For the Yankees, squeezing value from the margins will be vital for the foreseeable future. They’re no longer a team chock full of star power and big ticket free agents, like one of the ‘super teams’ built to win a World Series. To be frank, the roster is a rebuilder’s, thinly veiled in a coat of ‘competing’ thanks to new additions such as Aroldis Chapman and Matt Holliday.
Given the lack of playoff talent in the lineup and the rotation, the Yankees will need to do the little things right to even make a push for October. While it’s vastly undervaluing defense to call it a ‘little thing,’ the ability to save runs on the outfield grass is something the Yankees are trying to wring as much value out of as possible, building their outfield corps to be excellent at defense.
While defensive metrics can be clunky and inaccurate at times, they’re decent at approximating overall value in large sample sizes. Luckily, that fits what this article needs, so observing that the Yankees were seventh in baseball last year in outfield defense runs saved (DRS) and sixth in UZR is a valid way to gauge overall performance. And while that’s very good—ranking in the top-7 or so in baseball among two largely used defensive metrics is nothing to sneeze at—the Yankees could get even better next season.
The main improvement is addition through subtraction, with Carlos Beltran leaving the team via trade. Beltran labored through 60 games in right field for the Yankees last season, with his previously excellent range and arm strength completely evaporated. The 39-year-old had no business playing outfield daily, but the Yankees needed him in the field in order to get his great bat in the lineup regularly. While he did provide lots of value at the plate, his impact on defense was, well, unsatisfactory. Beltran’s work on the field was both terrible when viewed statistically and with the eye test, and, at times, even cost the Yankees games.
Now, with Beltran gone, Aaron will take over in right field. Which Aaron it will be is unclear, but either way, they’ll represent a clear improvement over Beltran. While Mr. Judge doesn’t look like the ideal defender at 6’7”, he’s an excellent athlete who runs surprisingly well. The behemoth brings a plus arm, which, despite fringy foot speed, should make him an average-or-better outfielder. The other Aaron—Hicks—has a strong defensive reputation, bringing with him an elite arm (he had the hardest throw ever recorded by Statcast last year) and solid range. Hicks had trouble adjusting to Yankee Stadium in 2016, taking some questionable routes, and even his accuracy on throws wavered. However, there is still plus-plus defender upside in there, and while Hicks may never hit that ceiling, he should still be a very good outfielder next season.
If there’s one thing both Aarons have in common, it’s arm strength, and that’s a good thing, since the rest of the Yankees’ outfielder is lacking in that aspect. While Brett Gardner had a huge season in left field, winning a Gold Glove, his arm isn’t better than average, and Jacoby Ellsbury’s cannon is anything but. Both bring great range, which should keep Gardner as an above average left fielder and Ellsbury average in center (which is perfectly fine). Still, neither outfielder has the strongest of arms, and it showed last season.
Despite this, the Yankees have the makings of another strong outfield next season…one that should represent an upgrade from 2016 with Beltran gone. While defense won’t help much if the pitching staff can’t avoid giving up home runs in the bandbox of Yankees Stadium, the balls which stay in the stadium will be in good hands. Being able to maintain this strength next season will be key for the team, since the rotation will need all the help they can get, and defense can have a major impact on limiting the opposition’s offense. While this doesn’t mean the Yankees won’t have trouble keeping runs off the board, the defense should only help the club’s pitchers.