So, our New York Yankees are now proud owners of a major-league record 18-consecutive game errorless streak. Gotta love that. Oh, and it sure is nice that the previous record had been held by the 2006 Boston Red Sox. It feels good to take something away from Boston after the past few seasons.
The question is, in reality how good is the Yankee defense?
I'm going to break it down the best I can. Keep in mind, I'm no Sabermetrician so I'm not going to just throw a bunch of numbers at you. I will, of course, give you some stats. I will also, however, give you some personal observation and opinion.
FanGraphs has many of the numbers. If you look at 'traditional' measuring sticks like fielding percentage and number of errors the Yankees look terrific. Their .990 fielding percentage is bested only by Philadelphia's .991. On the season, the Yanks have 20 errors. Only the Phillies (17) and Twins (19) have fewer.
Dig a little deeper, though, and the numbers tell a different story.
Look at the Yankees' 0.2 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) and 0.5 RngR (Range Runs) and you see that the Yankees are squarely in the middle of the pack in terms of the actual value of their defense. (FanGraphs Glossary)
Dig even deeper and you see that those 'average' numbers are an incredible improvement over the defense played by the Yankees last season.
In 2008, FanGraphs' numbers show the Yankees as one of the three worst defensive teams in the big leagues. Yes, they had a .986 fielding percentage. But, their UZR was -44.5 and their RngR was a major-league worst -49.7.
So, what looks 'average' on is actually awesome compared to the amount of runs -- and by extension, wins -- poor defense cost the Yankees in 2008.
We have looked at some of the important numbers. Now let's look at some of the reasons, which will lead me to offer some pure observations.
Having Mark Teixeira, a Gold Glove caliber fielder, at first base instead of world-class butcher Jason Giambi is, of course, the biggest difference here. Teixeira's RZR puts him in the middle of the pack but that doesn't tell the story. How many times this season has Tex made a play and your reaction has been 'no way Giambi could have done that.' Probably at least a dozen. He has also saved infielders a handful of errors with slick scoops of off-target throws.
We have to talk about Derek Jeter, too. We know that ripping Jeter's defense is pretty much a national pastime. The numbers, though, tell you Jeter is getting better as he gets old. Two seasons ago his RZR was .777. Last season it was .839, and this season it is .846, fourth among all major league shortstops. He has just two errors all season. Maybe it's better positioning and anticipation, but it's damn near impossible to argue that Jeter's defense is hurting the Yankees when you see those numbers. When is the last time you saw a ball hit and thought 'a big-league shortstop has to get that.' More often these days, I find myself thinking 'how did he get there?' when I see him make a play.
At third base, Alex Rodriguez' range has been limited by his hip injury. He still has terrific hands and a great arm, though, and makes the play on everything he can still get to.
A subtle difference is also the bench. Remember that last season the Yanks' primary backup infielder was Wilson 'Butcher' Betemit. This year, it has been Ramiro Pena, Cody Ransom and even Angel Berroa. All of those guys are big improvements defensively over Betemit.
Bobby Abreu is gone and has been replaced by Nick Swisher, who easily gets to more balls than the wall-leary Abreu. Another subtle difference is that Brett Gardner has played a lot of center field, and Melky Cabrera -- an upgrade over any corner outfielder the Yanks had last season -- has played a lot of innings at the corners. Johnny Damon is not a great left fielder, but when either he or Cabrera is out there that's better than Hideki Matsui.
Despite their errorless streak, the Yankees are not a 'great' defensive team. What they are is a 'solid' defensive team, which is a huge improvement over the awful defensive team they were in 2008. Last season the Yankees cost themelves runs -- and ultimately games -- by not being able to make routine plays. This year, they are making the plays they should make and occasionally making a brilliant play.
They may not be the best defensive team in the league. They are, however, helping themselves instead of hurting themselves. That's good enough.