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The Yankees defense isn’t the strength it was last year

The 2022 Yankees won the teamwide Gold Glove Award last year, but have been no better than league average defensively in 2023.

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Looking back, the 2022 Yankees were a team that, despite its high-performing starting rotation and powerful (albeit inconsistent) lineup, ought to be known primarily for its defensive prowess. No matter how you look at it, their defense was elite: their 129 Defensive Runs Saved led the league by more than 50 runs (the Dodgers came in second with “just” 86), their 7.0 UZR/150 was more than two-thirds of a point better than the second-place Cardinals, and their 23 Outs Above Average ranked fifth. Not surprisingly, the team piled up the accolades, with Jose Trevino and DJ LeMahieu each receiving a Gold Glove Award (with Trevino also winning the Platinum Glove) and the team earning the teamwide Gold Glove for the 2022 season.

2023 is a new year, however. Now that we’re coming up to the first quarter mark of the season, we can begin to look at this year’s defensive metrics, and well, they paint a picture that isn’t quite so rosy as last year.

Note: all stats are from before the game on 5/11/2023

It’s still early, but these numbers are a far cry from 2022. Those 2 DRS put the Yankees at 13th in the league, behind the Mets and above the Rangers, while their 3 OAA is tied for 10th with the Mets. UZR/150 thinks little of the Yankees defense, as their -2.1 is 20th in the league. No matter what metric you prefer, there is a not insignificant dropoff from last season.

Before we start diving into the Yankees in particular, let’s take a snapshot at the league as a whole.

It appears that the Yankees are not alone among the big movers. All five teams atop the leaderboards in DRS and UZR/150 find themselves ranked in the middle of the pack at best in 2023; OAA appears slightly more stable near the top of the board, but even there, the Astros, Cardinals, and Yankees have fallen out of the top 10. To some extent, this is normal, as defensive metrics are notoriously fickle from one year to the next. The fact that such drastic dropoffs happened the same year the ban on the shift went into effect suggests that something more may be happening behind the scenes; what exactly that is, however, is a question for another day — one on which we have more data.

For now, let’s just focus on the Yankees specifically.

Across the board, the Yankees defense is down compared to last year. Part of that is the defenders forced to play significant innings in the field: Franchy Cordero (1 DRS, -2 OAA) has 129 innings in the outfield, while Willie Calhoun, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, and Jake Bauers have cumulatively accrued a total of -3 DRS in just 73 combined innings in the outfield. Had Harrison Bader, Giancarlo Stanton, and Aaron Judge not missed any time, those outfield numbers would certainly look better.

Regression to the mean has also been a factor. While he’s not bad defensively, Trevino’s decline relative to his Platinum Glove performance has certainly been noticeable. Without the benefit of the shift, Gleyber Torres has been a mixed bag at second base one year after putting together a career best season with the glove. DJ LeMahieu has been solid at the hot corner, but has not been putting up the Gold Glove caliber numbers he did last year, and the team’s overall third base totals are dragged down by Josh Donaldson (0 DRS, 0 OAA, -4.0 UZR/150 in 38 innings) and Isiah Kiner-Falefa (-1 DRS, -1 OAA, -8.0 UZR/150 in 49 innings).

No matter the specific reasoning for this decline, not only is it noticeable, it has had a very clear and negative impact on the team’s pitching staff in the early weeks of the season. Although much of the attention has been on the lackluster lineup and the scuffling pitching staff, the less efficient defense may just be the difference in an American League playoff race that, if the early season tendencies continue, will come down to the wire.

As the spring marches on and summer begins to loom ever closer on the horizon, the Yankees defense bears watching.