clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Improved infield defense has helped the Yankees’ pitching staff

The starting rotation has been a huge part of the Yankees’ surprising run, but they should thank their new-and-improved fielders behind them.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees - Game One Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The Yankees are somehow on top of the AL East, claiming two series from the Rays in a matter of two weeks despite a painfully long list of injuries. The team has taken on an endearing “next man up” mentality, though in reality, the offense has been a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of scoring runs this season. For a club that scored the second-most runs in baseball last season, this is a significant drop-off.

The Bombers are in a success position, however, because the pitching staff has weathered injuries to arguably its two best pitchers in Luis Severino and James Paxton. The staff has allowed an OPS of .695 this season, good for the sixth-lowest mark in the league. Their 3.67 ERA is also a top-10 mark n the league. Domingo German has been a revelation, Masahiro Tanaka has been great despite his usual home run susceptibility, and CC Sabathia has navigated around a pair of inefficient outings to give Aaron Boone some great value for a back-end starter.

So what’s behind this improved rotation, consisting mainly of arms that were with the team since last summer? Look no further than the guys in pinstripes positioned right behind those pitchers.

Infield defense was a concern last season, to say the least. Didi Gregorius’ UZR was cut in half from his 2017 total. Gleyber Torres’ UZR finished at -7.7 at second base, and then there were Miguel Andujar’s troubles at the hot corner (-25 DRS, yikes). Combine those issues with a pitching staff that consisted of grounder-happy arms like Tanaka, Sabathia, Zack Britton and Dellin Betances, and it wasn’t a recipe for success.

It’s important to note that the Yanks’ defense hasn’t been spectacular by any means this season, but it’s clear that it has improved considerably and helped alleviate traffic on the bases. The most obvious improvement occurred at third base. Gio Urshela’s -4 DRS isn’t anything to bow to, but his UZR is just above the red at 0.2, compared to Andujar’s mark of -16 (!) last season. Urshela has also shown to have a much more reliable arm than Andujar as well.

Torres has been much better at shortstop this season, improving his UZR from -2.6 to -0.1. His DRS of -1 isn’t great, but it’s actually a slight improvement over Gregorius’ -2 mark in 2018. Torres was asked to learn a new position since shortstop was blocked by Gregorius, and in his first major league season at second base, his UZR was a rough -7.7. Switch that with current second baseman DJ LeMahieu, and that number improves to 0.2. Much, much better. Even Luke Voit’s DRS has improved from -7 to -3! How about that?

Again, given the crowd of pitchers that rely on the groundball, an improved infield defense is just what the Yankees needed to help prevent runs, especially with a shortage of bats to keep the run total up. Hopefully reinforcements like Gregorius, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are due back soon to give the starting pitching more breathing room, but until then, they can feel a little more comfortable pitching to the defense.