One of the main narratives so far this season has been the Yankees’ lackluster defense. In 16 games, the Yankees have 12 errors (9th in the AL), and the team’s starters have accumulated -6 Outs Above Average (OAA) according to Statcast. The infield defense, moreover, has been particularly bad, with defensive miscues — most notably by shortstop Gleyber Torres, but at one point or another by pretty much everybody in the infield — directly leading to multiple losses.
While watching the Yankees over the last few weeks, the impression I received was that the team’s infield defense was dramatically improved in the games where DJ LeMahieu played first base compared to when Jay Bruce was in. A brief view of the numbers, however, appears to reject this impression — in the ten games in which Bruce started at first, Yankees infielders made five errors, while in the five games LeMahieu started, infielders made three errors. That said, all three errors occurred in the disastrous 8-2 loss against Tampa on April 16, one of which was a misplayed groundball by Gio Urshela, and another which saw Rougned Odor hit a runner in the head while trying to double him up. Most notably, though, much-maligned shortstop Gleyber Torres has yet to make a throwing error this season with anybody other than Bruce at first base.
That got me thinking: is this reduction in errors purely a mental phenomenon — i.e., does Torres in particular and the other infielders in general have more confidence in LeMahieu’s defense than Bruce’s, causing them to relax and make better throws — or is there something different in how the two play the position that reduces the number of throwing errors? With the help of fellow PSA writer Peter Brody, I dove into MLB.com’s Film Room to look at the tape.
So what did I learn? Let’s start by taking a look at images from two different plays against the Orioles.
This first image is from the April 7 loss to the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium, and more accurately, from the throwing error by Torres that allowed the winning run to score (its in-game significance is why we actually get a high-resolution close-up of the first baseman, which otherwise occurs very rarely in the Film Room). On this play, there’s a lot that Bruce is doing right: he’s got his left foot on the bag, which theoretically allows him to stretch in all directions without reaching completely across his body, and he’s got his bare hand there to secure the ball in his glove (which isn’t usually possible as a first baseman).
Some of the other things Bruce is doing, however, are contradictory. To begin with, he’s stretching not towards the throw, as you might usually expect a first baseman to do, but is rather stretching towards where the second baseman traditionally lines up, at a 90 degree angle to the throw. In itself, that’s not a terrible thing, because it puts him in a better position to catch a bouncing ball as you might catch a one-hopper in the outfield, something Bruce is much more comfortable doing. Or rather, it could, if he had merely angled himself in that direction, and not stretched completely. Instead, because the throw came towards his left side, he was forced to reach across his body and in the opposite direction of his center of mass. This isn’t a comfortable position to stand normally — go ahead, try it, like I did while writing this — and makes what should be a rather routine play, even with Torres one-hopping it, into a very difficult one.
Let’s compare that with a groundout to shortstop that occurred the day prior with LeMahieu at first base.
The first image was taken from the moment the ball hit the ground, the second from approximately when it entered LeMahieu’s glove (the bounce is about identical to the example we used for Bruce). Much like Bruce, LeMahieu has the proper foot on the bag — in his case, the right foot — to allow for the largest range of motion, but unlike Bruce, he’s stretching towards the throw, not away from it. Because of this, he does not need to reach across his body. In fact, LeMahieu is able to take a very active role in receiving the throw, keeping his glove down and bringing it up to meet the incoming ball rather than presetting himself. This allows him to adjust more easily to the bounce in order to secure the out.
Ultimately, these are just two plays of many that first basemen make, although the two plays do at least to some extent reflect what both the numbers and the eye test say about Bruce’s and LeMahieu’s performance at the position. Very often, first base is treated as an offense-first position, and for good reason, as the difference between a decent defensive first baseman and an elite one are not all that significant. Even so, as the Yankees have seen in the early going, playing somebody at first base who does not truly know the position can magnify preexisting defensive miscues, which sheer competence would have prevented.
When Luke Voit returns from the injured list next month, this should hopefully resolve itself, as although nobody would call him a top defensive first baseman, he at least is one by trade. Going forward, however, the team should stop converting fielders into first basemen, as they’re not all going to acclimate to the position as well as LeMahieu did. Positional depth exists on the 40-man and at Triple-A, in the form of Mike Ford and Chris Gittens, for a reason: use it. Hopefully, the team does not make the same mistake again with other players like Bruce.