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.

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The Yankees and 2014’s major awards

(Alex Goodlett/Getty)
(Alex Goodlett/Getty)

The regular season ends six days from now, which means the voting for the various league awards will soon end as well. The voting ends after the regular season but before the postseason — what happens in October has no bearing on anything. These are regular season awards, as it should be.

The Yankees are an extreme long shot to make the postseason and teams that don’t make the playoffs tend not to have major awards winners. That’s not always the case — Alex Rodriguez was the 2003 AL MVP on the last place Rangers, for example — just most of the time. Don’t get mad at me. That’s the way the voters vote. The Yankees do still have some candidates for each of the major awards this season, however. Let’s run them down.

Most Valuable Player
There is an excellent chance the Yankees will not have a player finish in the top ten of the AL MVP voting this year for the first time since 1996, when Mariano Rivera finished in 12th place. The lack of a truly elite player, a Robinson Cano or prime-age A-Rod or Derek Jeter, combined with their second straight postseason-less year all but eliminates anyone on the team from serious MVP consideration. The BBWAA has shown time and time again they prefer to vote for players on contending teams.

Now, that said, the MVP ballot is ten players deep and those last two or three slots are like the Twilight Zone. A lot of weird stuff happens there. Raul Ibanez received a tenth place MVP vote in 2012, remember. Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner have been the team’s two best players all year and I’m guessing they’ll combine for at least one down-ballot vote this year. Same with Dellin Betances and maybe David Robertson. The Yankees don’t have any serious MVP candidates this season but I feel comfortable saying someone on the roster will appear on a ballot.

Cy Young
Had he not gotten hurt, Masahiro Tanaka would have been an excellent Cy Young candidate alongside Felix Hernandez and Corey Kluber (and Chris Sale). The injury takes him right out of the running for the award, unfortunately. The Cy Young ballot is one five players deep and it would surprise me if Tanaka even managed to sneak on and grab one fifth place vote at this point. He simply missed too much time and there are too many good pitchers in the AL. Maybe Betances will grab a fifth place vote like Robertson did in 2011. Maybe. He is the club’s only real shot at being included in the Cy Young conversation this season.

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

Rookie of the Year
Believe it or not, the Yankees have never had two players receive Rookie of the Year votes in the same season. That is all but certain to change this year thanks to Tanaka and Betances. There are a lot of good rookies in the AL this year but Jose Abreu has lapped the field — I think he should win unanimously, this is a no-brainer in my opinion — so neither Tanaka nor Betances will win. I do think both are safe bets to garner multiple second and third place votes though. (The ballot is only three players deep.)

Shane Greene has had a nice year but I would be very surprised if he received any votes. There are too many other good rookies in the league (Collin McHugh, Matt Shoemaker, George Springer, Marcus Stroman, Yordano Ventura, etc.) for him to get serious consideration. That doesn’t take away from what he’s done this year. This just isn’t a good year to be a good but not great rookie in the so-called Junior Circuit.

Manager of the Year
The Manager of the Year award has morphed into the “manager whose team most exceeded expectations” award, so Joe Girardi won’t win. I’m guessing the award will go to either Ned Yost of the Royals or Lloyd McClendon of the Mariners, depending on which non-Athletics team wins a wildcard spot.

The Manager of the Year ballot is only three names deep and it’ll be tough for Girardi to get even a third place vote this year given his competition. I’m guessing at least one BBWAA member will give him a vote based on the team’s ability to linger in the wildcard race until the final week of the season though. After all, nine of 15 AL managers received at least one Manager of the Year vote last season.

Comeback Player of the Year
This one will be interesting. If Jeter put together nothing more than a decent season, say hitting .280 with a .340 OBP and no power, I think he would have won the Comeback Player of the Year award easily. Mariano Rivera won last year and deservingly so, but, even if he had been merely good instead of excellent, I think he would have won anyway for sentimental reasons.

Jeter’s brutal August and pre-current homestand September really dragged down his season numbers (.256/.304/.313) and it will be hard for voters to look the other way. Melky Cabrera and Albert Pujols stand out as two deserving Comeback Player of the Year candidates, so there is no lack of competition. Maybe Jeter will win on the strength of sentimental votes, but I don’t think it’s a slam dunk at all.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Gold Gloves
A sabermetric component was added to the Gold Glove voting a few years ago, but it only counts as 25% of the vote. The other 75% is still based on the league’s managers and coaches. Whether they admit it or not, offense still has some impact on the voting, though it has gotten better in recent years.

Right off the bat, we can completely eliminate the entire infield. I mean, maybe Jeter will get a sentimental vote, but I can’t see it at this point. Gardner is a good left field Gold Glove candidate — they used to hand out three general outfield Gold Gloves, but they are position specific now — but Alex Gordon has this one in the bag. He’s outstanding in left and his offense won’t hurt his case either. Yoenis Cespedes might also get more votes than Gardner because of his throwing arm.

Ellsbury has been stellar in center field all season though the numbers hate him for whatever reason: -6 DRS, +1.1 UZR, and +0 Total Zone. I don’t get it. That doesn’t match up with the eye test at all. The various defensive stats always seem to hate Yankees center fielders. Maybe because Gardner takes plays away from them. Anyway, Ellsbury has some stiff Gold Glove competition in Mike Trout, Jackie Bradley Jr., Adam Jones, Leonys Martin, and Desmond Jennings. I think the chances of Ellsbury winning the Gold Glove are better than the chances of any Yankee winning any other award, but I would bet on the field with this many qualified candidates.

Silver Sluggers
Yeah, no. You actually have to hit to win a Silver Slugger and not many Yankees did that this year. Gardner and Ellsbury have been the team’s two best hitters and they aren’t beating out Gordon or Trout, respectively. Nevermind the other candidates around the league. As far as the Yankees are concerned this year, the most exciting part of the awards voting will be seeing where Tanaka and Betances finish behind Abreu for the Rookie of the Year award. Jeter’s possible Comeback Player of the Year and Ellsbury’s possible Gold Glove are the only other items of note.

Update: Ellsbury exits with hamstring strain, season may be over

10:04pm: Ellsbury has a hamstring strain and is heading for an MRI. Joe Girardi said it is a “distinct possibility” his season is over. Rats.

8:29pm: Jacoby Ellsbury left tonight’s game with an apparent right leg injury. He came up lame and grabbed at his hamstring after running out a potential double play ball in the fourth inning. Ellsbury was looked at by the trainer and he actually stayed in the game to run the bases, but the Yankees pulled him after the inning. Hopefully it’s just a precautionary move. Check back for any updates.

Injury Updates: Tanaka, Ellsbury, Phelps, Beltran

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

The Yankees are off today, and when they regroup at Yankee Stadium for the series opener against the Red Sox tomorrow, there figures to be a bunch of extra players in the clubhouse thanks to expanded rosters. Here are a bunch of injury updates in the meantime, courtesy of Wally Matthews, Ken Rosenthal, George King, and Brendan Kuty.

  • Masahiro Tanaka (elbow, arm) returned to New York specifically to work with a physical therapist at the Yankee Stadium training facilities, which are a million times better than what was available at Rogers Centre. He worked out Saturday and was scheduled to repeat the work out yesterday and today. Tanaka will visit team doctor Dr. Ahmad today, and if everything checks out, he will throw a bullpen session Thursday. “He played catch and did his weight workout. He felt like he needed to catch up a little bit and strengthen himself up a little bit. It’s a good sign he (played catch),” said Girardi. “We need to find out (if he’ll need surgery). We are taking the normal steps that people take in this type of injury. We are either going to know by the end of September or not.’’
  • Following yesterday’s game, Jacoby Ellsbury (ankle) inadvertently revealed he was going to have an MRI last night once the team arrived in New York. Sounds like that was the plan even before he pinch-hit. The MRI results haven’t been announced. “It’s still sore, but over the last couple days, they’re real happy with the progress that I’ve made,” said Ellsbury. “We’ve got the off-day, but I’ll get the MRI (and) have our doctors look at it. Hopefully it’s a good MRI.”
  • David Phelps (elbow) has continued his throwing program as he works his way back from inflammation, but he has yet to throw off a mound. “He is playing catch, I am not sure what day he will do a bullpen,’’ said Joe Girardi over the weekend. The Yankees have already announced Phelps will return as a reliever.
  • Carlos Beltran (elbow) acknowledged feeling some pain during his throw to the plate in yesterday’s game. He said it was expected and it’s just something they have to manage until he has the bone spur removed in the offseason.

Injury Updates: Tanaka, CC, Pineda, Beltran

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

Mark Teixeira needed three stitches in his left pinkie after getting stepped on while sliding across home plate during last night’s game. X-rays came back negative but he will miss at least one game and maybe more. Here are some more injury updates prior to this afternoon’s series finale against the Tigers, courtesy of Marly Rivera, George King, Fred Kerber, Jack Curry, and Vince Mercogliano:

  • Masahiro Tanaka (elbow) came through the first two days of his throwing session well — yesterday was a rest day and he will throw again today — and the team has a return date in mind, but they won’t reveal it. Can’t say I blame them. It is sometime in September, however. “I’m happy the early return on rest and two throwing days on Tanaka have gone well,” said Brian Cashman.“I’m not gonna say (the date). We’ll take this day-by-day … He’s in one of those situations where every day you hold your breath, hoping it’s a good day. The more of those that come, the better it will be for us.”
  • CC Sabathia (knee) acknowledged he will continue to need treatment going forward and will never truly be 100% healthy because there is no cartilage left under his knee cap. Doctors removed a previously undetected bone spur during surgery and he’s scheduled to undergo another stem cell procedure in a few weeks. “Hopefully, this procedure he just had is good enough to return him to our rotation every five days for an entire year starting next year,” said the GM.
  • Michael Pineda (shoulder) threw his between-starts bullpen session yesterday and will make his next rehab start with Triple-A Scranton on Friday. He has been ruled out as a replacement for the injured David Phelps that day, though he could return to the rotation next week. “He’s probably available to go somewhere between 75 and 80 (pitches), and then we see where we’re at,” said Joe Girardi. “I said we wanted to get him to 90 (before bringing him back), but with the circumstances that we’re in, you never know.”
  • Carlos Beltran (elbow) has started throwing to the bases as part of his throwing program. He expects to return to the outfield at some point — “I’m a position player, have to work on all aspects of my game,” he said — though Girardi acknowledged they aren’t as desperate to get him back in the field after the trade deadline. “There is less of a sense that we need to get him out there,” said the skipper. “We will keep him throwing. The one thing we don’t want to risk is him having a setback.’’
  • Jacoby Ellsbury (thumb) is still sore after being stepped on during a rundown on Tuesday. “I’ll just play through it,” he said. There is no long-term concern.