The Yankees brought, shall we say, an unconventional approach to last offseason. As the sport whipped itself into a frenzy ahead of the lockout, the Yankees stayed on the sidelines with their hands in their pockets. While rivals poached star shortstops on the free agent market, the Yankees declined to get in on the action, instead enabling a salary dump that may have paved the way for the Twins to acquire Carlos Correa.
The underlying strategy to all of this was a newfound commitment to defense. Gone were middling or downright shoddy defenders like Gary Sánchez, Gio Urshela, and Luke Voit. The Yankees renovated themselves up the middle, installing a
defense-only defense-first catching core of Kyle Higashoika, Ben Rortvedt, and Jose Trevino, and plugging in Isiah Kiner-Falefa at short. They also solidified the corners, with Josh Donaldson taking over the hot corner and the steady Anthony Rizzo plying his trade at first.
We saw the benefits, and the drawbacks, of this idea almost immediately. I don’t need to remind you that small sample caveats apply after just one series, but these initial games have already demonstrated what the Yankees were getting at with their strategy, and the potential holes in their plan.
The first few innings of their Opening Day matchup with the Red Sox gave Rizzo a chance to showcase the team’s improved corner infield defense. The four-time Gold Glove winner made multiple difficult plays at first to open the season, corralling slightly off-target throws for outs. This play in particular illustrates things nicely, as Donaldson was forced to make a tough throw deep in the hole, and Rizzo expertly shifted his position on the first-base bag to both retire the runner and avoid a collision:
Donaldson, for his part, combined with DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres throughout the weekend for a number of key, smoothly-turned double plays.
That said, perhaps the most important contributions came behind the plate, the position where the Yankees’ strategy appeared most brazen. The club sacrificed a catcher who had the ability to send baseballs into orbit on any given pitch in order to commit to a starting backstop with a career 66 (!) wRC+.
Yet right away, it’s clear why the Yankees felt that was at least a lateral, if not a positive, move. Higashioka wasted no time in getting to work this weekend on making his pitchers better, receiving pitches with his trademark soft hands and smooth frame jobs. He noticeably turned multiple possible balls into strikes in Gerrit Cole’s Opening Day outing, and continued by punishing Boston batters for laying off anything resembling a strike down and away on Saturday:
Kyle Higashioka's ability to frame pitches was on display on Saturday. pic.twitter.com/Gcqeh9zLFe— Yankeesource (@YankeeSource) April 10, 2022
As Andrés will explore in greater detail tomorrow, Higashioka’s work with the tools of ignorance has been a subtle positive during this opening series.
Combined with fine work from most of the Yankee infield, it has quickly highlighted the potential benefits of the Yankees’ strategy. New York pitching will enjoy high-level framing on every pitch throughout the season with Higgy and some combination of Trevino and Rortvedt behind the plate. The new infield is ready to help each other out, with Donaldson, LeMahieu, and even Torres combining to record outs, and Rizzo bailing them out at first when needed. It’s not hard to imagine these defensive gains sustaining past the first series and into the summer.
Of course, I note that only most of the infield has shown well, because the Yankees’ nominal defense-first shortstop has gotten off to a rocky start. Kiner-Falefa has looked shaky to begin his campaign, booting a few grounders, uncorking a couple of inaccurate throws, and showing worse instincts and fundamentals than fans were led to believe when the Yankees chose to bring him in rather than pursue a superstar at shortstop.
On Opening Day, Kiner-Falefa dropped this grounder, turning what could have been a double play into just a forceout at second:
IKF booted another grounder up the middle on Saturday, on what was ruled a single for J.D. Martinez. Later on in the ninth, Kiner-Falefa fielded a slow grounder from Christian Vázquez, and threw wildly to give Boston life:
Kiner-Falefa has also looked a bit overmatched at the plate, submitting a handful of non-competitive at-bats.
This isn’t to pile on Kiner-Falefa, who’s only struggled for a few games and will have time to turn things around (more on that from Jesse on Tuesday). Even while he’s thus far handled the shortstop position much like Torres did last year, Kiner-Falefa’s raw ability on the dirt at least appears respectable. Kiner-Falefa looks to have just enough range and arm to make plays at shortstop; he just hasn’t so far.
But Kiner-Falefa himself was the shakiest aspect of the Yankees’ defensive proposition entering the year. Higashioka has an established baseline as an elite framer. Donaldson and Rizzo, while in decline, still rate anywhere from solid to outstanding as defenders by advanced defensive metrics, and have long track records of consistency to their name. Kiner-Falefa, however, has just one season’s worth of shortstop play in the bank, and little consensus on the quality of that season to show for it.
While Statcast’s Outs Above Average ranked IKF as a great defensive third baseman prior to shifting to short in 2021, OAA rated him as one of the worst defensive shortstops in the game last year. DRS disagreed, putting IKF ten runs above average. It’s hard to know what to make of one year of disparate defensive metrics, but there was at least ambiguity entering 2022 regarding whether Kiner-Falefa should be seen as a top defender. Throw in the fact that most scouting reports on him when he was a prospect saw him as an average-ish defender, and there was no guarantee that the Yankees’ bet on Kiner-Falefa as a defensive stalwart was sound.
Essentially, this first series seems to have confirmed our priors regarding the Yankees’ defensive plan. The dudes who long have been good defenders (Donaldson, Rizzo) look like they’ll upgrade the corners. Higashioka’s framing will have every chance to shine. And the guy who felt shakiest coming into the year, Kiner-Falefa, has been the shakiest, both with the glove and the bat.
It’s hard to say exactly how well the whole endeavor will work out from here, and if we’ll view the Yankees’ defensive investments as worth it. Much depends on whether IKF can join the rest of his infield-mates and solidify infield defense as a team strength. We’ve seen definite positive signs, and you can understand what the Yankees were getting at when Higashioka steals a strike on the outside corner, and when Rizzo pulls off a challenging pick at first base. We’ll have to hope for more of those plays, and fewer of the bobbles and double-clutches at short that we’ve all grown accustomed to the last couple seasons.