runs than the average defense would have allowed given the same balls hit in the same spots.

With the shift, the Yankees were at minus-4 runs saved, an improvement of 12 runs.

“While they have struggled to get outs when shifted relative to the rest of the league, because they are so range challenged it actually makes sense for them to shift aggressively so that they can put their infielders in a position to have to move the least to make a play,” Joe Rosales, a research associate at BIS, wrote in an email. “If they weren’t shifting as much as they have been, things would look even worse.

There is no publicly available shift data (yet), though all throughout the season various reports said the Yankees shifted their infielders as much as any team in baseball aside from the Astros. I don’t think we need any numbers to confirm the Yankees’ infield really stunk defensively when aligned normally and stunk slightly less when shifted against certain batters though. We all watched the games.

The shift wasn’t enough, so Brian Cashman and his staff sought out to improve their infield defense at the midseason because they had to. Roberts and Johnson weren’t hitting or fielding, and Solarte cooled off so much that he was shipped to the minors. If they couldn’t get the offensive helped they needed — there were very few impact bats on the market at the trade deadline — then improving the run prevention was the next best thing.

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

The infield overhaul started on July 22nd, when the Yankees acquired Chase Headley from the Padres. Right away it was obvious he was a massive, massive, massive upgrade at third. That guy can really pick it. The overhaul continued nine days later, when the team swung deals for Stephen Drew and Martin Prado at the trade deadline. Drew was slated to play second base everyday, but his bat landed eventually him on the bench and put Prado at second on a full-time basis.

Drew is a shortstop by trade and he was playing second base literally for the first time as a professional — he had never play a position other than shortstop in his career, Majors or minors — and there were some growing pains early, but I thought he settled in quite nicely and was an asset in the field later in the season. Prado was primarily a third baseman the last few years, though he had plenty of second base experience and looked natural there when pressed into duty.

Quantifying defense is tough — there are some pretty good stats out there, but they’re far from perfect — so there’s only so much we can do. Here’s how the Yankees’ infield performed on all ground balls before and after the trade deadline, with no adjustment for hit velocity or trajectory or anything fancy like that:

Games Ground Balls NYY BABIP MLB BABIP
Before Deadline 107 1,279 .2611 .2489
After Deadline 55 636 .2390 .2590

Imperfect analysis but that’s a big improvement! The Yankees went from having the eighth highest BABIP in baseball on ground balls before the trade deadline to having the fifth lowest after July 31st. Simply put, they were turning more ground balls into outs after acquiring Headley, Drew, and Prado.

The revamped infield showed more range and surer hands — Teixeira appeared to shake off the rust as the season progressed as well — after the trade deadline and the numbers back that up. The infield defense went from big problem to … well, let’s call it a smaller problem. I hesitate to call it an asset. Jeter was still an issue at shortstop but there were extenuating circumstances. The Yankees weren’t going to move him off the position with his retirement only weeks away. No chance.

So, the Yankees did the next best thing. They updated the guys playing alongside Jeter at second and third bases, and the improvement was noticeable. The routine plays went back to being routine and every so often a not-so-routine play was made as well. The infield defense was terrible for the first four months of the season and it cost the Yankees games. The help at the trade deadline was a big upgrade but it came too late to help the team make the postseason. The Yankees now have a clean slate (so to speak) at the non-first base infield spots and are able to fill them to above-average defenders this winter.

Reports: Korean left-hander Kwang-Hyun Kim to be posted, Yankees have checked in

The following is a guest post from Sung-Min Kim, who has also written guest posts about Kei Igawa and Hyo-Jun Park.

Kim at the 2014 Asian Games last month. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty)
Kim at the 2014 Asian Games last month. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty)

According to Eun-Byul Park of eDailyStar, left-handed pitcher Kwang-Hyun Kim of the SK Wyverns in Korea will have a press conference on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the “pursuit of going over to the Major Leagues.” The article also states that the Wyverns’ general manager and main representative will also be present. All signs point to the team posting their star pitcher.

Kim, 26, is one of the most popular players in the Korean Baseball Organization. He was drafted by the Wyverns in the first round in 2006. By the end of 2007, Kim had already posted 3.62 ERA in 77 IP as a 19-year old. His rise is very storied among Korean fans. The Wyverns were down 1-2 to the Doosan Bears in the Korean Series and the manager decided to start the teenager to save their season. The starter for the Bears was one-time Yankee Danny Rios, who later went on to win the league MVP after having a phenomenal season with 2.07 ERA in 234 IP and 22 wins. Undaunted by the task, Kim threw a 7.1 IP gem with only one hit allowed while striking out 9, earning the win for the Wyverns that later went on to win the Korean Series title. Here’s a Korean television segment about the fateful game.

From 2008 to 2010, his ages 20 to 22 seasons, Kim rivaled Hyun-Jin Ryu as the most talented young lefty in the nation. He went 16-4 with 2.39 ERA in 27 starts in 2008, winning the league MVP, the gold medal for Team Korea in the Beijing Olympics, and another Korean Series trophy as the Wyverns won consecutive titles. He went 12-2 with 2.80 ERA in 2009 and 17-7, 2.37 ERA in 193.2 IP in 2010 (and another Wyverns title). By the end of 2010, there wasn’t much doubt about his place as one of the best lefties in the history of Korean baseball. However, starting in 2011, Kim became plagued by slumps and injuries. From 2011 to 2013, he posted 4.84, 4.30 and 4.47 ERAs, respectively, with worse control (4.64 BB/9 from 2011-13 as opposed to 3.64 BB/9 in 2008-2010) and strikeout numbers (7.10 K/9 from 2011-13 as opposed to 8.11 K/9 from 2008-10).

The 2014 season was not his best year, however he came back as a healthy, full-time starter who finished second in the league in ERA (3.42) and home run rate (0.52 HR/9) and seventh in strikeout rate (7.51 K/9). His fastball hit as high as 96 mph, which is around where he topped when he was a younger ace. His 3.42 ERA in 173.2 IP may not be impressive for a pitcher that is pitching at a well-below NPB’s level, but KBO experienced a historical offensive explosion this summer.  The ex-San Francisco and Lotte Giant Ryan Sadowski describes it the best:

“As of September 10th, we have seen 5,762 runs scored over the course of 505 games. There have been about 11.4 runs scored per game or 5.7 runs scored per team. We have witnessed about a 40% increase in runs scored from the 2012 season. We have also seen 1,047 home runs during the 505 games that have been played.  In 2014, we have seen an 80% increase in homeruns produced in comparison to the 2012 season.”

That is insane. There were only SIX starters in KBO with ERA under 4.00 and Kim is the only Korean-born pitcher in that group. The other five: Rick VandenHurk (3.18), Andy Van Hekken (3.51 and the first 20-game winner in KBO since Rios), Charlie Shirek (3.81), Dustin Nippert (3.81) and Cory Riordan (3.96).

A huge knock on Kim’s 2014 numbers is that his walk rate remained mediocre at 4.20 BB/9. There have been Asian imports, or just pitchers in general, that had less-than-ideal control and pitched decently in Majors, but for every Kaz Ishii there are names like Kei Igawa and Ryota Igarashi — pitchers you did not want anywhere near the 40-man roster. The lefty was also one of the luckiest pitchers with runners on base: 74.6 LOB% is the second in league (though one can argue that Kim bumps up his velocity a notch in dicier situations). I would say this video summarizes Kim’s season in a nutshell: showing some control hiccups to get into trouble but using his upside to get outs and out of the trouble.

My assessment: I do not see Kim being a full-time starter in the Majors unless there is a major improvement in command. It would be a wishful thinking for him to be an “effectively wild” pitcher a la early-2002 Kaz Ishii. I don’t know if Kim would post walk rates as abysmal as Ishii’s (6.19 and 6.18 BB/9 in his first two seasons with the Dodgers) but what mattered was that he was a pitcher expected to start in every five games for three Major League seasons. I think a lot of Korean baseball fans would more than gladly take that for Kwang-Hyun Kim.

If Kim were to sign with an ML team, it’s because they would be sold by his stuff. His fastball usually plays around high-80’s-to-low-90’s. He is able to bump it up to mid-90’s but don’t expect a first-grade heat from the lefty. According to a big league scout quoted in Global Sports Integration, Kim has “big league stuff. Definitely a big league slider.” The scout adds “Kim’s raw stuff is electric. If he were a raw prospect with low mileage, he would be the best prospect in Asia. But he has injury history and isn’t 21 years old.”

Some fans may remember RHP Suk-Min Yoon, who signed a ML contract with the Baltimore Orioles in the previous winter. The deal, however, has not gone well at all for the Birds. Yoon, who was also one of the best young starters in KBO along with Kim and Ryu, was trending downwards with health and performance when he signed with Baltimore. Ryu, who had showed endurance in Korea, came off one of his best seasons in 2012 before he signed with the Dodgers. Kim, I would say, is somewhere in between those two. He has his share of injury history but he’s trending upwards in stock – definitely not at Ryu’s level but enough to maybe give some team to take a flier or two.

As for the Yankees, I doubt that they will look at Kim as a rotation option. First off, there are other names in the free agency that could possibly woo the team to spend bigger money on (Jon Lester, James Shields, Brandon McCarthy, etc.). The team also has in-house rotation candidates and pieces that delegitimize a need for a risky signing like Kim. There have been reports that Yankee scouts have checked on him and some think a posting fee between “$10 to 12 million” is “not a stretch.” But then again, I will believe what the ML teams actually think of his value when I see it. All indications say Kim will be posted and it will be interesting to see how a pitcher from Korea with less-than-optimal history would be seen among the teams.

Fan Confidence Poll: October 27th, 2014

2014 Record: 84-78 (633 RS, 664 RA, 77-85 pythag. record), didn’t qualify for postseason

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Cardinals OF Oscar Taveras killed in car accident

Horrible news to pass along. Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras and his girlfriend were killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic, his agent confirmed to reporters. He was only 22. Taveras was one of the top prospects in the game and budding superstar. We’ve certainly mentioned his name here at RAB while talking about possible trades. Our condolences go out to his family and friends.

Weekend Open Thread

Friday: Here is your open thread for tonight and the next two nights as well. The Royals and Giants resume the World Series in a little bit (Guthrie vs. Hudson, 8pm ET on FOX), plus both the Knicks (preseason) and Devils (regular season) are playing. Talk about those games or anything else right here.

Saturday: Same deal, this is your open thread. The Royals and Giants are playing Game Four of the World Series (Vargas vs. Vogelsong, 8pm ET on FOX) and all three local hockey teams are playing. Have at it.

Sunday: Once again, this is your open thread for the night. The Royals and Giants will play Game Five of the World Series later (Shields vs. Bumgarner, 8pm ET on FOX) and the late NFL game is the Redskins and Cowboys. Talk about those games or whatever else is on your mind here.