Wednesday, May 29, 2024
AL EastAmerican LeagueAnalysisMLBNew York Yankees

A Look Across The Diamond At The Yankees’ Defense In 2020

The Yankees have a lot to be optimistic about heading into 2020. A fearsome offense, bolstered rotation, and stacked bullpen make the Yankees a championship caliber team. Their biggest question mark however, and the one that could make or break their season, is their defense. With the release of infield OAA and the update to DRS, we can take a pretty good look at players’ past defensive performances and their expectations going into next year.

The Yankees were a below average team on defense in 2019 with their -5 DRS as a team ranking 21st overall. Their infield OAA was -18 and their outfield OAA was 3, 28th and 10th in the league respectively. For a playoff team, this was even worse, their DRS and iOAA was last among postseason teams and their iOAA was 4th worst.

So how do the Yankees line up in 2020 compared to 2019?

Infield

The brightest spot in the infield in 2019 was DJ LeMahieu. He had a 6 OAA and 6 DRS last year, very solid numbers considering he was asked to move around the infield. LeMahieu will probably spend most of his time at 2B next year where he plays his best defense. DRS and iOAA tell a similar story about his defense at 2B. He had 3 DRS and OAA at 2B in 2019 in limited innings there. He had 14 DRS and 14 OAA in 2018. And in 2017 he had 12 DRS and 8 OAA. Only Kolten Wong had more DRS since 2017. LeMahieu is a great defender anywhere you put him, but he’s an elite defender at 2B, and the Yankees are going to have the best defense when he’s at second.

Gleyber Torres is a more complicated player. With the departure of Didi Gregorius, Torres is the starting shortstop heading into next year. He was poor defensively last year with -13 DRS and -7 OAA but looking at his positional splits gives a positive outlook. Torres’ -13 DRS breaks down into -1 at SS and -12 at 2B, and his OAA breaks down into -5 at 2B and 0 at SS (one of the advantages of OAA is that it can break down plays into a player’s shifted position on individual plays instead of their lineup position). Gleyber Torres was probably a pretty average defender at SS last year, and despite the small sample size, that’s a fair baseline for him going into next year. Even if Torres plays average defense this year, that would be a substantial upgrade from Didi Gregorius’ defense. Last year, in just 688.1 innings, Gregorius had -10 DRS and -13 OAA. Only five shortstops had a worse DRS and only one had a worse OAA. This is probably not Gregorius’ true talent level, he had been out for a significant time after having Tommy John surgery, but the Yankees’ defense will hopefully improve going from Gregorius’ 2019 to Torres’ 2020.

Third base is the infield position with the most competition and intrigue. The position is Gio Urshela‘s to lose, but unless he’s traded, 2018 ROTY runner-up Miguel Andujar will surely see some time there. Urshela was about average defensively in 2019, posting 1 DRS and 0 OAA. Interestingly enough, the breakdown of his OAA showed that Urshela was worse when he was positioned further away from the line. Here’s Urshela’s OAA based on pre-pitch positioning:

Close to line: 0.7 OAA Straight up: 1.7 OAA Toward SS/3B hole: -2.3 OAA

Via Baseball Savant

You can see from the image and numbers that Urshela is much better shaded toward third base. It’ll be worth watching next year to see if the Yankees position him more to his strengths, and if Torres being a better shortstop than Gregorius was will make that easier.

Miguel Andujar’s defensive liability was glaringly obvious in 2018. Despite his offense, he was unplayable at time during the season, including the playoffs, when he was pulled with a lead if the team was winning, or even benched in the ALDS. The numbers back up the eye test as he was worth -21 DRS and -11 OAA, with both marks being the worst among third basemen. In the past ten years, only one third baseman has had a -21 DRS or worse in a single season (Colin Moran in 2019). Sure, he’s a young player who can get better, but in order for him to be even playable at 3B, he’d have to improve by a lot. If not, the Yankees can’t put him at third, even considering his bat.

1B appears to be the worst defensive position for the Yankees going into 2020. Luke Voit is a bat first player who’s poor defensively. Voit was worth -12 DRS and -6 OAA last year. He was dead last among first basemen in DRS and second from the bottom only to Pete Alonso in OAA. Voit is poor defensively but he’ll get the majority of playing time at 1B, barring injury, as he is superb on offense.

Outfield

The Yankees’ outfield defense is much more of a bright spot than the infield, mostly thanks to elite defensive seasons from Aaron Judge and Mike Tauchman. Despite a lack of playing time, they are both right up at the top of the league in DRS and OAA. Among outfielders, Judge was 5th in DRS with 20 and 11th in OAA with 8. Tauchman was 6th in DRS with 18, and 9th in OAA with 9. Those numbers are extremely impressive by themselves, but what would these two have done over the course of a full season? In 2019, Victor Robles led the league in both DRS and OAA with 25 and 23 respectively. He did it in 1308.2 innings. If we assume that Judge and Tauchman played the same defense on a rate basis but for 1308.2 innings, then the leaderboards for DRS and oOAA would look like this:

DRS Mike Tauchman- 34 Aaron Judge- 34 Victor Robles- 25 Hunter Renfroe- 23

oOAA Victor Robles- 23 Kevin Kiermier- 17 Mike Tauchman- 17 Lorenzo Cain- 14 Aaron Judge- 14

Obviously Judge and Tauchman didn’t play the entire season, but it’s still incredible how good they were on a rate basis. An outfield with Judge and Tauchman playing at the same time is going to be a fantastic outfield.

Judge, in particular, is interesting defensively. Baseball Savant breaks down an outfielder’s jump into three parts: reaction (their distance covered in the first 1.5 seconds), burst (their distance covered in the next 1.5 seconds), and route (how direct of a route they took to the ball in those 3 seconds). Judge has a very poor reaction, his -1.7 feet vs. average is among the worst for outfielders, but his route, .8 feet vs. average, is top 5 for outfielders. Out of the top 15 outfielders in OAA, Judge has the worst reaction but the best route. Additionally, Judge was aided by a 28.2 ft/s sprint speed, which ranked in the 79th percentile of all major leaguers. In the video below, you can see how far Judge has to run to get to this line drive and how quickly and directly he gets to the ball:

Judge’s combination of his 6’7 height, great speed, and spectacular route running cause him to play defense a bit differently from other outfielders, but he’s turned himself into one of the game’s best defenders.

In addition to Judge and Tauchman, Brett Gardner and Giancarlo Stanton should both get consistent playing time in the outfield. Stanton will DH a lot coming off an injury plagued season, but due to other outfielders getting days off and worse defenders like Voit and Andujar needing to DH, Stanton will get his fair share of time in the outfield.

Gardner’s defensive metrics are interestingly contradictory. His OAA shows him as being an aging outfielder on the decline. He had 4 in LF in 2016 and it has declined to 1 last year and his 2 OAA in CF matched his CF OAA from the three years prior. But if we look at DRS, a totally different story is told. Gardner had 7 DRS in LF last year, 10 the year before that, and 18 before that. Since 2017, he leads left fielders in DRS, and only four left fielders had more DRS last year. Entering 2020 as a 36 year old, it’s safe to say that Gardner is on the tail end of his career; still he is definitely a solid option to play LF.

Stanton’s defense is better than most people think but it’s nothing extraordinary. Like Gardner, OAA is pretty low on him, crediting him with 2 OAA and 0 OAA in 2018 and 2017, but in the same years he was worth 5 DRS (4 in LF) and 11 DRS. By DRS Stanton has actually been a very good fielder in his career, from 2014-2017 he was worth 28 DRS, third among left fielders in that span. Between injury, switching positions, and spending a lot of time at DH, his defense has fallen off a little but is in no way a liability.

Catcher

Catcher defense is especially hard to determine accurately with metrics, but several websites do a good job. Catching is a complicated position, but the three biggest aspects of a catcher’s game are blocking, throwing, and framing (game calling is important as well but very hard to quantify). Gary Sanchez‘s defense has always been the subject of criticism, most notably in 2018 when he led the league in passed balls. Most fans were quieted in 2019 when Sanchez went from 18 passed balls to 7, but whether Sanchez actually got better defensively is another question.

Sanchez’s FRAA (Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average) went from -1.4 to -6.3 and his DRS went from 4 to -2. As the decrease in passed balls would suggest, Sanchez was a better blocker in 2019. According to Baseball Prospectus, Sanchez’s -4.3 blocking runs in 2018 increased to -.8 runs. However, his framing took a steep decline, thus making his overall defense worse. His Framing Runs (BP) went from a solid 3.3 runs to a disastrous -5.1 runs. Only 14 catchers in 2019 had less framing runs, while 98 had more. The drastically better blocking and worse framing prompts the question of whether Sanchez gave less focus to framing low pitches in 2019 in order to gain an advantage blocking. This is backed up by the below chart which is the strike percentage of non-swing pitches in different zones (from the catcher’s perspective).

You can see the areas where Sanchez struggles with framing, and where he got worse in 2019. Zones 17 and 18 were particular concerns. In 2019 the league average strike percentage in those zones was 33.2% and 49.5% respectively so Sanchez went from an approximately league average catcher in those zones to well below average. In Zone 14, he went from a very good framer in 2018 to a just average framer in 2019. This is a concerning trend, and hopefully one that Sanchez and new catching coach Tanner Swanson work on before the new season.

On the third aspect of his game, throwing, Sanchez remained pretty consistent for the past two years. Sanchez was worth .2 Throwing Runs (BP) in 2018 and -.2 runs in 2019. His pop time is very good; Baseball Savant has it in the 86th percentile; and his pop time to second in 2019 was 1.95 seconds, 9th in baseball.

Gary Sanchez’s defense is complex, but if he can improve his framing without taking away too much from his blocking, he can definitely be an above average defensive catcher. He certainly has the athleticism and arm strength to be one.

Overlook

The Yankees had a bad defense last year, one of their major flaws of the season, but there is reason to be optimistic about improvements. An outfield with Judge and Tauchman is top tier, a middle infield of Torres and LeMahieu is much better than one with Gregorius and LeMahieu, and hopefully Gary Sanchez can improve his framing and defense as a whole. The Yankees don’t need to have the best defense in baseball, their offense, rotation, and bullpen are all among the league’s best, but as the year winds down and every play matters, the difference between a good defense and a bad one can be the difference between a championship and nothing.