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On trading bad defense for good offense

What to do with Gary and Gleyber?

MLB: New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

We’ll have all winter to talk about the major disappointments on this Yankee squad — hello, DJ LeMahieu, you have not escaped my notice — but today, I want to focus on two of them because they have a few things in common. Gary Sánchez and Gleyber Torres drip potential, but over the past couple of seasons, it’s begun to look less and less like the Yankees can truly tap that potential.

They’re also linked because of their defensive ... difficulties. The Yankees have slotted them at the two most important defensive positions, knowing that neither will compete for a Gold Glove, and in fact, both will be closer to the negative side of run prevention than positive. And yet, the value in the offensive upside has kept them (or in Gleyber’s case, kept him until the last two weeks of the season) at their positions.

And this philosophy can make sense, because of the much lower offensive threshold of each position. If you have a catcher who can really swing it, well, over the last 10 seasons, catchers have managed a .303 wOBA, so if you have a .330 wOBA guy who can handle catching, you get a major upgrade at that position. As an added bonus, because that guy is catching rather than manning first or DH, so you can put another strong bat at those positions.

Offensive production from catchers has been pretty stagnant across the past decade, so adding a player like Sánchez to your roster makes all the sense in the world to keep him behind the plate. Even discounting his 2016 run, he’s still a player who clubbed 60-odd points of wOBA better than the rest of his position in a full 2017 campaign.

Shortstop is a trickier proposition. Over 20 years after the Jeter/A-Rod/Nomar trifecta revolutionized the kind of offense one could expect from short, the position group has steadily improved. In fact, it’s to the point where if you ranked every single season since 1961, the 2019 and 2020 campaigns were the second and third-best shortstop hitting years, with 2021 also in the top 10. The position really isn’t a glove-first one anymore.

So what does that mean for our erstwhile Yankees? I’ll be honest: This year was a disappointment for Gary. He hit fine, and indeed, hit about ten points of wOBA better than catchers leaguewide, but in the grand equation of Runs Produced + Runs Prevented = Value, as that Produced figure drops further and further, it needs to be supplemented by the Prevented column.

And while Sánchez’s defense isn’t as bad as the most militant of Twitter Fingers would suggest, it ain’t great. His framing has gotten better than it’s 2019 nadir — hey, maybe Tanner Swanson knows what he’s talking about — but it’s not a net positive. But at the very least, Gary’s hitting better than your average catcher, which reduces the weight of that Runs Prevented column, though not nearly as much as in 2017 and 2019.

As for Gleyber, it’s a different story. All players follow that same value equation, and over the last two seasons, only three full-time shortstops have been worse than Torres at short (as well as Marcus Semien, who splits time at the position). But ... that Runs Produced column comes into play:

You see where I’m going with this. It’s not a great idea to have Xander Bogaerts play short, but he’s one of the five or so best hitters at that position, and Rafael Devers is really good at third, so by accepting the lost Runs Prevented, you get this incredible hitter at shortstop, and have room for another incredible hitter at third. That’s not the case with Torres.

The trade-off with Sánchez and Torres has always come back to that value equation. They would produce enough runs at the plate that you could live with mediocre-to-bad figures in the Runs Prevented column, and when you added in the benefit of getting plus hitters at other positions, like DJ at second, or Giancarlo Stanton at DH, the value was self-evident.

As both players have severely regressed offensively, the value equation has changed. I’m actually more worried about Torres — catcher offense is static, shortstops are getting better at the plate all the time — but these two guys were supposed to be cornerstones of the lineup, even if they made us groan in the field. Now, we’re groaning no matter where they play, and the gamble of bats over gloves, which has worked so well for Boston and Toronto, isn’t paying off in the Bronx.