The Yankees’ infield defense in 2019 was one of the team’s unexpected strong suits. Gleyber Torres continued to take steps forward, Gio Urshela announced his presence, and DJ LeMahieu became the super-utility man that the Yankees’ infield desperately needed for years. That’s without even mentioning the contributions of Didi Gregorius, the team’s sure-handed shortstop, who contributed when healthy.
However, the team’s infield defense was almost a little bit better without Gregorius. Although Gregorius plays a better shortstop than Torres does at this point in his career, the ripple effects that come with keeping him around actually make the team’s overall infield defense less optimal.
During the 2019 playoffs, the Yankees routinely went with an infield of LeMahieu-Torres-Gregorius-Urshela from first to third. However, the Yankees also made a rash of errors in the playoffs, particularly from LeMahieu and Torres. In just nine games, the duo combined for five errors, with LeMahieu in particular making more than a third of the amount of errors he made in the regular season in only a two-week period.
The LeMahieu-Torres-Gregorius-Urshela infield was the Yankees’ correct option in the playoffs, but it is not the optimal option moving forward, at least for defense. If the Yankees want to take their infield defense to the next level, playing LeMahieu and Torres at their natural positions would do the trick.
Let’s not forget that Torres was brought up as a shortstop. It’s the position that he has played his entire life, basically up until he made it to Triple-A with the Yankees. Through two years in the Majors split 60-40 between second base and shortstop, it’s very clear that Torres is more productive defensively at short.
Torres is actually a net negative at second base when he plays there. His DRS through two years at second sits at an ugly -8, with seven of those units coming this year. At shortstop, he grades out at +1 DRS, which is slightly above average. His range is the weakest aspect of his fielding at any position, but it grades out better at shortstop, where he reads the baseball from a more natural vantage point. Although his numbers at second base look similarly bad in both seasons, his metrics at shortstop improved this year, which should give the Yankees confidence that he can be an everyday shortstop if needed.
Onto LeMahieu, he split his time between first, second and third base fairly equally, and although he wasn’t bad at any of them, he was clearly at his best at his natural second base. He only made two errors in 75 games, compared to six errors in his 92 games spent at first and third, plus three more in the playoffs. Obviously, errors aren’t the only or preeminent way to measure fielding effectiveness, but it is clear that LeMahieu is a little more steady at second base than anywhere else.
This shouldn’t really be a surprise—he’s fielded over 8,000 innings at second base in his MLB career, and less than 1,000 at the corner infield positions. Although LeMahieu’s versatility is appreciated, he would be most productive in the field as a primary second baseman.
Urshela has third base locked down defensively, but the Yankees will still need to solve first base defense out, something that has given them issues since Mark Teixeira retired. Neither Luke Voit or Mike Ford are good defensively, but at least they’re natural first basemen who better understand angles and positional placement than someone learning on the fly, like LeMahieu.
So how can the Yankees get Torres at short and LeMahieu at second base? Well, it likely involves saying goodbye to Gregorius, who would play shortstop if brought back and would force LeMahieu and Torres back to first and second, where neither is as productive.
Now, this should not be a chief reason cited for not re-signing Gregorius. If the Yankees truly think they can use the money that would have went to him in a more productive way (such as signing Gerrit Cole), then it’s worth it. But, if the Yankees were to let Gregorius go and not spend that money on improvements, the team would undeniably grow worse.
The more that Brian Cashman talks, the more clear it becomes that Gregorius is not viewed as a priority for the Yankees this offseason. While this would be a painful loss at first glance, the defensive benefit of running a middle infield of Torres and LeMahieu could help offset some of that. It’s complicated, but for the Yankees’ infield defense to become truly optimized, it involves moving on from Gregorius in 2020.