Through the first 16 games of the season, little has gone according to plan for the Yankees on offense. Despite being preseason favorites to win the American League, the Yankees currently are tied for the worst record in the AL at 6-10, dragged down by the fifth-worst team wOBA in baseball of .289.
In particular, their combined production from their group of left fielders has been conspicuously absent, combining for a wOBA of just .255 and a mere .200 batting average. Clint Frazier, the presumptive everyday starter to take over left field beyond Brett Gardner’s eventual retirement, has been a downright disappointment, hitting just .167 with an xwOBA in MLB’s fourth percentile. He’s striking out a ton by missing pitches in the zone (35 K%), and rarely making solid contact when he does hit the ball (79.5 average exit velocity). He even grades out as a first percentile defender per OAA right now, even after being a Gold Glove finalist last season.
Brett Gardner and Mike Tauchman have begun to see time in Frazier’s stead, but haven’t proven to be significantly superior options. To date, Tauchman’s gone 1-for-9 while Gardner’s provided around league offense despite recording just two extra base hits in 28 at-bats, almost exclusively against right-handed pitching.
Dealing with such lackluster starts from the club’s first, second, and third options in left field, you might think the Yankees would be open to trying something else. While he’s been exclusively deployed at DH for as long as he’s been healthy over the past calendar year, Giancarlo Stanton was a career outfielder in the National League before being traded to New York. In fact, Stanton was average or better in the field per OAA in every season since the statistic began being tracked (2016) through his most recent season in the field (2019).
Health, and not defensive performance, seems to be the franchise’s most pressing concern preventing them from allowing Stanton back out into the field. Given the fact that Stanton suited up for just 41 contests over the past two seasons, the Yankees want to prioritize his availability for the postseason by keeping him as fresh as possible throughout the year. Before the season, GM Brian Cashman said, “Given the injuries that we’ve experienced with him thus far, I think it would be a safe bet to focus with him at the DH level … The workload and maintaining his lower-body injuries I would think would be at risk.”
While Cashman’s position didn’t necessarily rule out the possibility of Stanton’s return to the outfield, it certainly made it seem pretty unlikely. However, both manager Aaron Boone and Stanton himself have expressed varying levels of optimism that he may in fact end up spending some time in left if his health permits. Boone even suggested that getting some reps in left could actually enable Stanton to maintain a good bill of health.
Last month, Andres addressed Stanton’s defensive viability, referencing both Aaron Boone and Stanton’s own interest in spending at least some time on defense. Boone hedged:
I don’t want to be completely resigned to him just being a full-time DH. I think the more he can continue to stay athletic and be an option on defense, I don’t think it’s out of the question. Ultimately it might be something that actually does help him stay more healthy.
Stanton himself expressed interest in being more than just a DH in 2021. A couple of weeks before the start of the season, as quoted by Bryan Hoch, Stanton suggested that he could play in the outfield eventually, though that might not happen right away. “As the discussions went on, me and Boonie talked.” Stanton said. “I’ll be needed [in the outfield] later in the first month or two. So now isn’t as important as to just be ready to go a few weeks in.”
Although Stanton hasn’t performed up to par offensively yet, it’s absolutely essential to the Yankees’ championship aspirations that he does. With his excellence being a necessary condition to the Yankees’ success, the team should construct their lineups under the presumption of a thriving Stanton.
Even during the worst statistical start of his career, Stanton’s been hitting the ball as hard as anyone, still ranking in baseball’s 95th percentile of average exit velocity. With a career-low average launch angle and an almost career-high strikeout rate, it’s only a matter of time before Stanton settles down and returns to being the devastating offensive force we saw as recently as last October. The same can’t be said for the triumvirate currently holding down the outfield corner opposite Aaron Judge.
In fact, some defensive reps could potentially help Stanton find his groove offensively, allowing him to get lost in the game between his at-bats instead of obsessing over his most recent strikeout. While it’s difficult to assess the potential offensive benefit of playing the field, Stanton has been definitively better during his games as an outfielder compared to when he starts at DH. As a left fielder, Stanton has posted a career tOPS+ of 111, compared to 101 in right, and 97 as a DH. Clearly, he’s at least as good of a hitter when playing in the field compared to when he serves as the DH, if not better.
Also, playing Stanton in the outfield keeps him in the lineup while opening up the DH spot for other regular starters who might need a day off from the field or would otherwise struggle to crack the lineup. For example, Gary Sánchez and Aaron Judge have had their own host of injuries, and could certainly benefit from an occasional day off. Optimally, a start at DH would ease the burden on their legs without having to remove their potentially hot bat from the lineup.
Assuming that Stanton can play in the field, the DH could be given to another defensively inflexible, hot hitter. If Kyle Higashiokia goes on a tear, the Yankees could play the better defender between him and Gary behind the plate, allowing the other one to DH. Even Miguel Andújar could merit a looksee at DH, given his historically streaky bat and abhorrent defense — if he’s able to fully recover from the nerve issue in his hand. The only reasonable way to include Andújar and Stanton in the lineup at the same time is to play Stanton in the field, given Andújar’s noted defensive woes.
All told, playing Giancarlo Stanton in the outfield is likely a net neutral move defensively, while providing significantly improved lineup flexibility as well as a potential boon to Stanton’s own offensive production. If the Yankees feel that Stanton can physically handle some run in the field without significant risk of injury, they should absolutely let him, given the myriad ways in which the move would help him as well as the team.