Over the last few years, the Yankees have had a bit of a roster construction conundrum, as both Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton have primarily been right fielders throughout the career. While the Yankees have used Stanton in left field — he has 60 games there since coming to the Bronx prior to the 2018 season — his injury history has caused the Yankees to prefer him in right field when he’s been in the outfield. With the exception of Judge’s time in center field last season, that has meant that Stanton has primarily been a designated hitter in pinstripes.
Stanton has repeatedly mentioned that he feels most himself at the plate when he’s been able to play the field, a trend that we see reflected in his splits: his career OPS in left and right are .950 and .906, respectively, while as a DH it drops to .847. Because of this, the Yankees have apparently considered playing Judge in left field this season, with the Captain telling manager Aaron Boone, “I don’t mind switching around so we can have (Harrison) Bader, me, and Big G out there” at the same time.
As of this week, Boone has not shut down the idea, telling reporters that “it’s something on [his] board.” With spring training games starting this weekend, however, recent history informs us that this idea should not remain “on the board,” but needs to see the field now, when games mean absolutely nothing.
Back at the start of 2021, the Yankees appeared to have left field figured out. Headed into his age-26 season, Clint Frazier was coming off a breakout year in which he posted a 150 OPS+ and accrued 3 Defensive Runs Saved and 1 Out Above Average en route to a Gold Glove nomination in 280 innings during the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. Most of that time, however, had been spent in right field, and the following year, his defense regressed hard: he was worth -11 DRS and -8 OAA in 474 innings.
To replace Frazier, the Yankees brought in Joey Gallo at the 2022 trade deadline. It seemed a perfect fit, as not only did Gallo appear to have the perfect lefty swing for Yankee Stadium, he was a Gold Glove defender in right field with experience across all three outfield positions. With the Yankees, however, he struggled to adapt to left field, accruing -3 DRS and a whopping -5 OAA before being traded at the 2021 deadline — making the trend even more pronounced was the fact he played much better in right and seemed to adapt to left with the Dodgers just fine.
With both Frazier and Gallo, there are a million and a half reasons that both players struggled defensively in left field while in pinstripes. Frazier’s breakout in right happened when he was healthy, while his concussion history sapped his range in 2021 (his range dropped by a full four feet from 2020 to 2021, reflecting the difficulty in finding the ball off the bat when dealing with concussion-related eyesight problems). Gallo, meanwhile, never got into a groove at all in the Bronx in any capacity.
Even so, this history does remind us that left field and right field, despite their many similarities, are in fact different positions, and success at one does not guarantee success at the other. While there’s every reason to believe that Judge would take to left just fine due to his success in center, spring training is the perfect opportunity to make sure that is in fact the case. The Yankees did it two years ago with Gio Urshela, playing him at shortstop in the spring simply to see if he could fill in as the backup and potentially open up another roster spot. There’s no reason they shouldn’t do it with Aaron Judge now.