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The Yankees’ defense at third base has become a major strength

The Yankees’ offseason tweaks have turned the hot corner from a weakness into a strength.

MLB: MAY 19 Yankees at Orioles Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Heading into the winter March, the Yankees had two major weaknesses they needed to correct: their hitting and defense. When Brian Cashman flipped Gio Urshela and Gary Sánchez to the Minnesota Twins for Josh Donaldson, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, and (theoretically) Ben Rortvedt, he was clearly attempting to at least in part achieve both simultaneously. Donaldson had been one of the best and most consistent hitters of the last decade, while IKF was at worst a serviceable shortstop and at best an effective one.

For the most part, the trade has gone about as advertised. Splitting time between third base and the DH spot, Donaldson had been one of the most consistent hitters in the lineup, and it is no coincidence that the team has struggled at the plate since he hit the COVID-IL last Monday (the Yankees have a 76 wRC+ in that span). Kiner-Falefa, meanwhile, has paired a below-average bat (78 wRC+) with a glove that has mixed reviews but is ultimately about league average (1 Defensive Runs Saved, -2 Outs Above Average, 5.0 UZR/150), giving the team an actual shortstop — something they sorely lacked in 2021. The trade has benefitted the Yankees in a third way, one that was largely unexpected to the fanbase writ large: improved defense at the hot corner.

For most who followed the Yankees of the past few years, third-base defense wasn’t exactly a major need, as Urshela was known as a slick defender. The advanced metrics, however, did not universally agree with that assessment. Statcast valued him at -5 OAA last year, 21st among 24 third basemen with at least 600 innings at the position; FanGraphs wasn’t any more optimistic, with his -4 DRS ranking 20th. Only UZR/150 — which can be shaky in a one-year sample — had a positive opinion of him, with his 1.2 UZR/150 ranked 11th. While Urshela made the highlight reel with frequency, the metrics weren’t a fan of his range at the hot corner, and indeed, they never have been*, and in fact, they even found him better at shortstop than he was at his normal position.

*This trend has continued for Urshela in the Twin Cities. Thus far in 2022, he has a -3 OAA, -1 DRS, and 0.2 UZR/150.

Coming into the season, Donaldson’s glove was something of a question mark. Although he had been a tremendous defender in the past — he accrued 10 DRS and 9 OAA as recently as 2019 — he is in his age-36 season and has battled injuries in recent years. So far this season, however, Donaldson has shown that he can still flash the leather with the best of them. His 5 DRS ranks fourth among third basemen with 150 or more innings, behind only Nolan Arenado, Ke’Bryan Hayes, and Ramón Urías — and he’s done that with almost 100 fewer innings at the position. Additionally, though OAA and UZR/150 aren’t quite as high on him (1 and 5.0, respectively), those still rank in the upper third of the league, ranking 13th and 9th among 34 qualifying third basemen.

Donaldson, however, has only covered roughly half the team’s innings at third base due to the combination of rest rotation, a shoulder injury, and ill-advised comments. DJ LeMahieu has received the bulk of the remainder of playing time there. Fortunately for the Yankees, he has slid back into the “Ben Zobrist” multi-position starter role with ease, and has been just as good — if not better — than Donaldson. His 4 DRS at the hot corner rank seventh, ahead of Gold Glove third basemen Manny Machado and Matt Chapman. His 3 OAA, meanwhile, tie him for fourth, and his 14.4 UZR/150 trails only Oakland’s Kevin Smith.

As if that wasn’t good enough, the Yankees’ third option, Marwin Gonzalez, has also been quietly dominant with the glove. While he doesn’t make the highlight reel plays that Donaldson and LeMahieu make look so easy, he has more than made the most of his limited time at the hot corner. Among the 57 infielders with 50 or more innings at third (for reference, Gonzalez has 57), his 2 DRS ranks 14th, his 2 OAA are tied with seven others for eighth, and his 23.1 UZR/150 top the leaderboards.

This trio has catapulted the Yankees to the top of the rankings across the board, at least when it comes to the hot corner. Last season, the Urshela-led crew — which also included significant innings from LeMahieu, Rougned Odor, and Tyler Wade — ranked 19th with -5 DRS, 19th with -5 OAA (no, that’s not a typo), and 16th with 0.7 UZR/150. This season, they lead the league with 11 DRS, are tied for first with 6 DRS, and trail only Team Arenado with 9.9 UZR/150 — and even there, just barely, as the Cards have only 10.0 UZR/150.

While this improvement is certainly not the only reason the Yankees defense has been much stronger this season, their ability to slot in an elite glove at the hot corner night in and night out has certainly made things much easier for a pitching staff that is in the upper third of the league at generating ground balls (44.4 GB%, tied for eighth). The decision to swap Urshela for Donaldson may have been rooted primarily in a desire to upgrade an offense that struggled in 2021, but at least so far, it has transformed third base into a position of strength on both sides of the ball for the Yankees.