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How have the Yankees’ outfielders fared defensively in 2017?

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What does Statcast tell us about the Yankees’ defense?

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The Yankees generally aren’t regarded as a standout defensive team. The New York teams of the mid-aughts made headlines for piling up wins in spite of one of history’s worst defenses. Despite recently fielding plenty of players with strong defensive reputations, from Brett Gardner to Chase Headley to Mark Teixeira, the team still hasn’t posted an above average defensive value since 2011.

Is there any reason to believe that’s changed? In 2017, we have more ways then ever to capture the defensive proclivity of every major leaguer. The newest, shiniest way is Statcast’s catch probability. This measurement uses the launch angle and velocity of a batted ball to estimate the odds that that ball will be caught for an out.

Batted balls are placed into one of five buckets, from one to five stars, with five-star catches having up to a 25% chance of being caught, four-star catches between 26% and 50%, three-star catches from 51% to 75%, two-star catches from 76 to 90%, and one-star catches 90% and up.

At the moment, Baseball Savant has assembled catch probability leaderboards only for outfielders. Let’s turn to them to see what we can glean about how the Yankees’ outfielders have fared on defense this year.

To get a sense for whether the Yankees have fielded a strong defense, I calculated the actual rate at which each kind of ball has been converted into an out. Since the beginning of the 2016 season, here are the odds that a ball from each of the five different categories was caught:

Catch Probability

Category Percent Caught
Category Percent Caught
5-Star 8%
4-Star 40%
3-Star 68%
2-Star 84%
1-Star 93%

Using these figures, I can take the number of opportunities the Yankees’ outfielders have had at each of the different kinds of plays and calculate an “expected” number of plays they should have made. Then I can compare that to the number of plays they actually made.

Here’s the differential between actually made plays and expected plays made for each of the Yankees’ four primary outfielders in 2017:

2017 Yankee Outfielders

Player Differential
Player Differential
Aaron Judge +7
Brett Gardner +5
Aaron Hicks +1
Jacoby Ellsbury 0

On the whole, the Yankees’ outfield rates pretty well. All four of the regular outfielders have made at least as many plays as we’d expect them to. From this perspective, the outfield looks like it should be pretty solidly above average on defense.

Most notable is the appearance of Aaron Judge at the top of this particular leaderboard. Judge has obviously struggled mightily at the plate over the past month or two, but even in spite of his slump, he’s the owner of a 158 wRC+ on the season. That Judge can run that sort of offensive line, while making a well above average number of plays in right field, portends well for his future value.

Judge’s solid play in the field does make a sort of sense. Statcast’s sprint speed figures list Judge’s max speed at 27.7 feet per second, above the league average of 27.0 f/s. Judge has decent speed, and polished enough instincts in the field to make plays like this:

However, there is some concern regarding the Yankees’ veteran outfielders. Before the season, I looked at these same catch probability figures and noted in which direction the Yankees’ outfielders appeared to be trending. Both Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, as they progressed through their 30’s, seemed to be worsening in the field.

That’s to be expected; speed and athleticism wane when players reach the wrong side of 30. Even so, Ellsbury went from making an above average number of plays in center field in both 2015 and 2016 to profiling as perfectly average in 2017 in terms of catch probability. Gardner still looks like a quality left fielder, just not quite as strong as he was at his peak.

It’s unfortunate that the most exorbitantly priced of the outfielders is the one whose value seems to be slipping most precipitously. In the first year after he signed in New York, Ellsbury ran an above average batting line and provided strong defense at a premium position. He’s since trended in the wrong direction both offensively and defensively, according to catch probability. If the trend continues and Ellsbury turns into a poor defensive center fielder, he will eventually become unplayable.

Overall, though, the Yankees’ current defensive outfield still profiles as a strength. Ellsbury can at least hold his own at the moment, Aaron Hicks is a fine defender, and Gardner and Judge may actually be plus fielders. If top prospect Clint Frazier can find a way to turn his excellent speed into great defense, the Yankees may actually be flush in outfielders that can cover ground. For once, maybe the Yankees’ will field a strong defensive team.