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Aaron Boone should be more proactive with late-game substitutions

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The Yankees have an opportunity to leverage their defensive talent, especially since September rosters are bigger and can offer more flexibility.

New York Yankees v Oakland Athletics Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Inconsistency has been a recurring theme for the Yankees in 2021. Currently, the team is lively and recently won 13 games in a row, but for a stretch earlier this season they performed in a fashion that can only be described as uninspired and mediocre. Multiple guys have been slotted in positions they don’t normally play. Fifty-seven different players have been on the roster since Opening Day. And while it’s a more granular aspect of the game, the Yankees’ strategy has also been inconsistent when making defensive substitutions late in a game.

Managers make this decision most often when a player who started the game was selected to play in the game more for his batting prowess than his fielding ability. For example, the purpose of using Tyler Wade as a defensive sub for Rougned Odor is to ensure superior defense in tight games when the score is close. Implementing this kind of substitution in the eighth or ninth inning particularly makes sense if the starter’s spot in the batting order has recently come up and he is unlikely to get another at-bat. In these situations, a manager has the opportunity to upgrade his defense without taking the bat out of the hand of his best slugger. If it comes at no cost to your offense, why wouldn’t a manager use a defensive replacement?

Right now, the Yankees are contending for a spot in the Wild Card race. Every small advantage matters. Yet, Boone doesn’t always make proactive moves to use a defensive replacement when doing so would improve the Yankees’ defense. Or, he makes moves that don’t seem like the best available option, or the the choice that gives the team the best chance of winning.

Boone ought to take advantage of his defensively-skilled bench more often. During the recent series in Oakland, there were several times when Boone didn’t take advantage of his defensively-skilled bench in situations when it would have made sense to do so. In the third game of the series on August 28th, Boone had Gio Urshela pinch-hit for shortstop Andrew Velazquez in the 8th inning, with the Yanks losing 3-0.

Urshela then took Velazquez’s place at shortstop in the bottom half of the 9th inning. Now, Urshela is a talented fielder who could competently play any infield position. The Yankees’ defense was absolutely fine with him at shortstop. But wouldn’t it have made more sense to put Wade in at shortstop and use Urshela as a sub for Odor at third? Third base is a new position for Odor, as this year was the first time he’s played there in a major league game. The Yankees’ defense is stronger with Urshela at third and Tyler Wade at shortstop—both their natural positions. Out of 59 attempts Odor has a 71 percent success rate at third base, which is equivalent to -1 Outs Above Average. His OAA indicates Odor costs the Yankees an out in the field. Meanwhile, Urshela’s OAA at third base is +1 on balls hit down the third baseline or toward the hole between third and short.

Similar to the way Boone used Adeiny Hechavarría as a late-game sub for Miguel Andujar in the 2018 Wild Card Game, Boone could tighten up on defense late in games by slotting in Wade or Velazquez for Gleyber Torres at shortstop. If Odor gets a start, he shouldn’t still be out there in the 9th if Urshela or Wade is available.

There are also defensive substitution possibilities that Boone has yet to explore. For instance, Kyle Higashioka’s defense and framing abilities are generally better than Gary Sánchez’s. Let’s say Sánchez made the final out in the eighth inning and is unlikely to have another at-bat in the ninth. As my fellow writer Peter Brody suggested late last year, wouldn’t it make sense for Boone to take advantage of Higashioka’s defense by occasionally putting him in the game late to catch for Gary? At the very least, it’s food for thought.

The Yankees are a very analytics-friendly team. There has to be evidence to support Boone’s decisions, because it’s so unlikely that Boone makes his moves arbitrarily, or on impulse. On their face, some of his defensive moves in later innings — decisions about where guys should play, and who should substitute for whom — are not especially obvious. It’s frustrating to see Boone make strange managerial decisions without knowing why, or what the reasoning is underlying them — especially if the move doesn’t work out. If there is a superior solution, why not use it?