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Doubles, defense, and demotion: On Miguel Andújar’s fall off the Yankees’ roster

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Andujar’s nightmarish defense has limited the Yankees’ ability to find him consistent playing time.

Philadelphia Phillies v New York Yankees - Game One Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Just two years ago, it seemed as though the Yankees had a brand new, homegrown core for the future of the left-side of their infield. Gleyber Torres was the top prospect, but 23-year-old Miguel Andújar finished second in the 2018 American League Rookie of the Year voting. His sequel was cut short as he tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder, missing most of 2019. With Gio Urshela’s explosion onto the scene as an excellent, full-time third baseman, Andújar’s utility to the Yankees has eroded. Without consistent at-bats due to a crowded lineup, he was optioned to the club’s alternate site in Scranton last week.

Andújar’s biggest limitation is his abysmal defensive ability. Conventionally speaking, his fielding percentage in 2018 was the second worst amongst third basemen who played at least 100 games (.948), and he made the fourth most errors amongst them (15). Though occasionally, a player will make more errors because their excellent range allows them to reach balls that a normal fielder wouldn’t be able to make a play on (i.e. Matt Chapman), this wasn’t the case for Andújar.

By Statcast’s Outs Above Average, he was the worst defensive third baseman at -11 runs. His -16.0 UZR was worse than any other defender in Major League Baseball. Andújar cost the Yankees almost ten more runs than any other third baseman. Analytically, a win is worth about 10 runs, so that abhorrent defense cost the Yankees about a loss and a half more than the replacement level defender just according to UZR. It gets even worse when you take his Baseball Reference dWAR into account—the 11th worst among all fielders who played at least 100 games, and the single worst among third basemen at -1.8 dWAR. No matter how you slice it, Andújar was one of the worst fielders in baseball in 2018, and likely the worst defensive third baseman.

In an August 12, 2018 game against the Rangers, Andújar made two errors, microcosmic of his long-term struggles at the hot corner. At third base, he is particularly poor at making plays to his backhand side, as -8 of his -11 Outs Above Average came on balls to his right, with the other three coming from balls which required him to charge.

On his first error of the day, Andújar cleanly fields a weak groundball down the line to his backhand side and makes a poor throw to first. Instead of staying low to the ground and using his legs to drive his momentum towards first for the throw, after corralling the ball, Andújar stands up straight and makes a flat-footed throw, especially for one so deep beyond the bag. In that instance, he needs to stay low and explode with his lower-half through his throwing motion, allowing the momentum of his body to carry the ball towards his target. Instead, he makes an arm-only throw and the ball runs up and away to his arm-side. His arm strength isn’t the problem, it’s the abrupt interruption of forward momentum that causes the errant throw.

On Andújar’s second error, he gets a tough in-between hop, but freezes like a deer in headlights. He needs to recognize the impending awkward hop immediately and either charge the ball to take the extra hop away, or take a large drop-step or two backwards to allow the ball to bounce once more on the infield. By doing neither, he limits himself to jabbing at the ball as he reverse shuffles, which he of course misses and ends up allowing Elvis Andrus to reach second on what should have been a routine 5-3 putout.

Luke Voit’s bonafide glow up has clogged the path for Andujar to see innings at first—a position he worked on this offseason—but the Yankees have given him a shot in games at left field. So far, things haven’t gone much better than they did at third base. In four games there, he’s already made a costly error, surrendering the winning run to the Red Sox on what should have been merely a single.

Even though he’s a couple hundred feet behind where he’s committed the vast majority of his fielding foibles, Andújar is extremely uncomfortable making a clean play on balls hit on the ground to his left. At third, he would need to backhand this ball, but with more time in the outfield, he should make a wider, deeper turn to ‘banana-peel’ around the ball allowing him to approach it with his momentum moving towards his throwing target and against the direction of the ball. Instead, he approaches the ball laterally giving him an unnecessarily difficult hop to field.

In all three plays, Andújar displays difficulty turning his body to the right and making a clean backhand, stepping and throwing through the target, or clearing the ball’s path to field it on his glove-side. His defensive limitations handcuff the Yankees’ deployment of his offensive potential, especially with their already loaded lineup and his early struggles at the plate. But that’s something I’ll delve into in depth tomorrow, so check back soon.