Cashman Created a Defensive Juggernaut
by Cary Greene
March 5, 2023
The 2022 Yankees Were Vastly Better Defensively...
One feat last season that Brian Cashman should get a ton of credit for is how vastly he improved the Yankees defensively - considering how uninspiring they were in 2021, a season in which the Yankees ranked 26th in the league in Total Zone Total Fielding Runs Above Average, which is a stat referred to by Baseball Reference as Rtot. Rtot measures how many runs above or below average a team’s defense was based on the number of plays it made.
In 2021, the Yankees were a minus 42 runs below average. Compared to the 2021 World Series Champion Braves, who were second in the league at 56 runs above average, the Braves had a plus 98 run advantage over the Yankees, due to their defense.
Fast forwarding to 2022, Cashman’s roster was a plus 63 Rtot, which ranked as MLB’s second best defense. The 105 Rtot defensive turnaround was nothing short of stunning and Yankees fans were treated to what was an often spectacular defense that created a big advantage when paired with vastly better pitching and catching.
Considering 20,817 runs were scored across MLB in 2022, many fans might scoff at the notion that the Yankees' improved defense really mattered all that much, so my next series of articles will attempt to put that notion in context and examine it. Along the way, I’ll also examine:
● Whether or not Defense Really Matters
● Which Yankees will be the Most Impactful Defensive Players this Season
● Which Yankees will be the Most Impactful Overall Players this season
There’s no question that Brian Cashman was onto something last season as he unbelievably crafted the Yankees into a far superior defensive team. What the team Cashman built in 2022 was able to do defensively over the course of last season was nothing short of a remarkable turnaround. In fact, I don’t think I’d have ever imagined that such rapid defensive improvement was even possible, if I hadn’t watched the entire season with my own eyes.
Last season, FanGraphs rated the Yankees as the best defensive team in baseball. Granted, rating defense is very subjective, but based on “fDefense” the Yankees topped the list, while also benefiting from players with strong throwing arms, who field their “zones” or areas very well.
Three Big Reasons the Yankees were Better in 2022
Given that the Yankees overall defense last season was 105 Rtot better than it was in 2021, the Yankees defense was one of the big three reasons for the Yankees scalding hot start to the season. More impactful still was the significant improvement of the Yankees offensive production, which went from a 12th ranked 100 OPS+ in 2021 (League Average was 97 that season) to a whopping 113 OPS+ (ranked 4th) in 2022 (League Average was 100).
Meanwhile, the Yankees overall team pitching even got a little bit better, going from a 115 ERA+ in 2021 (ranked 5th) to a 119 ERA+ in 2022 (ranking 3rd). If not for significant injuries, Yankees hitting and pitching might have been even better last season.
Despite the vast offensive improvement and the incremental pitching gains, no area of Cashman’s work towards improving the Yankees was more pronounced than what the team did between the chalk lines on the dirt, grass and turf with good old fashioned leather mitts, hustle, some new faces and of course and of course - stellar play at key positions. The question is, how much did that improvement really matter - can it be truly quantified?
Nonetheless, when a team significantly improves its batting, pitching and its defense, good things usually happen. Unfortunately, the Yankees still missed out on winning a World Series championship last season. They were however a vastly better product on the field than they were the previous season and the team was able to claw out plenty of close wins, going 31-27 in one-run affairs. Coupled with going 32-6 in blowout wins, the Yankees were a difficult matchup for opponents last season, when they weren’t slumping of course.
During the first half of the season, the Yankees were playing a dominating brand of baseball not seen in the Bronx since the days of Babe Ruth’s 1928 team set the franchise record for reaching 50-wins the fastest at 50-16 (.758), which was then broken a decade later by Joe Dimaggio’s 1939 team that was 50-14 (.781).
Reaching 50 wins in only 67 games, the 2022 Yankees were hurtling along at a .746 clip before injuries to key players like Chad Green, Jonathan Loaisiga, Luis Severino, Mike King, Giancarlo Stanton, Matt Carpenter,, Scott Effross, Andrew Benintendi, Aroldis Chapman and Ron Marinaccio among others seemed to take the wind out of the Yankees sails.
Cashman addressed the media last season, saying he’s of course a strong believer in the Yankees “process” and mainly citing injuries as the reason the team failed yet again to win a World Series. With that in mind, can the Yankees improve upon last season’s success and if so, in what areas might Yankees fans expect to see some noticeable results?
Offensively, it seems like the Yankees might be worse. Gone are Matt Carpenter and Andrew Benintendi and Cashman failed to make a single offensive upgrade this offseason. However, the partial youth movement the Yankees are engaged in might actually impact the big league club finally this season. Both Oswald Peraza and Oswaldo Cabrera are projected to be fairly light hitting, below league average offensive players. STEAMERS projects Peraza to post a .301 wOBA / 96 wRC+ while Cabrera is projected to log a .299 wOBA / 95 wRC+.
The Yankees are also counting on the offensively below average Aaron Hicks to play left field again this season and he’s projected to be a .304 wOBA / 99 wRC+ player. The Yankees are also looking forward to a full season of Harrison Bader in center field and he’s projected at .316 wOBA / 107 wRC+. When added to Josh Donaldson’s projected .317 / 108 wRC+ the Yankees have a ton of “meh” offensive players slated to be big parts of the 2023 team.
This strategy is a rather curious approach, given the importance of offensive production and the direct correlation between production and winning, but it’s one Cashman apparently thinks will work. Combined, the Yankees position players are likely going to be very good defensively though.
The Cornerstone of the Yankees Defense is Catching
Clearly last season’s pinstriped defensive bus was driven by Jose Trevino, who was acquired as result of Cashman’s biggest 2022 “miracle acquisition”, in which he turned what was the Yankees biggest carbuncle into a fantastic upgrade. When I broke down the American League East by team last offseason, I projected the Yankees to have a significant disadvantage at Catcher, with Gary Sanchez then penciled in as the de facto starter behind the plate.
In a very under the radar early April trade, Cashman moved pitchers Albert Abreu and Robby Ahlsrom to the Rangers for Trevino, who was the Rangers backup catcher. Then a few months later (in June), Cashman swiped Abreu back from the Rangers, selecting him off the Waiver-wire. Trevino wound up making the All Star team on the way to a Gold Glove season behind the plate for the Yankees and Abreu was a fringe contributor to what would become a Yankees bullpen that was ravaged by injuries.
Full Seasons and New Faces
With Harrison Bader, Oswaldo Cabrera, and Oswald Peraza all injected into the Yankees defensive mix, there is a chance the 2023 Yankees might even be better defensively than they were last season. Bader plays a premium defensive position, center field and he’s clearly a ball hawk and Cabrera’s presence will likely positively impact the corners of the Yankees outfield even more significantly, considering he’ll contribute over the course of a full season.
Besides functioning as a spot starter in the outfield and also being a late game defensive replacement, he actually has a shot at winning the left field job outright. Not to mention, Cabrera will likely see time all over the Yankees infield this season as well.
If Peraza wins the starting shortstop job outright this spring, his impact could also improve the Yankees infield defense and when added to the potential impact that both Bader and Cabrera are capable of, the Yankees could be one of the best Yankees teams ever and if that holds true, could a stellar 2023 defense put the Yankees over the top and help to end the now 13-year championship drought?
Stellar Defense Alone Isn’t Always Enough
Elite fielders have the range to cover flaws elsewhere on the roster, but several of the finest and most brilliant defensive teams of all time failed to gleam the brightest at the end of their respective seasons, because they failed to capture the shiniest trophy of them all – the World Series trophy.
Thinking back throughout history, the 1969 Orioles who were led by the incomparable Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger and Paul Blair were swept in the World Series that season by Series MVP Don Clendenon, Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and the Miracle Mets. Fangraphs rates the ‘69 Birds as having the second highest Total Zone score (112) since 1900. The ‘69 Orioles fielded players who would win a total of 40 Gold Gloves between them - with Robinson (16), Blair (8), Belanger (8), Jim Palmer (4), Davey Johnson (3) and Frank Robinson (1). In 1969, the Orioles were first in OPS+ (110) and also first in ERA+ (126) yet there was no stopping the red hot Mets that year.
Certainly the ‘69 Orioles weren’t the only great defensive team that failed to win it all. In 2018 the Diamondbacks finished 82-80, 8 ½ games out of first place in the NL West that season, failing to even make the playoffs. Other spectacular defensive teams like the 2001 Mariners, who combined elite defense with a spectacular offense that was ranked first baseball that season with a 121 OPS+ and the leagues fourth best pitching staff (117 ERA+) also
failed as well, though they did win 116 games, they were bounced in five games by the Yankees that year.
Great Defense and Great Offense Combined is Tough to Beat
The 1975 Reds were a very well balanced team that excelled in all phases of the game and the results were nothing short of dominating. The Big Red Machine was a strong offensive ballclub for the era, posting a League leading 108 OPS+ to complement the seventh best overall pitching staff that year (107 ERA+), but they also happened to play extremely good defense (ranked fourth in the League in both Defensive Efficiency (.717) and Rtot (61).
What made the Reds so special defensively in their dynasty of the mid-70’s is that they received near-spectacular defense at key positions including catcher, shortstop, second base and center field. This blend helped the Reds to win it all in 1975, fielding a group of stars that won 24 Gold Gloves among them, with Johnny Bench (catcher, 10), Joe Morgan (second base, 5), Dave Concepcion (shortstop, 5) and Cesar Geronimo (center field, 4) that combined with other stalwarts like corner outfielders George Foster and Ken Griffey Sr as well as third baseman Pete Rose.
The grinding Reds offense combined with a pitching staff that was seventh in the league that year with an ERA+ of 107 and their suffocating defense helped them roll through the competition like the red hot knives through butter that they proved to be.
Brian Cashman may actually be taking a page out of the Big Red Mahine’s play book a bit as the team enters the 2023 season. Though the Yankees don’t have a strong offensive catcher who also dominates games defensively like Johnny Bench used to, they do have Jose Trevino behind the plate and he’s the not just the reigning American League Gold Glove winner at Catcher as I mentioned, but he led all MLB catchers with 21 Defensive Runs Saved en route to winning the Fielding Bible award as the best overall catcher in baseball. He led all receivers in Pitch Framing, Strike Zone Runs Saved and he was way above average in both pitch blocking and limiting stolen bases.
Other Yankees who might contend for Gold Gloves in 2023 include DJ LeMahieu, Josh Donaldson and Harrison Bader. Considering that Trevino plays what is easily the most important position on the diamond, which is catcher and not shortstop - which may be a surprise to some, the Yankees defense is once again projected to be very strong.
If Anthony Rizzo can get back to playing stronger, more consistent defense at first base, he could also combine with the aforementioned defensive stalwarts and a number of other Yankees who are plus defenders as well, such as Kyle Higashioka, Gleyber Torres, Aaron Judge, Isaiah Kiner-Falefa, Aaron Hicks, Oswaldo Cabrera and Oswald Peraza to form one of the best defensive teams Yankees fans have ever seen in the Bronx. At the heart of it all will be Jose Trevino as he handles what is shaping up to be a pretty special pitching staff and he’ll get a ton of help from his battery-mate Kyle Higashioka as they navigate the season again together. I’m expecting big things from this pair once again in 2023.
If the Yankees group of positional players can stay healthy and if they can get a massive amount of production from offensive cogs like Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, the 2023 Yankees could do some big things. I’ll dig way deeper into this whole topic in my next piece so stay tuned and please do give your thoughts on where the team is at so far. What do you think, with all this defense, do the Yankees have enough projected offense?