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The Yankees could use a defensive check-up

New York’s putrid defense puts undue pressure on pitching and run creation.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Baseball, offensively at least, is a sport of irregular production. It’s not terribly uncommon for a team’s best hitter to go hitless in an afternoon or even a weekend. Streaky hitting, as the Yankees know all too well, can swing a playoff series in either direction. The Yankees put up 22 runs in two wins against the Indians. Though the Yankees outscored the Rays by four runs through the ALDS’s first four contests, they lost the series in a decisive Game Five in which they scored a single run.

In the regular season, it’s nice to pad season totals with occasional blowout wins, as the Yankees claimed league leaders in two of the three major offensive categories, but when offense comes in fits and starts in the playoffs, wins and losses often come down to the steadier path to victories—run prevention over run production. With the Yankees’ myriad pitching woes among arms not named Gerrit Cole, their defensive limitations exacerbated those shortcomings.

The Yankees, generally speaking, continue to roll out a lineup of plodders who rake, but are broadly incapable of making above average plays. While each Championship Series team’s defense ranked in the top half of the major leagues, the Yankees had the third worst defense in all of baseball according to Statcast’s OAA.

Snakebitten by injuries all season long, the Yankees were rarely able to roll out their playoff starting nine during the regular season. When doing so, the Yankees are even worse defensively than their 2020 totals. Barring an offseason shake-up, the Yankees’ best nine, with their OAA values in the shortened season included, is as follows:

If you prefer Gardner, he was actually worse than Frazier, as a net-zero defender. Coming off his slowest season ever at age-37, it’s more than likely Gardy’s defense continues to regress.

Altogether, this best-case scenario is working from a deficit of 13 outs below average over the sixty-game season. Looking towards the future, over a full 162-game season, that number balloons to 35 outs below average.

The worst of the lineup, was so, so, so bad. Gleyber Torres’ nightmare season at short led to his ranking as the worst Yankee, and the tenth worst qualified fielder in baseball by OAA. Torres was ok going towards first, but when a ball took him into the hole, he had severe trouble backhanding baseballs. Aaron Hicks was a close second in defensive incompetence as the 18th worst defender in the game. He also had the 42nd worst conversion-rate of one-star outs in the majors. Catching only nine out of every ten cans-of-corn is untenably bad, especially for a centerfielder. His -4 OAA was worse than all but four other qualified MLB outfielders. The Yankees’ two most important defensive positions were occupied by their two worst-rated defenders, for a foundation no more resilient than balsa wood.

The rest of this paper house included an assortment of bad-to-mediocre performances. Must-start home run champion slugger Luke Voit is undoubtedly the worst Yankee defensive player on a rate-basis, a tall task considering his limited defensive responsibilities at first base. Though he didn’t make enough plays to qualify for leaderboards, Voit’s already bad glove in 2018 and ‘19 got worse in 2020, playing on one healthy leg, posting four outs below average while recording outs on ten percent fewer plays than the average first baseman. At the opposite infield corner, in contrast to his sterling reputation, bolstered by a couple of show-stopping gems in the postseason, Gio Urshela’s tortoise-like range rated him as one-out below average on defense.

Aaron Judge and DJ LeMahieu’s 2020 season offered the most initially puzzling cases. They each performed well below their past standards of excellence. Over the previous three years, Judge was worth 19 outs above average, despite his valuation this year at -1. With about a quarter of the attempts of past years he’ll likely return to form over a full season. In fact, despite running a little more slowly than he had over the past couple years, he got better jumps than ever, and still possesses one of the best outfield arms in the game.

Considering his three Gold Gloves at second base, the most recent of which he earned in 2019 when he recorded four outs above average, LeMahieu is probably just fine. With just over a third of the chances of 2019, LeMahieu’s 2020 regular season saw him regress to an out below average. Though his sprint speed has steadily receded over time, hands and footwork are most crucial to playing a staunch second base—two skills that shouldn’t ever fall off a cliff like this year’s metric. In LeMahieu’s case, his mistakes were mostly on balls hit at him, not ones which challenged his range. Therefore, LeMahieu’s poor fielding 2020 is more likely due to some small sample size variance than a disappearance of his defensive abilities.

DJ LeMahieu and Aaron Judge should regress towards their stellar norms with 162-game seasons worth of attempts. Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres could improve as they fine-tune their fielding fundamentals, aging into their primes. However, Gio Urshela, Luke Voit, and Aaron Hicks are unlikely to suddenly turn into elite defenders at their positions. They’re all solid to stellar options on offense, and under team control for two (Urshela), four (Voit), or six (Hicks) years, meaning they’ll likely continue on as mainstays of the Yankees’ lineup for the foreseeable future. Each has been a poor fielder over the past several years, a trend that will likely continue as they age into their mid-to-late thirties.

Though of course, the absence of injured arms like Luis Severino, James Paxton, and Tommy Kahnle hurt the Yankees in the playoffs, the all or nothing offense-oriented style of play led to boom or bust results. Such poor defense puts additional pressure on pitchers to strike batters out, which may have a mental toll in addition to the missed opportunities to record outs. At their best, the Yankees’ offense can look like the Murderers’ Row of the ’27 team, but constructing the team with only offense in mind has a discrete price.