Defense can often be overlooked in favor of hitting and pitching, the other two parts of baseball’s holy trinity. The Yankees are historically a very forward-thinking team, and in recent years a good defensive one. The 2018 season is no exception, as the Yankees rank in the upper-half of major league teams in most defensive metrics.
This is largely thanks to outstanding defense from the four outfield regulars Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks, Giancarlo Stanton, and Aaron Judge. That foursome ranks third in baseball for outfield defensive runs saved, behind only the Brewers and the Diamondbacks.
The infield, however, has been a different story. Other than Didi Gregorius, who has been excellent as usual, the infield has been abysmal defensively. Collectively speaking, the other three infield positions rank in the lower third of defensive runs.
First base, comprising mostly of Greg Bird and Neil Walker, ranks 21st. Second base sits in the 23rd spot, which might be surprising as Gleyber Torres is an admirable defender. But in his absence to start the season, and during his disabled list stint, most of the innings went to Walker. What isn’t surprising, however, is that Yankees third basemen have been the worst in the majors defensively. Miguel Andujar, one of the worst defenders in baseball regardless of position, made 91 of 115 possible starts at the hot corner,.
This proves especially troubling because the Yankees pitching staff has the fourth-highest groundball rate in the American league at 44.6%. It should not come as a surprise that the Yankees target pitchers who limit fly balls, as they play a majority of their games in Yankee Stadium III and other similarly small American League East ballparks. But what good are groundballs when they are hit at subpar defenders?
The Yankees are trying hard to make the best out of a bad situation, though. In 2018, the infield has been performing better than the sum of its parts. They convert groundballs into outs at the third-best rate in the majors, trailing only the Braves and the Astros. This is likely due to effective positioning of their infielders. Prior to last night’s game, the Yankees employed a defensive shift in 28.1 of opposing plate appearances, which ranks fifth among major league teams.
What separates the Yankees from other shift-heavy teams is their reluctance to shift against right-handed hitters. They shift the second most against lefties, behind only the Astros, but only 11.6 % against righties. Aaron Boone is taking the old saying “work smarter not harder” to heart, except with shifts.
The Yankees are a very good team, one that is projected to win 100 games by the end of the season. Their infield defense is, however, a glaring weakness — their Achilles heel. I’m surprised they had not been tested more prior to last weekend’s undesirable series vs the Red Sox. I expect they will be down the stretch and during the playoffs.