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The Yankees’ outfield defense has been a problem

The Yankees’ outfield defense has been among the worst in baseball, and for a pitching staff that primarily generates fly balls, that’s not a good thing.

Baltimore Orioles v. New York Yankees Photo by Lucas Stevenson/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Coming into the season, many expected the Yankees to have one of the better outfield defenses in the league. Right fielder Aaron Judge would have been a perennial Gold Glove finalist over the past few seasons if he didn’t miss so much time with injuries, while left fielder Clint Frazier was actually a Gold Glove finalist last year. As “only” a league-average glove in center field over most of his career, Aaron Hicks looked to be the weak defensive link on the grass headed into the season. While it would be a stretch to expect them to be elite defensively like the Los Angeles Dodgers (thanks to that Cody Bellinger/Mookie Betts combo covering half of North America for them), it was reasonable to expect outfield defense to remain a strength.

In reality, however, they have been far from it. So far this season, in what’s admittedly not a huge sample, the Yankees’ outfield has accrued -8 DRS and -11.0 UZR/150, ranked 29th and 30th in the league, respectively. Only the Pittsburgh Pirates, a 15-20 team that has started nine different outfielders, has fielded an outfield as defensively inept as the Yankees. Additionally, Aaron Judge and Clint Frazier have combined for -7 OAA, and are the 105th and 119th ranked outfielders (out of 119) so far this season.

Out of the Yankees’ starters, I’m least worried about the decline in Judge’s defense. Before the season, he told reporters that he planned to play “a little smarter and not harder” this year in order to stay on the field for a full season. Compared to previous seasons, he’s covered three feet fewer on average (29.8 ft, down from 32.9 ft last year), and his success rate on fly balls is down to four percent less than the estimated average success rate (typically, this has been roughly equal, if not better, over the course of his career). Considering his 142 wRC+ is much more valuable than catching a handful of fly balls, I think that’s a tradeoff worth making.

Hicks, on the other hand, is the player to be most concerned about. The defensive metrics have agreed that he has not been a plus defensive center fielder since the 2017 season, with his DRS, OAA, and UZR/150 dropping steadily every year since then. The defensive metrics see a slight uptick this year — his UZR/150 is up to -0.1 from -3.9, his OAA is +1 (the first time he’s been in the positive since 2017), and his feet covered on the jump is up a full foot from the last two seasons (to 32.9 feet). However, we’re looking at barely a six-week sample size, and as we know, Father Time is undefeated; I would not be surprised to see these numbers go down.

Regarding Frazier, the situation seems...complicated. He has made a lot of flashy, high-profile plays in the field, but the defensive metrics universally agree that he has been a defensive liability — he has been worth -1 DRS, -29.2 UZR/150, and -5 OAA, and his jump has been terrible, down to a career low. The good news is that, although he has made some errors, he does not seem to be making the regular boneheaded plays that he did in 2019; for the most part, range has been the issue. The bad news is that he has barely had more range than the Mets’ Dominic Smith, a 1B/DH type thrown into the outfield to get his bat into the lineup. With Judge’s carefulness also limiting his range, having two low-range outfielders in the field at the same time puts stress on the pitching staff by turning a number of should-be outs into hits.

For a flyball-heavy pitching staff like the Yankees — their 39.9 FB% is second-highest in all of baseball — this is not excellent roster construction. Fortunately, the team generates a ton of infield pop ups (12.3 IFFB% is tied for sixth) and strikeouts (28.8 K% is best in baseball), which helps offset the amount of fly balls. Still, by playing with such an ineffective defensive outfield, the Yankees are playing with fire a bit.