The 2021 Yankees were not known for their defensive ability, and rightfully so. Statcast has them worth -17 Outs Above Average, FanGraphs values them at -43 Defensive Runs Saved, and their 98 errors were more than any AL team except the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins. Completely true to their identity as a pinstriped contradiction, however, they somehow managed to spin a number of web gems throughout the season, many of which came at the hands — err, gloves — of those who scored the worst defensively according to all the metrics.
In fact, making a list of the five best defensive plays of the season proved to be so difficult that I had to set a couple of ground rules for myself. First, no player could be the center piece of more than one play. Two, no two plays could be identical (or nearly-so). Three, and most amusingly...well, you’ll see when you get to number three on this list.
5. Clint Frazier goes Superman
By no stretch of the imagination did Clint Frazier have a good season for the Yankees, either at the plate (76 OPS+) or in the field (-8 OAA), although it is fair to wonder whether or not an unannounced injury may have had something to do with it (all of the physical attributes that Statcast measures, such as hard hit percentage and sprint speed, saw a sharp decline from 2020). Despite this bad performance, Frazier regularly found himself on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays with a series of diving catches.
Which one was the best? Was it his diving catch on a shallow fly ball against the Braves on April 21st? His dive a week later in Baltimore? Perhaps it was his diving catch on May 16th when he rolled over his sunglasses?
In truth, I’d say it’s a tie between two. First, on May 7th, Frazier made what is arguably the most difficult catch of his career, diving away from home plate and catching the ball while horizontal to the ground.
Now you’re probably asking, “What could possibly be tied with that?” That would be a diving catch a little less than a month later in which Frazier adjusted himself mid-air to save at least one run by nabbing a ball that by all accounts looked destined to fall in No Man’s Land.
4. Cedric Mullins is Guilty
Since his rookie season, Aaron Judge has established a reputation as one of the best defensive right fielders in the American League with a cannon of a right arm that certainly ranks among the league’s best. Early on, Judge used that cannon to regularly throw out runners trying to take an extra base, but since he obtained a reputation, those opportunities have come few and far between. Every once in a while, though, a speedster takes a chance on a ball in the gap, only to be found guilty of attempted robbery.
That’s exactly what happened on August 4th, as speedy Baltimore center fielder Cedric Mullins and his 86th-percentile sprint speed went for two bases on a ball off the right field wall. Judge played it perfectly and delivered a line drive strike to Gleyber Torres.
3. A three-for-one package
Two runners on, nobody out is a pitcher’s nightmare. In that moment, a double play is often described as a pitcher’s best friend, because even if one run scores on the play, the chances of a big inning dissipate. The only thing better than a double play? A triple play that erases the threat by ending the inning, the type of play that has happened only 727 times since 1876, roughly five per season. Coincidentally, that’s exactly how many happened in all of baseball in 2021. Miraculously, three of them were turned by the Yankees — within a month of each other.
On May 21, Aroldis Chapman opened the ninth inning of a tie game by allowing the first two runners to reach base. Andrew Vaughn then proceeded to lace a groundball down the third base line. Gio Urshela snagged it and stepped on third for the first out, threw to Rougned Odor at second for the second out; Odor then sent it around the horn to Luke Voit at first to complete the trifecta.
Three weeks later, Michael King got into a jam in the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays, with runners on second and third and nobody out with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at the plate. Guerrero grounded it softly to King, who threw him out at first. Marcus Semien and Bo Bichette, however, both took off for third base, allowing the Yankees to catch both in rundowns to record your conventional 1-3-6-2-5-6 triple play.
Less than two weeks after that, on June 20th, Aroldis Chapman was charged with preserving a one-run lead against the Oakland Athletics, and he had absolutely no sense of the strike zone, walking the first two batters of the inning. Just when things were looking bleak, however, Sean Murphy grounded the ball to Urshela at third base, who began yet another around-the-horn triple play (Urshela to DJ LeMahieu to Chris Gittens) in the ninth inning to end the game.
2. The Cub and Kraken mesh instantly
First basemen rarely get much credit for their defensive ability, even one with a Platinum Glove and multiple Gold Gloves like Anthony Rizzo. In just his second game as a Yankee, however, Rizzo partnered with catcher Gary Sánchez to pick off the speedy Bryan De La Cruz.
Back when I recapped this game on July 31st, I commented on the difficulty of this play:
While Sánchez deserves a ton of credit for this play, and rightfully so, the way this particular play went down requires the type of trickery only possible with an elite defender at first. Not many first basemen could make this play, and certainly none that the Yankees have trotted out there since Mark Teixeira.
He hadn’t even donned the home pinstripes yet, but Rizzo already showed why he has a reputation as such an elite defender.
1. Gio Urshela lays it all on the line.
Arguably the best catch of the year came on the final day of the season. Two weeks into his tenure as the Yankees starting shortstop and with a Wild Card berth on the line, Urshela channeled his inner Derek Jeter by covering an immense amount of ground to catch a pop up in foul territory, ultimately tumbling into the Tampa Bay Rays dugout.
Think I’m exaggerating? In case you somehow didn’t see it the first time, take another look (actually, even if you did see it the first time, take another look, it’s beautiful).
Was it a reckless play? Probably — but it’s the exact sort of reckless play that a team fighting for their postseason lives needs to make on a regular basis. Fortunately, although he came up limping, Urshela emerged without any serious injury and was in fact able to remain in the game for a bit.