The 2021 Yankees weren’t always an easy baseball team to watch. They could not hit for large stretches of last season, committed cringeworthy baserunning mistakes, and their defense was terrible. So today, I’d like to focus on how terrible the 2021 Yankees were defensively, but how much hope they’ve offered so far this year on that side of the ball.
Last season’s club accomplished an ignominious feat; they were unquestionably awful by both the old eye test and advanced metrics. For example, looking at Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), as reported by FanGraphs, the Yankees finished 29th overall for the 2021 season with -41 defensive runs saved. Only the Philadelphia Phillies were worse than the Yankees as a defensive team at -54 defensive runs saved. At the same time, looking at Statcast’s Outs Above Average (OAA), the Yankees were 25th in the league with a value of -23 outs above average. Only the Angels, Nationals, Orioles, Reds, and Red Sox were worse in OAA during the 2021 season.
Looking at FanGraphs Defense (DEF) statistic, a combination of fielding runs plus positional adjustments, is also not kind to the 2021 Yankees. The 2021 Yankees ranked 28th in the league when looking at DEF, with a value of -32.6, surpassing only the Reds and Angels.
Positionally, the 2022 Yankees shook things up by bringing in a new third baseman, shortstop, and two catchers. Last season, the Yankees were 19th in the league at third base in DRS and OAA. Josh Donaldson has declined in recent years, but even in 2021 he was still worth one defensive run saved and was one out above average. Gio Urshela was minus-four per DRS, and was minus-five per outs above average. Just at third base, the Yankees could be looking at about five extra runs saved and outs above average compared to last season.
At shortstop, the Yankees finished 27th in the league in DRS at a ghastly -15 defensive runs saved. They were 27th in the league in OAA with -14 outs above average. Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s 2021 defensive metrics were a little bit of a mixed bag, with DRS crediting him with 10 defensive runs saved, but OAA putting him seven outs below average. If we take the more optimistic figure, DRS, then IKF profiles as a 20-run improvement from the -10 posted by Torres last season. IKF’s -7 OAA represents just a two-out improvement from the -9 posted by Torres. Even if the stats can’t quite agree on him, IKF has the potential to be a massive upgrade defensively on Gleyber, and after getting off to a shaky start, he’s started to flash the leather a bit more lately, such as with this sparkling play against the Blue Jays last night:
Moving on to catcher, the Yankees were 21st in the league by DRS last year. However, it is worth noting that Gary Sánchez was worth -10 defensive runs saved last season, and Kyle Higashioka was worth plus-five. Had Higashioka not started each Gerrit Cole start, the Yankees’ DRS at the catching position would have been worse than the overall minus-five figure. Zooming in on framing runs, the Yankees were 12th in the league with at plus-three runs. Sánchez contributed -2.5 framing runs, while Higashioka contributed 5.5.
Moreover, Jose Trevino’s was worth 11 defensive runs saved for the Rangers in 2021. At the same time, he was worth 8.8 framing runs. If we simply combined Higashioka and Trevino’s 2021 season, the duo would have combined for 16 defensive runs saved and 14.3 framing runs. This puts the Yankees in position to see an enormous jump in catcher defense. Higashioka and Trevino’s framing alone could be worth about two wins to the Yankees, whereas Sánchez’s framing last year took about a win off the table.
Overall, the additions that the Yankees have made will almost certainly improve the team’s defense. Indeed, while It’s too early to get too excited about small-sample defensive numbers, the advanced metrics love what the new defenders have done this year, with the team ranking above average across the board at short, catcher, and third during 2022. In all likelihood, we’ll look back at this season and recognize that the club’s new look defense was worth a bucket of runs saved compared to last season.