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The Yankee infield has to be better

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Errors don’t tell the whole story of the Yankees’ defensive woes

Minnesota Twins v New York Yankees Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

If asked to describe the 2018 New York Yankees, your first thoughts go to the bats, right?Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and all the rest. Maybe you’d think of Luis Severino, or select members of the bullpen. Or perhaps you’d simply scream BUT THE STRIKEOUTS.

Odds are, you’re not thinking about the team’s defense. Defense IS often overlooked, and unless you have an all-time great like Andrelton Simmons on your team, it’s easy to forget about. But the Yankees, so far in the season, have been pretty good defensively! Or at least, the outfield has.

Through Sunday’s win over Oakland, the Yankees outfield is third in baseball in UZR/150, and fifth in defensive runs saved. If Statcast is more your game, the outfield is fifth in Outs Above Average too. The usual sample size caveats apply, but this shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. Brett Gardner is very good with his glove, the Aarons have come into their own defensively, and the outfield just makes a lot of outs.

The infield, meanwhile, is a little different. Specifically, the left side, where the Yankees have been amongst the worst defenders in the game. Miguel Andujar has been arguably the worst defensive third baseman in baseball, worth -8 DSR and -27.5 UZR/150 (!!!!). Much has been written about Brandon Drury’s early struggles, before his extended DL trip. Most surprising of all, is that Didi Gregorius has been a net loss defensively this year as well. Coming into the season as the infield’s most dependable defender, he currently sits along names like Tzu-Wei Lin and Pete Kozma defensively. Fine players, I guess, but not what the Yankees need out of their shortstop.

This defensive skid hurts the Yankees more than a lot of other teams, because of the nature of the team’s starting pitching. Severino will legitimately challenge for a strikeout crown, of course, but the rest of the rotation prioritizes soft contact over swing-and-miss stuff. CC Sabathia, Sonny Gray, and Jordan Montgomery all live at or below a 10% whiff rate, meaning they miss so few bats that they need a sharp defense.

Take last Thursday’s loss to the Red Sox, for example. CC Sabathia’s on the hill and induced 13 ground balls. Those 13 had an average exit velocity of 87.3 mph, per Baseball Savant, and if you remember that game, Sabathia seemed to have a classic “unlucky” start: Lots of weak contact, and balls finding holes. Some people will call that being BABIP’d to death, but three Red Sox hits came on balls hit less than 83mph, with a potential fourth only overturned on review. Balls that slow, on the ground, turn into hits right around 10% of the time, so it’s hard to be lucky that much in just a couple of innings.

I’m not blaming the Yankees infield for any one start, sometimes people really can be unlucky. I’m merely using one start, where all the factors indicate that the pitcher did his job right, to show that the Yankees’ lack of range in the infield may hurt them more than it would hurt a team like the Astros, whose starters strike out far more batters than New York.

Hopefully Andujar receives some polishing defensively, because he certainly needs it. Didi is probably better than he’s shown this year, unless his range has started to take a hit in his age 28 season—and it wouldn’t be the first time a shortstop has had that happen. The Yankees can probably expect to see their defense tighten up as the season goes on, but they certainly need it. Judge and Stanton are fantastic hitters, but leaving runs out on the field might catch up to this team before you know it.