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How do the Yankees rank defensively?

And how do they compare to their top rivals?

Divisional Round - New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox - Game One Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The 2019 Yankees are, on paper, quite similar to the 2018 Yankees. In that respect, last year’s offensive, pitching and defensive performances can serve as benchmarks for this year’s performance projections.

While we know that the Yankees look a little bit better on offense and pitching this year, we don’t know how they compare defensively to last year’s squad. The starting lineup is almost entirely the same up and down from last year, so maybe the better question is, where does this team rank defensively compared to the rest of the MLB?

Last year, the Yankees ranked as an MLB-average defensive team. They finished 18th in FanGraph’s DEF (defense) metric, which takes stats like DRS, UZR and others into account. The team was 17th in defensive runs saved, at 24, and also 17th in UZR, at -1.9. By traditional stats, the team was 16th in errors.

The real interesting part comes when we analyze the specific units (infield, outfield, catchers, etc). The Yankees’ outfield was one of the best defensively last year. The club finished with the third-highest ARM rating (another FanGraphs metric that measures runs saved by outfield assists) and the fourth-highest UZR and DRS. Given that no personnel changes were made to the outfield group this offseason, we can likely expect more of the same in 2019.

Not surprisingly, the Yankees’ outfield compares favorably with their rivals – except the Red Sox. Boston’s outfield group actually posted an even higher UZR and ARM, likely due to the fact that all three of Boston’s normal starting outfielders have experience playing center field. The Red Sox have the edge over the Yankees yet again.

What about the infield defense? The Yankees’ infield defense may actually look a little different in 2019 than it did in 2018. For one, Didi Gregorius will miss at least the first two months of the season. The Yankees may also shift guys like Gleyber Torres and the recently-acquired DJ LeMahieu around the infield. Over the course of a week, they could see action at two or three different positions each.

While this makes projecting performance for 2019 a little more difficult, let’s first look at the team’s infield defense from 2018. Aside from shortstop, it wasn’t too pretty. Torres struggled with his range and his consistency at second base, Andujar was a mess at third, and neither Greg Bird nor Luke Voit were graceful at first base. So while losing Gregorius, the one positive defender this infield had, seems like a bad thing, the Yankees may be better able to withstand his loss (from a defensive perspective) than first appears.

First off, Troy Tulowitzki is still a capable fielder at shortstop. While his body is breaking down, his fundamentals are sound. He has only made more than five throwing errors in a season once in his career, and his glove work is solid. Sure, his range isn’t what it used to be at an injury-riddled 34 years old, but he has looked good at short this spring. He won’t be Gregorius out there, but Tulo can hold down the fort in the field.

And when Tulowitzki is resting (or injured), Torres will shift to his natural shortstop, where he is a better defender than at second base. All of Torres’s metrics grade out better at shortstop, and he just seems more comfortable.

The addition of LeMahieu will also help the infield defense. He is a three-time Gold Glove second baseman, and can replace Andujar or Torres late in close games. The Yankees made an effort to improve their infield defense this offseason, and I suspect that it will pay off.

Luckily, the Red Sox aren’t known for their stellar infield defense either. Xander Bogaerts is a poor man’s Gregorius, Rafael Devers is rough at third, and Dustin Pedroia is like Tulowitzki in that, while he’s fundamentally sound, he’s losing range. The difference is that Eduardo Nunez isn’t nearly as good a sub defender as LeMahieu is.

Ultimately, there is reason to believe that the Yankees’ defense will improve from last season’s slightly-below-average ranking. The kids will get marginally better, and the veterans add experience and can serve as valuable mentors. Meanwhile, the outfield was already good and will only get better with health. If the Yankees are to close the gap on the Red Sox and cash in on their potential, they’ll need their defense to continue to up the ante.