Yankees' strikeouts mitigating questionable defense

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

When you have an iffy defense it's probably just best to not let the ball make it into play. The Yankees are doing their best to do just that.

I think it was accepted before the season that there were going to be some trouble spots that would prevent even a defense featuring traditional stalwarts Mark Teixeira, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner from from being a standout unit. Having two veterans with limited range covering the most ground in the infield in Derek Jeter and Brian Roberts, coupled with the outfield antics of either Carlos Beltran or Alfonso Soriano, has made things more adventurous in the field than I'm sure the Yankees pitching staff would prefer. The team currently sits 18th in the league in Defensive Runs Saved with -11 and 21st in UZR/150 innings, so they've been firmly in the below-average category to this point. Just to make things even more difficult, the Yankees constant shifting has actually been to the detriment of their ability to prevent runs. When your defense lacks range and is often in the wrong spot to begin with, what is a pitcher's best course of action? Obviously just don't let the guy get the ball into the field of play to begin with, which the Yankees have been doing at an elite rate.

After an impressive fifteen strikeout performance against the Cubs on Wednesday the Yankees are second in strikeout percentage and now lead the league in K/9 at 8.90. Not a bad sign to be leading the league in such an important category. The Yankees ranked 14th in the league with 7.67 K/9 in 2013, so obviously something has changed. Masahiro Tanaka has been striking out hitters at a clip of over 10 per nine innings which has been a major factor, but also CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda were above their rates last year so the starting staff has done their part. As for the bullpen, it seems simplistic to just give Dellin Betances the majority of the credit for the team's leading strikeout rate, but it's basically unavoidable. He's already logged 26 innings of work through 45 team games at a rate of over 15 K/9, a usage rate and frequency of strikeouts that far outpaces anyone that the Yankees were using in middle relief in 2013. Also, pushing a high strikeout pitcher like David Robertson into the closer role in place of Mariano Rivera, who pitched more to weak contact then strikeouts, has been a contributing factor as well.

So have these strikeouts been a boon for the staff? Well, yes and no. The team ranks 19th in ERA+, so even with park adjustments they've been allowing runs at a solid clip, though the sub-par defense is also a factor here. If the fielders were getting more chances, the results would likely be even worse. Advanced statistics have been kinder to their efforts however, as the staff sits 5th in fWAR and 3rd in xFIP. So while many will gawk at the team's run differential and claim that the Yankees have been very lucky thus far, their pitching metrics show that may not be the case. If the Yankees can maintain these strikeout rates and stop shifting themselves into additional runs allowed, their overall results could be in for an uptick. Particularly with Ichiro Suzuki now manning one of those aforementioned troubled spots in the field for the time being.

Hopefully the Yankees can maintain their propensity for missing bats as the season goes on. Warmer weather and playing at Yankee Stadium is a combination that just begs for pitchers that can get strikeouts. Even a bat that barely gets on a ball can result in a home run if the conditions are just right. Can't blame the defense for those ones.

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