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The Yankees finally found a way to improve their outfield defense

Shifting Aaron Judge to center field when Giancarlo Stanton hit the IL helped the Yankees stumble on their best outfield defense.

New York Yankees v Minnesota Twins Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

You’d be forgiven for thinking, back in early April, that the Yankees were going to have an elite defense in the outfield. After all, although Aaron Hicks was no longer an above-average center fielder, he was flanked on one side by two-time Gold Glove recipient Joey Gallo and on the other by annual Gold Glove finalist and 2021 Fielding Bible Award winner Aaron Judge.

And then, the season began, and the exact opposite happened: the team’s outfield defense became an issue. Gallo took his problems at the plate into the outfield with him, while Hicks quickly put himself on track for the worst season of his career, at least according to Defensive Runs Saved and UZR/150 (Outs Above Average was more optimistic, but only slightly). Aaron Judge provided solid defense in right field, of course, but even he wasn’t his normally elite self, although that was more due to the fact that he was deliberately easing himself into the season to help stay healthy than anything else.

For the first six weeks of the season, the Yankees lived with the poor defense, shaking up the Gallo/Hicks/Judge arrangement only to play Stanton in right field and give someone else the DH spot for the day. To do this, they would simply give Judge the day off and move to a Gallo/Hicks/Stanton alignment or bench Hicks, moving to a Gallo/Judge/Stanton outfield.

And then, something happened. Giancarlo Stanton hit the injured list, and Miguel Andújar was recalled from Triple-A to replace him. Although he was likely ticketed for the bench at first, Hicks went down for a couple of days with hamstring tightness at the same time. To fill out the outfield, the Yankees slotted Andújar in left, moved Gallo over to right field, and shifted Judge to center field.

While initially intended as a stopgap move, that defensive shift has become permanent. Since May 26th, Judge has manned center field 17 times and right field just once. Hicks has returned to his old position only five times, and has instead become the team’s most common left fielder (10 starts). Gallo, meanwhile, has returned to the spot where he won a Gold Glove, starting in right 14 times, covering left field only when he has been in the lineup when Stanton was in right (four times). Stanton is the only one who has not moved around the outfield at all, playing right field six times (his other five starts since coming off the IL were as the DH).

It’s a complicated rotation, for sure, but it has gotten the job done. Not only have Gallo and Hicks started hitting since it began — Gallo has a 120 wrC+ since May 26th and Hicks a 114 wRC+ — but the Yankees outfield defense has quickly solidified.

The biggest upgrade has come from Gallo shifting from left to right. Despite playing well there as a member of the Texas Rangers (he was worth 3 DRS and 1 OAA in 241 innings there back in 2019, the last season before he became Texas’s full-time right fielder), Gallo never took to the position in pinstripes. In 289.1 innings in left this season, he has accrued a -2 DRS and a whopping -4 OAA, both of which would be the worst of his career as an outfielder. That ranks 38th and 51st among 55 outfielders with at least 100 innings in left, respectively. While Gallo hasn’t quite returned to his Gold Glove self in right field, at least according to the metrics in a small sample (1 DRS, 0 OAA in 128 innings), he’s looked infinitely more comfortable out there, and has been at least as good as league average out there.

Don’t take my word for it, however. Take a look at these two clips.

The first clip was recorded as a three-base error back on May 16th, while the second was listed as a double from April 22nd. Both are plays that, while not necessarily the easiest, absolutely should have been caught, and the only reason that they found grass out there was because Gallo did not take a good route. While the wind was a bit to blame that night in Baltimore, the double against the Guardians was simply a bad read.

Contrast that to this play from Sunday afternoon’s game, in which Gallo started in right field.

There’s really not much to say about this play. Gallo looked infinitely more comfortable moving backwards and to his right, and was able to position himself to better make the leaping grab than he did in left field.

Hicks has similarly been much more valuable to the Yankees in left field than he was in center, as he has accrued 2 DRS and 1 OAA in left field (11th and 5th among 55 left fielders with at least 100 innings, respectively) compared to -4 DRS and -1 OAA in center (26th and 27th among 28 center fielders, respectively). Unlike Gallo, however, where the improved performance was entirely the result of comfort, Hicks’ improvement in left field comes down to range. The defensive metrics have not been kind to Hicks in recent years: the last time DRS and OAA both considered him an above-average defender in center field was 2017. The only reason he was an acceptable starter there was the 115 OPS+ he put up from 2018 to 2021. In truth, Hicks had been a corner outfielder (and since his arm surgeries sapped his arm strength, a left fielder) moonlighting as a center fielder.

That brings us to Judge, ostensibly the only outfielder who is, by all measures, out of position as the Yankees’ center fielder. Even if he self-styles himself a center fielder, his best spot by far is right field, and he’s certainly been one of the best out there. Since the start of 2017, his 59 DRS and 11.4 UZR/150 trail only Mookie Betts’ 87 DRS and 11.4 UZR/150, and his 21 OAA trail only Betts (44), Max Kepler (30), and Jason Heyward (25).

The thing is, elite right fielders tend to be capable in center field, too. Betts was a top-flight center fielder before shifting to right to accommodate Jackie Bradley Jr. following the 2015 season. Heyward manned center for two dozen games annually as a member of the Cardinals and Cubs, and Kepler currently does the same for the Twins. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that Judge has been an acceptable option in center; so far this season, he’s been worth -2 DRS (21st among 28 center fielders with at least 100 innings) and 0 OAA (22nd). Considering he has a wRC+ of 189 and that his ability to play center has vastly improved defense on the corners, that’s a tradeoff the Yankees are more than happy to live with.

Obviously, the Yankees haven’t been using the Hicks/Judge/Gallo outfield on a nightly basis. Stanton has more than his share in right field as well, particularly against lefty hitters, while Gallo has started roughly half the time in left since Stanton started playing the field again after coming off the injured list. Even so, this has clearly become one of the team’s more important alignments, upon which most of the other ones have been built. And given how much better this one has been than the Opening Day version, that’s certainly a very good thing.