The Boston Red Sox improved greatly during Dave Dombrowski's first offseason with the team in nearly every phase of the game. They improved their pitching staff by signing the best free agent on the market, David Price, and turned their bullpen into a potential powerhouse by landing Craig Kimbrel, whose career per-inning numbers compare to any closer in history.
Boston also snatched a useful member of the 2015 Yankees, Chris Young, whose tendencies to hit the ball in the air and pull it to left field should match perfectly with Fenway Park's "unique" dimensions. Young's departure contributed to the Yankees' decision to trade John Ryan Murphy for former prospect darling Aaron Hicks, whose splits against lefties also raise eyebrows:
Chris Young 2013-2015 vs LHP: .245/.344/.443 .787 OPS
Aaron Hicks 2013-2015 vs LHP: .272/.360/.447 .807 OPS
With Hicks' addition the Yankees will once again carry a group of four primary outfielders into the 2016 season. Let's take a look at how New York's three current primary outfielders have faired against lefties in that same timeframe:
Brett Gardner 2013-2015 vs LHP: .262/.337/.395 .732 OPS
Jacoby Ellsbury 2013-2015 vs LHP: .266/.335/.371 .706 OPS
Carlos Beltran 2013-2015 vs LHP: .235/.276/.407 .683 OPS
Over the past three seasons, Aaron Hicks has been the best offensive player against left-handed pitchers while Carlos Beltran has been the worst. In order to apply this knowledge to inform Joe Girardi's decision on outfield playing time one must also consider defensive capability. Hicks, equipped with every tool a good defensive outfielder requires, initially struggled to play a competent center field for Minnesota. Having spent the vast majority of his major league innings at center, his Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 innings indicated weakness in 2013 and 2014 before it perked up in 2015 to expected levels given his skill set:
2013 UZR/150: -11.0
2014 UZR/150: -11.1
2015 UZR/150: +7.2
Defensive measurement is not yet an exact science, but a shift that dramatic cannot be ignored. Anecdotal reports buttressed the numbers, so it is somewhat safe to say Aaron Hicks can be perceived as a plus defender at center field. When comparing those numbers to Beltran's over the same span of time, all in right field:
2013 UZR/150: -18.7
2014 UZR/150: -27.3
2015 UZR/150: -6.9
Beltran's insanely bad 2014 is partially due to a small sample size of only 259.2 innings, but when combined with the eye test and his age the numbers indicate a player whose time in the outfield will soon be gone. Thanks to a logjam at the designated hitter position, as well as Joe Girardi's penchant for rotating position players into that role, Yankees fans can expect Beltran to receive the majority of his plate appearances as a right fielder. But how many plate appearances should we expect?
Chris Young's presence allowed Girardi to rotate his outfielders in 2015, as each of the main three trudged through at least one prolonged slump throughout the year. However, with Gardner and Ellsbury expected to be fully recovered from injuries and Beltran's struggles, Beltran's leash should be almost nonexistent.
When the Yankees faced off against the Houston Astros in the 2015 Wild Card Game, Girardi benched Ellsbury instead of Beltran in order to squeeze Young into the lineup against lefty Dallas Keuchel. However, Ellsbury had an OPS of .529 in September and Beltran is a historically great postseason performer, both of which certainly influenced Girardi's decision. Going forward those factors will be relatively insignificant and the Yankees should revert to using the bigger statistical picture to inform their playing time decisions.
Hicks' defensive versatility and skill, as well as his ability to smash lefties, should combine to limit Beltran's exposure to those pitchers to nearly zero. The time has come for Girardi and the Yankees to consider benching Beltran's slow legs and feeble bat against left-handed pitchers and playing him only in emergency situations. He was reticent to hand the superior Young too many platoon appearances over the highly respected and paid Beltran in 2015, but with the latter's contract ending after this year he is out of excuses.