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All eyes are on Miguel Andujar

Andujar will play the entire season under the close watch of fans and reporters. Can the 24-year-old live up to his rookie campaign?

USA TODAY Sports/Pinstripe Alley Illustrations

As Miguel Andujar jogged off the field and into the dugout at the Yankees’ spring training complex, dozens of reporters and fans peppered him with questions. Actually, it’s just one specific question being asked by everyone in the huddle. They all wanted to know what Andujar thought about Manny Machado’s $300 million free agent deal with the Padres.

“First of all, I’ve got to congratulate Manny. Three hundred million dollars. Wow,” he said to members of the media.

A similar scene unfolded eight days later. This time it was Nolan Arenado who signed a massive contract for a third baseman. The Rockies star secured an eight-year extension to the tune of $260 million.

“Good for him. I want to be like that one day,’’ the Yankees third baseman joked with reporters.

Andujar handled these questions about as expertly as one could hope, answering with grace and a sense of humor. That he got asked these questions in the first place proves telling. Just this time last year he was an untested prospect, ticketed to start the season in Triple-A. Now he finds himself under the microscope of baseball’s largest media landscape.

With Machado and Arenado in San Diego and Colorado for the long haul, the Yankees have gone all-in on Andujar. Keeping the 24-year-old at the hot corner will stand out as a defining decision for the team’s front office. It also will add to the enormous pressure already placed on him from his rookie campaign. In fact, one can make the case that Andujar has the highest expectations placed on him of any player on the Yankees’ roster.

What made Andujar’s 2018 season noteworthy? That conversation begins and ends with his offense. The rookie hit .297/.328/.527 with 27 home runs. His 128 wRC+ ranked him 30th in baseball among all qualified batters. He made plenty of contact, and didn’t strike out all that much, giving him a different look in the Yankees lineup. Fans also loved to point out that Andujar broke Joe DiMaggio’s team record for most doubles as a rookie. When a player finds himself on a leaderboard alongside DiMaggio, he did something right.

The Yankee Clipper followed up his rookie campaign with a 9.1-win season in 1937. He rode a 165 wRC+ and above-average defense to a second-place MVP finish. It’s probably unfair to expect that level of production from Andujar, because that’s Hall of Fame stuff. Instead, it makes sense to look at a few projections to gauge how his sophomore season may play out.

ZiPS: .277/.314/.472, 27 HR, 109 wRC+
Steamer: .279/.321/.481, 23 HR, 115 wRC+
PECOTA: .271/.319/.462, 22 HR, 106 DRC+

Sometimes projections end up all over the place. The forecasts for Andujar, however, all agree in anticipating a step back offensively in 2019. While Steamer and ZiPS envision a tougher year at the plate, PECOTA proves especially critical. This model dings Andujar nearly 20 points in wRC+. We’re talking the difference between last season’s Andujar and Carlos Santana. It’s not bad — in fact it technically counts as above average — but it’s hardly the impressive figure fans expect.

Chicago White Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

What explains these negative projections? Two factors stand out as likely drivers for the anticipated regression. First, his BABIP figures to decrease, robbing him of some batted ball luck. Andujar doesn’t hit the ball particularly hard when it comes to average exit velocity. His 89.2 mph mark ranks him 114th out of 332 possible batters. That’s about as middle of the pack as one can get.

The second probable factor is his plate discipline. A free-swinger, Andujar offered at 53.1% of pitches he saw. His 4.1% walk rate meant that his offense was inextricably connected to his ability to put the bat to the ball. The different systems clearly value a more disciplined approach when it comes to remaining regression-proof.

Andujar is hardly alone in this regard. To get a feel for historical context, I compiled a list of rookie players in their age-23 season over the last 20 years who qualified for the batting title. I ranked them by OPS+ and K-BB%, two solid measurements for gauging a player’s results and approach at the plate.

Among 23-year-old rookies, Andujar ranked in the top tier. Finishing second to Kris Bryant, while beating out the likes of Dustin Pedroia and Mark Teixeira makes for an impressive achievement. Given how the projection systems envision substantial regression for Andujar, it makes sense to examine how his comps fared.

To follow up on this, I tracked the age-24 season of the aforementioned players, holding for 350 plate appearances, or about how long it takes for OPS+ to stabilize. Did they all experience a sophomore slump, or did they build on their rookie campaigns?

On the aggregate, the players took a step backwards when it comes to offensive production, but not plate discipline. The median delta for K-BB% between year-over-year differences checked in at -2.3%. The mean registered at -2.42%. Overall, the group exhibited more discipline, but still performed worse on the whole. That squares away with Andujar’s projections.

This study, however, offers some reason for optimism. For example, the increased plate discipline bodes well for Andujar, as it should hedge against some loss in production. More importantly, however, it would represent a step forward in his development. Player growth is by no means straightforward. If he loses a little in terms of output at the plate, but develops in a way that makes him a more well-rounded batter, then one has to consider it a win. That would bode well for future success.

Living up to Andujar’s rookie season proves a difficult task for any batter. Keeping pace with DiMaggio represents a wholly unrealistic goal. Fans expecting that do nothing but set themselves up for disappointment. If Andujar regresses like the models suggest and still improves his plate disciple, then the Yankees have to be happy with his 2019.

While Andujar established himself as a threat in the batter’s box, he wound up a butcher at third base. His glove work — or lack thereof — represented the singular flaw in the rookie’s gameplay. Traditional numbers dinged him for 15 errors. Advanced measurements painted an even uglier picture:

UZR: -16
DRS: -25
Rtot: -29

Some fans and commentators have dismissed defensive metrics out of hand, citing spotty reliability. That may hold up when using one individual measurement, but when all of the models agree, that presents a pattern worth paying attention to.

Back in October, Josh Diemert placed Andujar’s defense in historical context. He found that the then 23-year-old had one of the worst seasons at the hot corner in the last 16 years. Consider what he found when he held up the Yankees third baseman against the other poor defenders in the sample:

“[Andujar is] perhaps the second worst third baseman since 2002, surpassed only by Ryan Braun’s legendary 2007 rookie season. In fact, those two have a lot in common, especially when it concerns their debut campaigns. Braun was an even better hitter than Andujar, but like Miggy, posted a sub-three win season purely because his defense was beyond a liability, and costing his team somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 runs.

Of course, Ryan Braun is no longer a third baseman. He has not played a single out at the hot corner since his debut, moving first to left field and more recently to first base. Most of the terrible third basemen in the above plot were moved quickly. The players in that lower left quadrant: Edwin Encarnacion, Mark Teahen and Miguel Cabrera are now first basemen. Jose Bautista was moved to right field. The Tigers are trying to keep Nick Castellanos at third but boy howdy, that is going so poorly for them.”

Andujar spent a significant portion of the winter shoring up his defense. The team repeatedly spoke up his hard work, and footage of his workouts landed on social media. He addressed the concerns and elaborated on how he hoped to correct them when camp opened last month.

“The plan on defense since the offseason [started] has been to improve my ready position, improve my first step, and improve my direction when making a throw,” Andujar told Erik Boland of Newsday. “So a combination of different things that should allow me to be better.”

There remains one area, however, that the third baseman won’t change. His double-clutch, a move that many fans have identified as a cause of his poor fielding, will reportedly remain in place.

Spring training makes for a difficult time to objectively evaluate defense. For now, we have clips showing some good moments:

And some bad:

The Yankees believe that Andujar can make improvements with his glove. Realistically speaking, though, any step forward this year would elevate him from historically bad to below average. He won’t transform into Adrian Beltre overnight, but maintaining the status quo would bring into question his ability to stick at the position.

Whether Andujar makes strides to clean up his defense remains to be seen. One thing stands out as a certainty, however, and that’s the level of scrutiny that fans and evaluators will place on his glove work. Every ball that he fields will turn into events of their own. They figure to be cited to proclaim he has improved, or he can’t pick it. They will not, however, blend into the background like any other fielding attempt.

Fair or not, Andujar will also have to grapple with expectations placed on him by factors off the field. This winter the Yankees flirted with the idea of signing Manny Machado, but ultimately passed on the star. Instead of suiting up on the Bronx, Machado signed a 10-year deal with the San Diego Padres.

During the closing phases of Machado’s free agency, reports surfaced suggesting the Yankees preferred Nolan Arenado to the 26-year-old. The veracity of these rumors never got cleared up, but that doesn’t matter now. Arenado agreed to an eight-year extension with the Rockies. The immediate upgrade and the contingency plan disappeared in a little over a week.

Those two third basemen didn’t represent the only opportunity cost with Andujar. Think back to the Winter Meetings, when reports emerged suggesting the Yankees quietly discussed him in trade scenarios for J.T. Realmuto and Noah Syndergaard.

If any of those players thrive and Andujar struggles, then second guessing will inevitably set in among the fanbase. That level of pressure is something that Gleyber Torres, another sophomore, doesn’t have to deal with. No trade rumors ever floated with his name in them. Torres’ expectations are squarely his own. Andujar, meanwhile, has to not only live up to his rookie campaign, but justify why the Yankees held on to him.

As a team fresh off a 100-win campaign, one that ended with an early exit from the postseason, the pressure will be on nearly every player. None, however, will be subjected to the same microscopic level of scrutiny as Andujar. Perhaps that will fade as the season progresses. Maybe others will take the year by storm and steal the headlines. For now, though, all eyes are on Miguel Andujar.