Perhaps quietly, the Yankees fielded one of the best defensive outfields in baseball last season. Brett Gardner has always been very good in left field, Aaron Hicks and Jacoby Ellsbury are strong defenders in center, and Aaron Judge showed the world he is much more than a one-dimensional slugger. Judge is an asset in right field.
Here, for reference, are baseball’s best defensive outfields from a year ago:
- Red Sox: +48 Defensive Runs Saved
- Rays: +46
- Yankees: +33
- Twins: +24
- Mariners: +21
The Yankees figure to again field a good defensive outfield this season because not only are they bringing back the same personnel — Gardner and Ellsbury are at risk of seeing their defense slip given their age, it should be noted — but also because they added Giancarlo Stanton. Like Judge, Stanton is much more than a one-dimensional slugger. The 2017 right field DRS leaderboard:
- Mookie Betts: +31
- Yasiel Puig: +18
- Jason Heyward: +18
- Giancarlo Stanton: +10
- Aaron Judge: +9
We only have one season’s worth of data for Judge, but for Stanton, the good defensive performance is not a one-year blip. Only once in his eight seasons has he rated as below-average defensively, and that was 2013 (-6 DRS), the year he battled a nagging hamstring injury. In his other seven seasons, Stanton never finished below +3 DRS. He has six seasons of +6 DRS or better. He’s a good defender. I promise.
Adding another top defensive outfielder to an already very good defensive outfield is, generally speaking, pretty awesome. Now the Yankees have to figure out how to deploy these guys. Not counting Clint Frazier, they have five outfielders (Ellsbury, Gardner, Hicks, Judge, Stanton) for three outfield spots, and both Judge and Stanton are career right fielders. Stanton played one emergency inning in center field back in 2011. Otherwise neither he nor Judge has played a position other than right field in the big leagues.
“DH, right field, maybe left field. Just depends on the circumstances of our club at the time and who is needing more time in the DH role,” said Brian Cashman at Stanton’s introductory press conference when asked about his defensive home. “(Stanton’s) attitude’s been great. It’s like, ‘Hey, whatever you need me to do, I’m there. I’ll do whatever you guys think is best.’ So we have spots for everybody.”
Stanton said he is willing to play wherever the Yankees need him to play — “I’m fine with (left field). I can bounce around. Wherever they need me, I’m okay with that. I always liked DHing when we played the AL teams in previous years,” he said at his press conference — and Judge has since said the same thing, unsurprisingly. That’s good. If one guy came out and said he’s only comfortable in right field, it would’ve created some headaches.
There are a few things to keep in mind about the outfield situation. One, the Yankees have a strikeout/ground ball pitching staff, meaning they could maybe get away with a suboptimal outfield alignment. (They allowed the third fewest fly balls to the outfield in the AL last year.) Two, right field at Yankee Stadium is tiny. There’s not much ground to cover out there. And three, left field at Yankee Stadium is pretty spacious, especially in the left-center field gap. Ideally you’d want the better defender in left. Let’s talk about this some more.
1. Here are at the numbers. Judge was a very good defensive right fielder last season and Stanton has been a very good defensive right fielder for pretty much his entire big league career. We know that much. Let’s dig a little deeper and look at some numbers beyond DRS, shall we? We shall.
|Sprint Speed||<50% Catch Probability||Hold Rate|
There is so much more to range than pure speed. You need to get a good jump and take a good route as well. But, speed helps make up for poor jumps and/or routes, and there are times an outfielder has to simply get on his horse and run a ball down. According to Statcast’s sprint speed, Judge and Stanton are equally fast at their fastest, if that makes sense. We don’t know who reaches their top speed quicker — that is kinda important! — because Statcast doesn’t provide that information. All we know is both guys are equally fast once they get going.
As for their arms, Judge did a much better job preventing runners from taking the extra base (first-to-third on a single, etc.) last season — the league average right field hold rate was 47.7% in 2017 — though the ballpark plays into that. Right field at Yankee Stadium is tiny, allowing Judge to play in a few more steps, and thus giving him a better chance to hold the runner because he was that much closer to the infield. Stanton didn’t have that luxury in spacious Marlins Park. We know Judge has a strong arm anyway. We saw it all year. Stanton has a strong arm too.
According to the ol’ Statcast machine, Judge made considerably more difficult plays than Stanton last season. By difficult plays, I mean outs recorded on batted balls that went for base hits more than 50% of the time based on their exit velocity and launch angle. If the hit probability is 75%, the catch probability is 25%. And on plays with a catch probability no greater than 50%, Judge made the play 43.7% of the time. Stanton? Only 23.0%. Huge difference. Yuuuge.
Okay, so what does that mean, exactly? All it tells us is Judge made more (way more) difficult plays than Stanton last season. Will he make more difficult plays going forward? Who knows! This is the tricky part. We know what each player has done defensively in the past. The Yankees are concerned about their defensive performance going forward. Who has the tools to be the better defender in the future? They both have prototypical right field tools. Judge made more tough plays last year, and maybe that means he will continue doing so in the future, which in theory means he’d be better suited for the more spacious left field at Yankee Stadium.
2. Judge has moved around more recently. Judge has played right field exclusively as a big leaguer, but he hasn’t been a big leaguer very long. He was in Triple-A as recently as August 2016. And during his Triple-A stint in 2016, Judge played seven games in left field as well as three in center field. It’s not much, but it is something. Aside from that one emergency center field inning that means nothing, Stanton has been a full-time right fielder for a decade now.
Personally, I don’t think those seven games in left field two years ago means a whole lot. Or at least they won’t mean much during the decision-making process. Maybe Judge is ever so slightly more comfortable playing left than Stanton, but I can’t imagine seven games two years ago means much. It is a piece of information the Yankees could consider, however. Maybe Judge showing he’s capable of moving around makes them more likely to put him in left going forward. Who knows?
3. There has already been talk about moving Stanton to left. A year ago at this time Marlins manager Don Mattingly said the team was considering putting Stanton in left field so Marcell Ozuna and his superior arm could play right. They’d already moved Ozuna to left and Christian Yelich to center because Yelich is the superior and rangier defender. Their numbers also suggested Stanton could be better in left. From Joe Frisaro:
“Obviously, right now Giancarlo is a guy that’s been comfortable in right,” Mattingly said. “Marcell is a guy that’s showed he can play left, center or right. We are digging into the metrics of Giancarlo and Marcell.
“We want to put the best club on the field, and what’s best for each guy and how [we’re] the best team. We are just getting up to speed, I think, with the analytics within our organization. … We’re trying to put the right people in the right spots and make sure metrically we are paying attention. With the analytics, there’s so much information. We do want to be able to evaluate our guys, and that’s part of it.”
Ultimately, the Marlins did not move Stanton to left. He stayed in right and Ozuna stayed in left. Why? I’m not sure. I don’t know if Stanton said he wanted to say in right, if Ozuna said he wanted to stay in left, or if the club determined Stanton in right and Ozuna in left was their best defensive alignment. It’s probably the last one. I don’t think Stanton or Ozuna made a stink about possibly changing positions.
Should we read anything into the Marlins considering Stanton in left field, then deciding it was not the right move? They have a very small analytics department — Tim Healey says their analytics department didn’t even exist until two years ago, if you can believe that — and they haven’t been the most well-run organization in the game. Maybe we should just ignore their conclusion entirely? The Yankees have a state of the art analytics department and huge scouting department. I’d trust the Yankees over the Marlins every day of the week, though I did think it was interesting and noteworthy that Miami did think about moving Stanton to left last year.
4. Don’t forget about the DH spot. One reason the Yankees were comfortable acquiring Stanton and his massive contract is the DH spot. They know once he gets into his 30s and inevitably begins to slow down, they can move him to DH. Tying down the DH spot with an expensive older player a la Alex Rodriguez isn’t ideal, but it exists as an option. The Dodgers, Stanton’s first choice, couldn’t offer him a chance to DH.
In reality, the Yankees will rotate five outfielders between the three outfield spots and the DH spot, not rotate five players between the three outfield spots only. Stanton and Judge are going to play everyday, Hicks and Gardner will play most days, and Ellsbury will play a few days. That seems like the plan until further notice. The Yankees will use the DH spot to give Stanton and Judge, two very large humans, regular days to rest and take it easy on their legs. They want to preserve them for the long haul.
“First and foremost, I talked to Stanton, I talked to Judge, about the use of the DH spot to get them some time out of the outfield. I think they’ll both benefit,” said Cashman at Stanton’s press conference. “Clearly right field and DH work, but I think they’re athletic enough to be considered elsewhere. But the very easiest aspect of it is right field and DH, and I think both players will benefit from the DH rest. You won’t have to run somebody into the ground every day.”
Neither Judge (limited MLB time) nor Stanton (career NL player) have much experience as a DH, but even if they did, I’m not sure how predictive their performances would be anyway. They’re both full-time outfielders, so their DH at-bats are scattered over time. Here are their career DH numbers for the sake of having all the information:
- Judge: .294/.467/.647 (191 wRC+) with three homers in 45 plate appearances
- Stanton: .333/.390/.630 (166 wRC+) with four homers in 59 plate appearances
Both crushed it in their limited at DH. I’m glad neither guy has crummy numbers at DH because if one of them did, you know we’d be hearing “he hasn’t been good at DH so he should play the field full-time” arguments. No. Just no. Both Stanton and Judge should get regular turns at DH in an effort to preserve their bodies long-term. These are big, big dudes. Running around the outfield day after day, year after year will do a number on their knees.
So, thanks to the DH spot, neither Stanton nor Judge has to play left field regularly. They’ll just have to play it once in a while, specifically whenever Gardner gets a day off or the Yankees are in an NL park for an interleague game. That’s the ideal scenario. Everyone stays healthy, Gardner sees the most action in left field, and Judge and Stanton split their time a right field and DH. Hopefully the Yankees don’t have to move Judge or Stanton to left on a full-time basis at any point this year. That will mean something’s gone wrong.
* * *
Based on everything we just talked about, it seems like Judge is better suited to slide over to left field than Stanton, though the evidence is hardly overwhelming. Judge played some left field as recently as 2016, and his big advantage in making difficult plays (per Statcast) suggests he is better suited to play the larger left field at Yankee Stadium. The argument is not convincing, and in a way that’s a good thing. The Yankees are picking between two good options, not two bad options.
At the end of the day, this is going to be decided in Spring Training. All those words up there? Meaningless. The Yankees figure to give both Judge and Stanton left field time during Grapefruit League play, and whoever looks more comfortable out there will probably slide over. The players will decide this for the Yankees. If both look comfortable, great! It’s a good problem to have. Let’s see what they both look like in left field first.
“We’re going to juggle it. Those are things that we’ll flesh out in Spring Training. Who do we believe potentially would move over to play left field in a 20, 30-game situation? Use the DH role strategically, play different matchups that give certain guys days off depending upon the matchups,” said Aaron Boone at the Winter Meetings. “It’ll be a collaborative effort. What’s the best fit, who’s the most comfortable moving over and changing positions every now and then? The one thing we don’t want to disrupt is what they bring to the table offensively.”
We’re not going to know the Yankees’ best possible outfield alignment until we see Stanton and Judge go out and actually play left field in games. These things have a way of taking care of themselves. Ideally neither guy would spend much time in left field during the season because they’re splitting time at right field and DH while Gardner runs down everything in left field. That seems like the best outfield alignment. Gardner in left, Hicks or Ellsbury in center, and either Judge or Stanton or right. If one has to move to left full-time, so be it. The Yankees will adjust.