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When and where the Yankees should play Miguel Andujar

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Let’s suppose Andujar is still a defensive liability. How and when should the Yankees sneak him into their lineup?

MLB: New York Yankees-Workouts Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the biggest storyline of Yankees camp thus far has been injuries, as the historic rate of ailments that struck the team in 2019 has carried over to early 2020. Before the injuries started to hit again, though, a different theme seemed to pervade spring training: defense.

Several of the biggest questions the team faced entering camp had to do with defense, and particularly, how the team was likely to set its defensive alignment. Would Clint Frazier stake a claim to the left-field job with improved fielding? Who should be the primary first baseman? Would Miguel Andujar prove capable of handing left-field duties? Would Andujar stick back at third?

I want to focus on Andujar today, as the young slugger has now played at three different defensive positions in left field, third base, and first. He committed an error at first on Thursday, and with injuries to Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Aaron Hicks thinning the team’s depth in the outfield, it appears likely Andujar will get more reps in left and at third as the season approaches.

The experiment in left has gone fine so far, and Andujar also hasn’t made any errors at third just yet. That said, our base belief entering the season should probably be that Andujar remains a defensive liability. That’s what he was in 2018, by any available objective measure or subjective eye test, and losing an important season of development in 2019 can’t have helped matters.

With that in mind, the question shifts a bit. Should Andujar prove a replacement-level defender in left and at third, the Yankees will instead have to determine how best to squeeze Andujar’s bat into the lineup. He could get some at-bats at DH, sure, but if the Yankees’ lineup ever approaches full-health, competition for playing time will get fierce.

This got me wondering about how the Yankees could best sneak Andujar onto the field. He might hurt them on defense, but if Andujar comes close to replicating his 2018 production on offense, the Yankees will feel pressure to get him consistent at-bats. Looking at the team’s pitching staff sheds some insight regarding when would be best to get Andujar onto the grass or the dirt.

Let’s start by considering Andujar at his natural position, third base. If we’re trying to hide Andujar, we want him starting when he’s least likely to see a groundball to the left side. Thus, I looked at the Yankees’ starters most likely to get the most starts this year (in some order, Gerrit Cole, Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, Jordan Montgomery, and James Paxton), and tried to find how often they yielded grounders left of second base.

To do so, I looked at each starter’s 2018 and 2019 batted-ball profiles (in Montgomery’s case, I also incorporated 2017). I looked at the rate each of them generated opposite-field groundballs to left-handed hitters, pulled grounders to right-handed hitters, and strikeouts. Those figures allowed me to come up with an overall rate of groundballs to the left side, as a proportion of total batters faced.

Here’s how those five stack up in terms of left-side grounders:

Yankees Starters Left-Side Groundballs

Player Rate of Left-Side GB GB Rate K Rate
Player Rate of Left-Side GB GB Rate K Rate
Jordan Montgomery 14.7% 41.1% 21.9%
Masahiro Tanaka 12.7% 47.4% 22.1%
James Paxton 11.8% 39.0% 30.8%
J.A. Happ 10.8% 40.0% 23.6%
Gerrit Cole 7.6% 38.1% 37.3%

If minimizing the damage Andujar could do on defense is the goal, Andujar should start at third when Cole starts. This is the conclusion I expected entering this exercise. As a right-hander, opponents will try to stack their lineups with lefties against Cole. Groundballs are typically pulled, meaning many of Cole’s grounders go to the right side. Most importantly, though, Cole strikes everyone out. More whiffs means fewer chances for defenders to mess up.

This analysis indicates the Yankees should feel trepidation about starting Andujar at third with Tanaka or Montgomery on the mound. Montgomery’s southpaw status means a whole lot of right-handers pulling grounders, and Tanaka’s modest strikeout rate and proclivity for killing worms makes him a poor fit for Andujar.

Let’s imagine a Yankee starter faces 25 batters in an outing. In such an outing, Montgomery would expect to see close to four grounders on the left side, while Cole would expect to see just short of two. That’s a small difference, but baseball games are often won on the margins.

Now, to left field. I repeated the process with fly balls to the left side. Here’s the result:

Yankees Starters Left-Side Fly Balls

Player Rate of Left-Side FB FB Rate K Rate
Player Rate of Left-Side FB FB Rate K Rate
Masahiro Tanaka 11.8% 32.9% 22.1%
J.A. Happ 7.1% 40.6% 23.6%
Jordan Montgomery 7.1% 40.9% 21.9%
James Paxton 5.6% 41.8% 30.8%
Gerrit Cole 4.4% 41.0% 37.3%

Once more, the Yankees’ best chances to sneak Andujar onto the field will come with Cole on the mound. Once Paxton returns, he’ll also profile as a good pitcher to deal with Andujar on the grass behind him. In fact, all but Tanaka look like they’d be reasonable options to start Andujar in left with, as fly balls are rarely pulled, meaning lefties like Happ and Montgomery allow more flies to right from right-handed hitters. In a 25-batter outing, Tanaka would expect to see nearly three flies to left, while Cole would expect to see barely more than one.

All this suggests a pretty straightforward plan. The Yankees could start Andujar with strikeout artists like Cole and Paxton on the mound primarily, and avoid putting him out there behind Tanaka and Montgomery. In the later innings, if the Yankees had a lead, they could then pull Andujar in favor of Gio Urshela, Tyler Wade, and others once the likes of Zack Britton, Tommy Kahnle, and Aroldis Chapman came in.

Again, this presupposes that our prior, that Andujar remains an awful defender, holds true. Andujar is young, possesses a strong arm, and is fast. He has every chance to turn things around and hold his own on defense, at third or in left.

That shouldn’t be the expectation, however, which means the Yankees should think carefully about how to deploy Andujar. If the objective is to keep a potent bat in the lineup while limiting the damage on defense, well, the Yankees should know where to turn.