Five times so far this season, the Yankees have opted to use defensive replacements in the infield, shifting DJ LeMahieu to first base and inserting Tyler Wade at second. On its face, this is a logical move, as Yankees first basemen were terrible defensively in 2019.
Luke Voit was worth -6 OAA, our Outs Above Average, Statcast’s premier defensive metric, as well as -11.9 UZR/150. Mike Ford was +2 in terms OAA with -11.6 UZR/150, and DJ LeMahieu came in at -1 OAA and -3.5 UZR/150. Particularly when accounting for the fact that the position was brand new for LeMahieu, it’s clear why the Yankees see the position as a potential weak point in the infield.
First base, however, is not the only infield position where the Yankees struggle defensively, as Gleyber Torres’s struggles at both second base and shortstop are widely-documented. Back in the spring, he made five errors in 10 games, and so far this season, he’s already made three. The advanced stats bear this out; he was worth -7 OAA last season (-5 at 2B, -2 at SS) and -4 the year before (0 at 2B, -4 at SS). He fared poorly with other metrics, with a -14.5 UZR/150 at 2B and -11.0 at SS.
Although currently ignored amidst his struggles at the plate, there is plenty of concern, and rightfully so, about Torres’s ability to handle shortstop. Even beyond the errors, general defensive miscues so far this season have put games at risk for the Yankees. While there is some reason for optimism — you can point to the fact that the metrics see an improvement at shortstop from his first to second season — the truth is, optimism for the future does not preclude making decisions to improve the defense today.
Fortunately, the Yankees’ preexisting defensive strategies provide an easy solution to the problem: when DJ LeMahieu shifts to first base, Torres should move to second base, and Wade at short.
Looking at the initial metrics, this might seem like an odd solution: for his career, Wade is worth -3 OAA at the position, with a career -10 UZR/150. However, despite being drafted as a shortstop, Wade has actually very rarely played the position in the major leagues. He only has played 65 innings at the position at the big-league level, and only has attempted 11 defensive plays at the position, according to Baseball Savant. He just hasn’t been challenged much at short in the bgis, spending the vast majority of his career at second base, followed by time in the outfield.
That’s not to say that Tyler Wade is excellent at shortstop; in my opinion, Torres has the tools to be better than Wade at the position. Until Torres becomes more sure-handed defensively, the Yankees would be better set playing him at the lesser of the two infield positions when in “maximize defensive capabilities” mode.
In fact, should the team want to be even more extreme, they can even borrow a trick from the New York Mets a few years ago. With Jose Reyes and Wilmer Flores injured prior to a game against the Yankees on August 16, 2017, the Mets started Travis D’Arnaud, then swapped him with Asdrubal Cabrera between second base and third base depending on the batter, with their official positions swapping 22 times. With their positioning determined with the help of analytics, the strategy caused the ball to find D’Arnaud only once in the game, on a late-game pop up. Positioning Wade and Torres based on the data, it would be possible to minimize the opportunities Torres would have defensively in a close game, and thus, reduce the risk of a game-changing error. After seeing a number of crippling miscues come in the sixth inning of yesterday’s afternoon game in Philadelphia, maximizing late-game defense should be top of mind for the Yankees.