The 2019 Yankees are going to be an exceptionally good team. They’ll probably come close to 100 wins for the second straight year, and will almost certainly be a playoff team. If there’s a glaring weakness, though, it’s the infield defense.
Based on the way the roster is breaking down right now, it looks like the Opening Day lineup will feature either Brett Gardner or Clint Frazier playing in left, Aaron Hicks holding down center, and Aaron Judge patrolling right field. One of Gardner or Frazier would then serve as the fourth outfielder.
That leaves only one bench job for an infielder, as the infield is probably shaping up to be Miguel Andujar, Troy Tulowitzki, Gleyber Torres and Luke Voit from left to right. I say this because Tulo was given assurances he’d receive starts at shortstop, so if he’s healthy - a big if - he’s going to be in the six slot. Torres, meanwhile, doesn’t exactly enjoy the confidence of the front office as a shortstop, so he’s probably bound for second.
The Yankees’ big free agent signing, DJ LeMahieu, then would fill the infield bench role, and in theory, is going to be a utility infielder. He’s a great fielding second baseman that hasn’t seen significant time at another position for four years. If and when Tulo goes down with an injury, Torres probably shifts to shortstop and LeMahieu becomes the full-time second baseman.
No matter how that breaks down, you have four infield spots and five infield jobs, and only one player can be reliably considered a plus defender. Troy Tulowitzki gets a lot of praise for being a good defender, but he hasn’t played baseball in a year and a half, and players don’t generally get better at age-34. He was really good in 2016, posting accumulating 10 DRS and 5.7 UZR/150. He was a net negative in 2017, however, and didn’t play in 2018. He has only gotten older since. While I’d like to see good defense out of him, I’m going to remain skeptical until it happens.
Miguel Andujar is a bad fielder, full stop. Gleyber Torres wasn’t great in his rookie season, basically being a push defensively. He did make a number of mental errors that I’m willing to write off as rookie mistakes. All we have to work with though is the data available now, and Torres doesn’t inspire confidence. Luke Voit is also a poor fielder at first.
So, four positions and five men, and only one can really be counted on to bring good defense. The infield could look ugly in 2019, and it means the pitching staff has to place a premium on strikeouts.
The great thing about strikeouts is you don’t really have to worry about the defense. As long as the catcher catches the third strike — which, if we’re being honest, could be a concern itself with Gary Sanchez — it doesn’t matter how old your shortstop is, or how bad your third baseman is. The Yankees have a lot going for them in that their top two starters are among the best strikeout pitchers in baseball; Luis Severino and James Paxton both ranked in the top 20 in baseball in starting pitcher strikeout percentage. Even Masahiro Tanaka, not exactly known as a strikeout pitcher, was 25th in baseball in raw strikeout rate.
The other two guys in the rotation fall below the median strikeout rate, and therein lies a source of concern. J.A. Happ is really more of a fly-ball pitcher, leading the staff with a 47.4% fly-ball rate in 2018. That’s a dangerous formula when you pitch at Yankee Stadium, and his strikeout rate declined when he joined the Bombers. CC Sabathia was second on the team in fly-ball rate at 35.3%, and was second among full-time starters in groundball rate. He doesn’t have the stuff to fan batters anymore, and is more reliant than anyone on his team defense.
Even Tanaka depends heavily on infield defense, leading the rotation with a groundball rate above 47%. If that trend holds up, the pernicious infield could directly harm 40% of the starting rotation.
The other big potential victim of the infield defense is another big free agent acquisition, Zack Britton. Unlike the rest of the bullpen, happy to strike out 40+ percent of batters faced, Britton relies on his heavy sinker to induce groundballs. Since 2015, Britton’s posted a ludicrous 77% groundball rate, a mark 13% better than the second-place pitcher among all players with 200 innings pitched. The Yankees are going to use him in high-leverage spots. If he’s going to do that, the defense behind him has to be top-notch, or a lot of those groundballs will turn into dribbling singles late in a one-run game.
I’m excited to see another great Yankees offense, and a bullpen that should be able to shorten the game. The way the team is built right now, and the information we have available, makes me awful nervous about the effect team defense could have on some important pitchers on staff. Hopefully I’m wrong, but if any team has an incentive to focus on striking out opponents at the expense of other approaches, it’s this year’s Yankees.