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Will Defense Be What Kills the Yankees in October?

Curtis Granderson can slug, but his defensive range seems to be ebbing. (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)
Curtis Granderson can slug, but his defensive range seems to be ebbing. (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)
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Kevin Kernan of the New York Post has a new column up in which he alleges that, "All of the Yankees’ flaws were exposed in this four-game series against the young, upstart, pitching-rich, living-right A’s."

The Yankees couldn’t get the big hit when they needed it. They couldn’t get the big out, either. Their defense was sloppy while the youthful A’s made the most of their opportunities.

With all due respect to Mr. Kernan, he’s overreacting to a small sample in a distortive environment. In road games, Oakland’s pitching staff is allowing 4.23 runs per game, a bit more than the Yankees have (4.17) in their own road games—the A’s aren’t as pitching-rich as it might seem at first glance. They’re also not that young, and since they’re at the bottom of the league in terms of strikeout rate, their ability to repeat what they’ve gotten so far is in doubt.

The idea that the A’s are "a young team finding the will to win" is a cliché not worth arguing with—heck, most of the column isn’t worth arguing with, but we all have to fill inches sometimes I get that. One part, though, is absolutely correct: the observation about sloppy defense. The Yankees are a poor team in that regard, and it distorts our appreciation of the pitching staff.

This is something you can see with the naked eye, but if you want metrics, the Yankees are 12th in the American League in defensive efficiency, the rate at which teams convert balls in play into outs (the park-adjusted version is no better). If you want to think about it differently, the Yankees are also 12th in batting average on balls in play against their pitchers—the league average is .292, but the Yankees allow opponents to hit .305. That’s about fielding and luck.

Part of that is due to the huge swing that comes from having to replace Brett Gardner with Raul Ibanez, Andruw Jones, and a couple of utility infielders (giving Dewayne Wise a pass). Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano have had strong defensive seasons, but they’re pretty much it in terms of players you would think of as being above-average; everyone else has been somewhere between okay and a statue, particularly Curtis Granderson and Derek Jeter.

Granderson seems to be losing speed and probably plays too shallow for his present abilities and Jeter… You know Jeter. Even if you disagreed about the value of his defense in the past, he’s an old man now. There is a good reason that since 1900 just 18 players have played over 120 games at shortstop at his age or older—most shortstops have long since given up their range by then. Ten of those seasons were by Honus Wagner, Luke Appling, and Omar Vizquel, and Jeter was never in their league as a defensive player.

Jeter’s bat is, of course, still top ten for a shortstop, so there is that. However, the tradeoff has an impact on the pitching staff and the Yankees are possibly getting to the point when that tradeoff is no longer worthwhile. I know there aren’t a million alternatives, I’m not advocating a change now, and I’m not panicking, but rather pointing out that the inflection point exists and that Jeter’s offense might have slipped enough that it’s either nearing or here.

Defense might or might not have an outsized impact in the playoffs; I would suspect that it does simply for this reason: in October, a team faces good offenses, and you can’t give them extra chances. A low rate of converting balls in play into outs doesn’t quality as "extra chances" in the sense that errors do; instead, think of it as making the field larger, so that the safe areas into which opponents can hit become vast and indefensible. That’s the handicap under which the Yankees have chosen to operate.