A little over a year ago, Rob Refsnyder was just a prospect in Triple-A who was blocked by Stephen Drew and Brendan Ryan on the Yankees roster. Refsnyder had always shown a promising bat but, due to his defensive struggles in the minor leagues, the Yankees front office really didn’t believe that he’d be an improvement over Drew or Ryan at second base.
Fast-forward to a year later and Refsnyder has proven to be a quick learner in the field, having played at five different positions (first, second, third, right field, and left field) since the beginning of June alone. Refsnyder’s ability to play good enough defense at multiple positions has really given him a chance to collect at-bats and show that he deserves a spot on the Yankees roster.
Refsnyder’s coming of age as a utility player could have been derailed multiple times over the last year. The Yankees acquired Starlin Castro in the previous offseason, putting an end to the idea that they’d go forward with Refsnyder as their everyday second baseman (or in a platoon with Dustin Ackley), despite the fact that Refsnyder had just started at second in a playoff game for the Yankees.
Instead, Refsnyder started this season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre playing several positions, none of which were first base. When the Yankees needed a first baseman though, they tried Refsnyder there and he has been a surprisingly decent fielder. Of Refsnyder’s play at first base, Yankees infield coordinator Joe Espada had this to say back in early June:
“He looks comfortable, he looks confident. That's what I'm looking for. I know it's something new for him. But I see no signs of fear in his willingness to learn as we go forward. He's looking for an opportunity to play. He's willing to do whatever it takes to be in the lineup.”
So, can Refsnyder really become “a younger version of Ben Zobrist”? Without enough innings to have solid statistics on his fielding this season, we can study what some of his teammates have been saying about him.
In June, when Mark Teiexeira returned from the DL, the Yankees showed a lot of confidence in Refsnyder by cutting Ike Davis (a true first baseman) instead of sending Refsnydown. Teixeira, a great defender himself, had this to say about Refsnyder’s play:
“Ref's doing a great job at first base... I really enjoy talking to him about playing first, and if I need to take a day off to rest my knee, I think he's doing really well filling in for me."
Since Teixeira’s return, Refsnyder has seen fewer innings at first but has started to play right field and left field when needed. He seems pretty confident on the field, as noted by Brian McCann at the beginning of July:
“I think he’s getting more comfortable. What he’s done throughout his whole life is hit. He can flat-out hit. But I don’t think he gets the credit for his defense. He can play multiple positions at a high level. He’s comfortable playing outfield. He looks great at second. You can throw him at first base... He brings a lot of value to the team.”
Refsnyder definitely has the confidence of Joe Girardi too:
“This kid’s had to adapt to a lot, a couple of different position changes. But he’s really pushed himself on here, because he’s made himself more versatile and he gives us really good at-bats and runs the bases well. We’ve really liked what he’s done.”
It’s possible that Refsnyder’s willingness to put work in and his natural athleticism have helped him grow to the level that he is at today. Some people might have seen his improvement coming. From FanGraphs last year:
“In fairness to Refsnyder, his defense has gotten substantially better since he converted to the infield in 2013. As an A-baller in 2013, he had a fielding percentage of just .943, but has posted marks of .977 and .966 last year and this year, respectively.”
Most importantly, this season the Yankees have been finding at-bats for Refsnyder, even though he really hasn’t hit up to his perceived potential. He currently has a 73 wRC+ and hasn’t hit a home run yet.
The fact that the Yankees continue to try him at different positions though shows that they believe he can be a good hitter at the major league level. If he continues to be able to play multiple positions and starts to hit, he should be a fixture on the Yankees for years to come.