The Yankees caught some folks off guard early in summer camp when they decided to employ a five-man infield. In the age of radical shifting concepts and heavily scouted batted-ball profiles, the Yankees’ analytics team and coaching staff are looking for every advantage possible. Let’s take a look at the roster factors that may make the five-man infield make sense and allow the Yankees to capitalize on their players’ skill sets.
The main characters in this story are Zack Britton and his turbo-sinker. Last season, 79.9% of the balls put in play off of Britton were hit on the ground, making him the ideal candidate for a radical defensive scheme. One look at the 2019 spray chart off of Britton can get the wheels turning for an analytical mind:
The Yankees can take advantage of the extra roster spots to help them pull this off in an efficient manner. On the 40-man roster, both Tyler Wade and Thairo Estrada came through the system as middle infielders, but they have seen action in the outfield at the major-league level.
Wade has significant experience with the Yankees, having played six positions in the majors over each of the last two seasons. He is the natural selection for the Yankees’ utilityman, and he can flex around the diamond as required.
Estrada never played a professional inning in the outfield until the Yankees called upon him to do that in an emergency situation last year. Stepping in after the team was riddled with injuries early in 2019, Estrada impressed the Yankees with his adaptability and willingness to play any position. A natural middle infielder, if called upon, he could quickly move around the field in much the same manner as Wade.
Another member of the 40-man roster who could be logging games in both the outfield and infield this season is Miguel Andujar. During his time in the major leagues, he has proven to be a below-average third baseman, but has experience playing around second base due to the Yankees’ shifting schemes.
Andujar has shown mixed results during the spring and summer camps in the outfield, but he recently misplayed multiple balls in right field. If Andujar can secure some time in the outfield, then he can easily move to the infield with Britton or another high groundball-rate pitcher on the mound.
In addition to these players, the Yankees also have veterans Matt Duffy and Rosell Herrera in camp. If either can crack the Yankees’ active roster, they would give Aaron Boone another option who have played all over the infield.
Knowing that almost 80% of the balls put in play off Britton hit the ground gives the Yankees an incentive to get creative. With Britton looking as the likely closer, it gets easier to try this in the ninth inning, as the Yankees can substitute defense for offense by pulling one of their outfielders.
One scenario where this may come into play is the extra innings, where a runner will start on second base this season. Looking to cut down the run from scoring on a “groundball with eyes”, the extra infielder, especially one like Wade or Estrada with the range of a shortstop, could be the difference when it comes to stopping that runner at third.
This strategy isn’t risk-free, as the Yankees may pull Aaron Judge’s bat and throwing arm off the field to get another infielder into position, and then need that bat the next inning. Boone and the front office will face harsh criticism the first time a catchable pop-up falls in and a game is blown.
This is a scenario that the Yankees are practicing, and will practice all summer long. As shifting gained popularity over the last several years, fielders have been forced to adjust to playing in different spots and with more crowded infields. The Yankees will also have to show that if it is a sound strategy, then they are willing to stick with it, even if it doesn’t work the first time out.
Britton has a unique weapon in Major League Baseball, as he generates groundballs at an incredible rate. The Yankees have noticed and are working out the strategy to maximize his effectiveness. Their roster has the players who can flex around the diamond as needed and make the most of a five-man infield.