The second base position has generated a lot of discussion around the New York Yankees this year, and for good reason. Although the season began with DJ LeMahieu as the clear starter at the position, the acquisition of Rougned Odor from the Texas Rangers and the Jay Bruce, Mike Ford, and Chris Gittens black holes at first base made Odor the regular starter at the position for a large stretch of the season. An injury to LeMahieu put the leadoff hitter back at the keystone even while Gio Urshela was on the injured list in August, as he was unable to make the throws from third base until it healed. Finally, on September 13th, fed up with defensive miscues at shortstop, the Yankees returned Gleyber Torres to second base, reshuffling the Yankees infield once again, this time at a pivotal moment in the season.
That final move has generated much press, for obvious reasons (I mean, how often does a team make that significant a change in the closing weeks of a pennant race?), and it has widely received favorable reviews, also for obvious reasons — Torres has slashed .298/.389/.404 since the switch, good for a 114 OPS+, lending credence to the theory that the defensive pressure at short was getting to him. And while it has undoubtedly been a success, the move is far from perfect: although better defensively at second than short, Torres is by no means a quality defensive second baseman.
Obviously, you’ll live with those defensive metrics so long as he keeps hitting the way he has, but what if there was a way to tighten up the defense late in games? Fortunately, the Yankees have just the man for the job already on the roster: Rougned Odor!
Known primarily for his ability to hit home runs at a high average rate yet still be a below-average bat because he does literally nothing else offensively, Odor has quietly been one of the top defenders at second base over the past few seasons. In fact, since Statcast began recording Outs Above Average in 2015, only three players have accrued more OAA at second base than Odor: LeMahieu, Jonathan Schoop, and Starlin Castro.
Of course, that lends the question, why put Odor at second and LeMahieu at third when LeMahieu has traditionally been the better second baseman? Wouldn’t it be smarter to put LeMahieu at his original position, return Urshela to third base, and slot Tyler Wade in at shortstop if you want to tighten up the defense late in games? On the surface, that sounds reasonable, except for the fact that Odor has been much better than LeMahieu at second this season — and it’s not particularly close.
Odor has, in fact, been among the best defenders in the league at his position, as only Tommy Edman of the St. Louis Cardinals and Jean Segura of the Philadelphia Phillies have accrued more OAA than him with 13 and nine, respectively. On top of that, OAA is a counting stat, not a rate stat; Odor has only 197 attempts as the second baseman this year, compared to 395 by Edman and 449 by Segura. That Odor ranks among them despite having half the attempts shows just how good he has been at the position.
Despite how obvious this move looks, nothing that the Yankees have done recently suggests that Odor is even in their postseason plans, let alone that he might play such a prominent role. After all, he has made exactly one start since September 8th, when he played third base this past Saturday, and his last appearance at second base came more than a month ago, on August 26th. This, in my opinion, is a mistake.
I totally understand letting Torres play as much second base as possible before the end of the season — not only are the Yankees likely trying to boost his confidence to try to get him going at the plate, he had not played the position full-time in almost two years, and needs as many reps as he can get. However, there’s simply no reason the Yankees cannot employ Torres and Odor like they did Miguel Andújar and Adeiny Hechavarría in 2018: one starting the game and getting multiple at-bats, the other coming in for defense with a lead when it looks like the bat won’t come to the plate again.
Over the long haul, such a move may only save a handful of runs, but when it comes to the playoffs, a handful of runs means the difference between a flag-raising ceremony when the Red Sox come to town on April 7th, 2022, and yet another winter full of “What If.”