The Yankees have had improvements all around the field this season. The offense and pitching have led the charge when it comes to public narrative, but the defensive improvements have been especially noteworthy. After the acquisitions of Josh Donaldson and Isiah Kiner-Falefa and re-signing of Anthony Rizzo, Brian Cashman reiterated time and time again the positive impact these three would have on team defense.
In today’s game, evaluating defense can be extremely subjective. For example, some people around the game would maybe assume Gio Urshela was the superior defensive third baseman to Josh Donaldson, but some defensive metrics suggest otherwise. After watching Donaldson this season, it’s clear he has more range going to both sides and better balance at the point of fielding. Gio is smooth like butter but doesn’t always range to go more than a few steps left or right. This example is just one of the areas where the Yankees have had improvements. In fact, when looking at the team overall, the improvements relative to the last four seasons are astronomical.
Making these determinations can be a toss-up. However, Brian Cashman and his team made the right call in just about every area they could have. Let’s start by taking a look at the team’s progression of Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Outs Above Average (OAA) over the last few seasons. The core of this year’s team — including Aaron Judge, DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, Aaron Hicks, and Giancarlo Stanton — have been with the team for a while. Since this time, these players have all been supplemented by a handful of different players, with ranges of bad to great defense.
Yankees Defensive Ratings
|2018||-38 (29th)||26 (10th)|
|2019||-35 (30th)||-14 (20th)|
|2020||-11 (27th)||1 (18th)|
|2021||-22 (25th)||-41 (29th)|
|2022||7 (9th)||53 (1st)|
Even though there are differences going from one metric to the next, it’s pretty clear the Yankees have had an incredible improvement this season relative to the last few. In 2021, they were historically awful according to DRS, and that matches up with what we saw on the field. To make the jump they have this year is incredibly impressive, and it took changes at almost every part of the diamond.
It’s my personal opinion that OAA is the best defensive metric available. The data to use to make this stat is coming straight from Statcast, so it’s pretty difficult to compete. However, DRS is done by Baseball Info Solutions which is a very manual effort. Both are useful, but as I hinted at before, I think it’s very important to use defensive metrics to confirm the eye test while also considering the following questions. Does player x have good range? Does player x have good foot work around the bag? Does player x know what their arm strength limitations are? There are so many factors that go into defense that can’t be picked up by just defensive stats, making it important to have a balanced approach.
This season, both the eye test and defensive statistics have shown improvements all around the infield. Gleyber Torres is back in his natural position and has a way better feel at how to attack balls going in and towards first base. Josh Donaldson may not have the smoothness of Gio Urshela, but his first step is much quicker, which allows him to get to more balls and turn more double plays. Anthony Rizzo’s defense speaks for itself, and while I don’t personally like Isiah Kiner-Falefa as a shortstop, there really is no argument that he has significantly more natural ability there than Torres and Urshela did. IKF’s most valuable position is third base, but even as a below average defensive shortstop, he is still better than Torres was there.
Then of course there is DJ LeMahieu, who is playing the best defense of his career at third base and has continued to be very valuable at second and first. Typically, DJ’s defense at third has only been average, but he has visibly and statistically made tangible strides at the position. His injury last season probably plays into it. Seeing the way he has commanded three infield position and hovering around a 120 wRC+ shows us how great it is to have this type of player.
This conversation has yet to include Aaron Judge’s defense in center field. It’s not everyday you see such an established right fielder, at any size let alone his, make such a seamless switch to give his teammates more comfort. He’s been an anchor in center field, his reads are near perfect. He’s able to stick out there thanks to this despite average to slightly above average speed.
Lastly, the team’s overall catcher defense has been night and day. Having a 99th percentile framer who can lead a team’s rotation like Jose Trevino does is a relief for pitchers. There is something about not needing to worry whether your catcher is going to stick a pitch or block a breaker that just lets a pitcher pitch. There’s an old idea that a pitcher should go out and dominate no matter who is behind the plate, but the value of a high IQ catcher should never be taken for granted.
See what I mean? The improvements have been at every part of the diamond. At times when watching this team from 2019-2021, it felt as if their fundamentals weren’t all there. When building a team, it’s important to construct a roster that can control the controllables. One of those things is defense. Your biggest foe is only yourself when trying to make every play you can. Acquiring players with better defensive skills has cleaned up a simple side of the ball and allowed pitchers to only worry about their job. Big kudos to Brian Cashman on this one — this team’s defense isn’t recognizable compared to years past.