Going into the 2018-19 offseason, the Yankees have a number of roster questions to answer. One of them is the starting left field job, as Brett Gardner at this point profiles as a very valuable fourth outfielder rather than a starter. Luckily for the Yankees, they already have a very deserving candidate for the gig - none other than Giancarlo Stanton.
Stanton served mainly as the Yankees’ designated hitter in 2018, but that was due to a crowded outfield, not any doubts about his defensive abilities. In his admittedly limited time in the outfield this year, Stanton was rated positively as an outfielder by both DRS (5 runs above average) and UZR/150 (17.7). As a left fielder, Stanton garnered 4 DRS and a UZR/150 of 23.1 in 317 innings of work.
Now, obviously we can’t take small sample size fielding metrics at face value and proclaim Stanton our version of Kevin Kiermaier. Plus, regardless of sample size, both DRS and UZR/150 have a tendency to get wonky at the extremes. Numbers that stand out immediately, be that in a good way or a bad way, should be taken with a grain of salt.
Yet in Stanton’s case, we can be confident that he’s at least an above average defender. This is because DRS and UZR/150 have rated him positively for every year of his career, save for 2013. That’s a sample size of 8908 innings, over which Stanton has accumulated 50 DRS and run a career UZR/150 of 5.6. I think this sample size is large enough to declare Stanton not bad with the glove.
So, we’ve established that Stanton can absolutely handle the starting left field job for the Yankees in terms of defensive ability. Granted, as he ages we can expect him to lose a step in the field, but for next year he should be fine. However, there’s another reason why the Yankees should start Stanton in left field - namely, to let him avoid the DH penalty.
The DH penalty refers to the decrease observed in a hitter’s performance when they hit as a designated hitter compared to hitting and fielding. It was first postulated in the seminal sabermetric text The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, and is considered to be worth around 14 points, or 4%, of a hitter’s wOBA. For the methodology behind the calculation of the DH penalty, please read this article by eminent sabermetrician Mitchel Lichtman. If you don’t have time, just know that people way smarter than you and I analyzed 15 seasons’ worth of hitter data to come to the conclusion that, on average, a hitter does 4% worse as a DH than as a position player.
4%, or 14 points of wOBA, might not seem that much, but it makes a huge difference in a hitter’s season. Add 14 points to Stanton’s .360 wOBA this year and he moves from 34th in baseball into top-20 hitter territory. Granted, Stanton did hit better as a DH this year compared to his stints in the outfield (150 wRC+ as a DH, 128 as a LF, 75 as a RF), but we’re dealing with extremely small sample sizes here. At the very least, letting Stanton field like he had for every season of his career pre-2018 can’t hurt his production with the bat.
In addition to maximizing Stanton’s value both defensively and offensively, starting Stanton at left field gives the Yankees some much needed roster flexibility as well. Should the Yankees acquire Manny Machado to fill in for Didi for the first half of 2019, they would have an infield logjam upon Didi’s return. By freeing up the DH slot previously occupied by Stanton, the Yankees can move the defensively challenged Andujar to DH if they see fit to do so, and move Machado to third. Even if Machado to the Yankees doesn’t happen, an open DH slot means the Yankees can bring in another slugger if they want to - maybe Nelson Cruz on a short-term deal - without worrying about where to put him.
Building a baseball team isn’t just about signing the best players; it’s also about constructing a roster that puts them in the best position to succeed. In that sense, the designated hitter isn’t really the ideal spot for Stanton, whose solid glove is wasted there. By starting Stanton in left field, the Yankees can enjoy his defense, absolve him of the DH penalty, and open up the DH slot for other players better suited there. It’s not often you can kill three birds with one stone, but the Yankees have a chance to do so with their usage of Giancarlo Stanton.