There was a time when the Yankees’ lineup spent very little time focusing on defense. They were power hitters who certainly helped the offense and provided a big boost to the team, but their work in the field left plenty to be desired. That era feels like quite awhile ago, even though it hasn’t been that long.
The 2016 Yankees deserved criticism for a number of factors, but the defense wasn’t really a problem at all, other than when the aging Carlos Beltran manned right field. They had average to above-average defenders at every position, and some truly elite names as well. Brett Gardner might have been the only one to earn a Gold Glove, but he was far from alone in his expertise.
It’s a joy to watch stellar defense, so below are the top five defensive plays by the Yankees in 2016. There were several to consider, and the honorable mentions were worthy: Mark Teixeira for maintaining his elite defense into his final season, Aaron Hicks for his record-setting cannon arm on a 105.5 mph outfield assist, and even Dustin Ackley, who believe it or not, made a game-saving catch in right field back in May.
For the longest time, the knock on Gary Sanchez as a prospect was that like Jesus Montero, he was a poor defender behind the plate. It was a grueling few years for Sanchez in the Yankees’ system, but to his credit, he worked very hard to improve his game, and by 2016 was considered one of the best catcher in Triple-A. Although he always had a great arm, he made strides with his framing, blocking, and defense overall. Obviously his offense grabbed the most headlines when he led his late Rookie of the Year charge, but analysts loved his game at catcher, too.
The arm is still the most exciting part of his game though, and he showed why in his two months in New York. He had the capacity to make pickoff plays that the Yankees haven’t really seen Jose Molina was a backup. The play above to nab Corey Dickerson was just one example, and it was a bullet throw right on target. The scary part about Sanchez’s defense is that it’s likely to just get better with more experience.
4. The dynamic DP duo
Although both Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro made their share of terrific plays on their own in 2016, they were at their most jaw-dropping when they worked together. They turned a number of outstanding double plays in 2016, none bigger than on June 2nd against the Tigers.
The Yankees were clinging to a 5-3 lead with the bases loaded and no one out in the bottom of the ninth. A single off Aroldis Chapman would tie the game, and it appeared that J.D. Martinez would get just that when he smashed a grounder up the middle. Then Didi snared it and flipped it to Castro, who caught it barehanded and still unleashed a good throw to Teixeira for the double play. It was a game-changer, and Chapman followed with an easy grounder from Miguel Cabrera to secure the win.
3. Gritty gutty robbery
Jacoby Ellsbury robbed a homer in this August series against the Angels too, but this unbelievable play took the cake. This was simply a sensational home run robbery by the Gold Glove winner, snatching C.J. Cron’s deep drive back from over the left field wall, even as fans got in his way. In terms of pure “wow” factor, this might be the Yankees’ best play of the year. It was phenomenal.
2. Tommy Layne to the rescue
This was just a ridiculous play though, and another game-changer. The Yankees were desperately trying to stay in the playoff race and with Dellin Betances struggling, Joe Girardi had to turn to the unknown Layne to bail them out. The bases were loaded with one out and the Blue Jays only down 7-5 after the ninth began with a 7-3 Yankees lead. The Toronto crowd was roaring, making it a very tough situation.
Russell Martin hit a slow dribbler that both Layne and Sanchez pursued. Layne got it, and realizing that Sanchez wouldn’t get back in time, simply dove at home plate, hoping to get there before Darwin Barney. He did, saving the game with a force-out. Gardner then made a catch in foul territory requiring tremendous range that almost made the list itself, finishing the game and giving Layne his fourth career save. Never a doubt.
1. Gardner’s grab wins it
Just a few weeks before Layne’s save came a very similar situation where another anonymous reliever was called on to assist the weary Betances. It was also a Yankees/Blue Jays game, though this was at Yankee Stadium.
There was no margin for error. Betances departed with the bases loaded and just one out in a 7-6 ballgame. A fly ball could tie the game, but Parker took the first step by fanning Kevin Pillar on a called strike three. On the next pitch, Justin Smoak lifted a long drive to left field that sent Gardner back to the wall.
Gardner leaped and somehow made the catch, unquestionably saving the game himself. His home run robbery in Anaheim might have been a better play, but given the situation, this deserves top honors. Congrats again on the Gold Glove, Gardy!