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  • Cary Greene

Cashman has Created a Defensive Juggernaut in the Bronx

Cashman has Created a Defensive Juggernaut in the Bronx

By Cary Greene

March 6, 2023

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Strong defensive play compared to offensive production or good pitching doesn’t impact winning nearly as much, in fact year in and year out, defense only affects about five to five and half percent of the total runs scored across MLB. For example, over the course of the 2021 season, the absolute value of all Defensive Runs Saved was 1,116 runs, but considering that 22,010 runs were scored in 2021, only 5.1 percent of the runs scored were impacted.


The same was true in the previous full season, when in 2019 only 5.2 percent of the total runs scored in MLB were likewise impacted by Defensive Runs Saved. Likewise, in 2022 it was more of the same as 20,817 runs were scored and again, only 5.2 percent of the runs scored were impacted by defense.


Defense may not make much of an impact on runs scored but it’s certainly entertaining for fans and to say that defense doesn’t matter would be inaccurate. Good defense at key positions also tends to matter a lot more than it does at other, lesser important positions.


It's commonly believed for example, an average center fielder is easily more valuable than an above average first baseman- mainly because there’s more ground to cover and in centerfield, the position requires more speed and a stronger throwing arm (hence, more athleticism) and its thought that more balls are hit to center field than first base. I’m going to revisit this notion shortly, because it’s a very interesting topic.


This was true of Aaron Judge last season in fact, as he made 162 outs while playing defense in center field and was able to post 1 DRS while ranking 20th among center fielders defensively. Likewise, when playing In right field Judge made 113 outs and he logged 491.2 innings and tallied 2 DRS.


The main reason the Yankees got more defensive value from Judge than say, Anthony Rizzo, is because Judge was a competent center fielder. When his offensive value is added in, Judge easily becomes the most valuable player in baseball, irregardless of the position he played, but the fact of the matter is that he played a couple of very important positions. Just how important is each position though?


The Importance of Positional Adjustment

When considering which defensive positions are most important, Fangraphs created positional adjustment calculations that acknowledge certain positions are more challenging than others. Fangraphs reasons that certain positions might be more challenging because there’s a higher volume of plays or a higher degree of difficulty is involved when fielding certain zones.


For example, Fangraphs believes that shortstop is easily more challenging than first base or left field. That must be why teams generally groom their most athletic players as shortstops. If the prospects pan out - "wunderbar! If not, "kein problem” - the premium athletes often change to other slightly less athletically challenging positions, like center field or second base.


Below is a chart reflecting which positions Fangraphs prioritizes as they “correct” to account for the fact that different positions are more challenging than others - either because there’s a higher volume of plays at a certain position or because there’s a higher degree of difficulty. Below are Fangraphs current positional adjustments:

FanGraphs measures players by comparing players to league average at their positions and also balances out the positions, accounting for the differences between the positions. In turn, they also make WAR calculations when offensive data factored in.


In general, FanGraphs adds runs for players who they rather arbitrarily determine play tough positions and subtracts runs for players that they believe play easier positions, mainly to account for the fact that playing average defense at one position does not equal playing average defense at another, in terms of total run prevention. For example, a shortstop’s adjustment is +7.5 runs per 1,458 innings (9 innings times 162 games) for a full season. Meanwhile, a they give a left fielder minus 7.5 runs per full season. Thus, the difference between an average left fielder and an average shortstop is about 15 runs per season.


I’ve always thought of positional adjustment as a way of putting different positions onto one uniform scale that adds a player's adjustment to their total runs saved. This allows fans to compare players, no matter their position, by using Fangraph’s DEF stat.


Like any existing evaluation, there is a degree of subjectivity involved in FanGraph’s calculations but they strongly believe a positional adjustment is needed to correct so that for example, an average catcher and an average first baseman don’t look the same. The entire reason FanGraphs does this is because it’s a vital piece of the puzzle when analyzing players.


Evaluating the 2023 Yankees Positionally

Below is a table I use to evaluate players each season. For this season, the first thing I look at STEAMERS 2023 projected fWAR and 2023 PECOTA WARP (wins above replacement projection). Based on the most advanced data I can possibly obtain, I want to know what the value of any player I’m evaluating is “projected” to be. Projections aren’t always right but they’re often pretty close. Projections can’t possibly account for unforeseen injuries and they’ll often fall very “safe” and thus be short when looking at star players. Rookies who have little to no MLB service time can also often blow even the best projections out of the water.


Useful defensive info for this season involves looking at 2022’s StatCast OAA and 2022’s Fielding Bible Total Runs Saved in order to get an idea of how well a player played his position the previous year. Then, PECOTA’s 2023 Projected DRP can be used to understand a player’s projected defensive impact. DRP is Baseball Prospectus' metric for assessing fielder performance, summarizing all the various ways that a defender can impact a play. The equation is dominated by the player’s range, outfield assists, the rate at which a defender can prevent a baserunner from advancing and the various contributions of catcher defense


Most importantly, offensive projections like 2023 Steamers Projected wOBA and wRC+ are great ways to get an “at-a-glance” idea of how valuable a player will be offensively. After which, diving deeper into a player’s profile tells the full story and this can be done by looking at StatCast data, player splits, batted ball data and a whole lot more.


As you can see, the Yankees most important defensive players according to FanGraphs are the catching duo of 2022 All-Star and Gold Glove/Platinum Glove/Fielding Bible award winner Jose Trevino and Kyle Higashioka both have mostly defensive value, at what is the premier position on the diamond. Also note that PECOTA is a bit cooler on how valuable both catchers are, mainly because they are far below average offensive players.


Meanwhile, Aaron Judge, who’s an above average defender at what FanGraphs considers not to be a key defensive position, has an all-world projected fWAR and WARP.


What jumps out the most is the lack of projected production that some of the most defensively valuable Yankees have. This means that the Yankees will need to count on the top half of the lineup to drive the bus on offense. Considering that only one of the Yankees five best offensive players bats left handed, what Brian Cashman has done is effectively issued an invitation for opposing mangers to throw as many right-handed pitchers as possible at the Yankees and that’s not great news, considering that the Yankees play 81 games at Yankee stadium, which is a ballpark that distinctly favors left-handed batters matching up against right-handed pitchers.


Why I’m Bullish on the Impact the Yankees Defense will Make

I’ll start by saying that while I understand Fangraphs’ positional adjustments, I tend to look at them contextually. If I was a GM, I wouldn’t look at them at all to be honest. It’s fine for fans to buy into the concept that adjustments should be made, but the facts are, that baseballs are hit to certain positions more than they are to other positions. On that basis, personally I’d prioritize having strong defense at positions where the ball is actually hit. If I were going to build a defensively strong team, I’d start there first and foremost.


This may come as a shock to many readers, but the ball was only hit to the shortstop zone in 2023 13.8 percent of the time, which means that when ranked versus other positions, the shortstop zone is 4th most significant area on the diamond in terms of where hitters place batted balls. Center field is actually the zone where the lion's share of the balls are hit, with 17.7% of all batted balls being directed up the middle.


Surprisingly, right field (16.6%) and left field (16.1%) are the second and third busiest positions. Would I use this data exclusively to build a defense? No. But I’d absolutely want a strong defensive outfield. The 2023 Yankees happen to have just that, even with Giancarlo Stanton playing roughly 40 to 50 percent of the time (his health willing). On days where Oswaldo Cabrera may be in right field or Aaron Hicks will be in the mix, the Yankees have what is characterized as a red light outfield. Each player basically has a cannon for an arm. That’s going to make opposing base runners a whole lot less aggressive.


When building a defense, I’d also factor in which positions are involved in the most putouts. Regardless of where the ball is hit, which positions are making the actual outs? This is measured by “Putouts,” which are defined by baseball statisticians as being record by a fielder each time he takes an action that causes the batter or a baserunner to be put out. These actions include catching a fly ball, a line drive or a third strike before they touch the ground.


Not surprisingly, in 2022 catchers (35.0%) and first basemen (31.6%) were far and away the two most crucial positions in this department, followed by center fielders. The bulk of the outs on the diamond were influenced by catchers, first basemen and center fielders. Shortstops only account for 5 percent of all putouts, while right field (8.4%) and left field (7.4%) were clearly far more involved positions in terms of converting outs.


With studs like Jose Trevino and Anthony Rizzo combining for a huge chunk of the Yankees putouts, that’s very good news for a team that should be hands down the best defensive team in baseball in 2023.


I expect the 2023 Yankees to virtually corner the market Defensively and that’s going to make a big difference compared to most of the other teams in MLB. The great defense will give the Yankees some needed separation and it will likely combine with a great rotation, a slightly above average bullpen and a top 10 offense to help the Yankees possibly win the Division.


When the importance of each defensive position is considered, the Yankees appear to be in excellent shape heading into April this year. Brian Cashman has done a fantastic job using common sense when building the Yankees defense too. The current Yankees roster has accounted for 11 Gold Gloves to date, with Rizzo (4), LeMahieu (4), Kiner-Falefa (1), Trevino (1) and Bader (1) all having won the illustrious award. Furthermore, Cashman has surrounded these impressive defensive stallwarts with plus defenders like Josh Donaldson, Oswaldo Cabrera, Oswald Peraza, Aaron Hicks and a number of others. I’d argue that this matters, especially considering that the Yankees greatest defensive force is their catcher (Trevino).


Reminiscing

Yankees fans, depending on their age, may remember two-time Gold Glover Graig Nettles taking over the ALCS in 1981 with dominating defense, and perhaps they also can recall how impactful other Yankees were, like first basemen like Chris Chambliss, Don Mattingly and Mark Teixeira.


They may also remember how stellar second baseman Willie Randolph was during the mid 7o’s and into the early 80’s. His .979 fielding percentage was pretty incredible and though he was a six time All Star, he never won a Gold Glove. Considering the era he played in with the likes of Frank White and Lou Whitaker also playing second base, it’s pretty understandable as to the reason why.


With thoughts like these and visions of many other strong defensive players like Joe Dimaggio (widely recognized as the Yankees best defensive player ever), Bill Dickey, Dave Winfield, Mickey Mantle, Phil Rizzutto, Paul Blair Ron Guidry, Brett Gardner, Thurman Munson and many others in mind, Yankees fans can certainly appreciate how improved the Yankees were defensively in 2022, compared to the prior season(s).


Gaining Separation

Personally, I’m rooting for Anthony Rizzo to experience a defensive renaissance this season, but his best days may now be behind him as he declined from 6 OAA in 2021 to minus 3 OAA in 2022 - mainly because he struggled to move laterally. If he can get back to form though, he could make the Yankees defense extra good, considering the importance of catching and first base play from a putouts perspective.


One thing that’s certain is that in a close Divisional race, having a strong Defense is absolutely one area of play that might help a team like the Yankees gain some separation from their rivals so team defense might matter quite a bit for a team looking to earn that invaluable first round postseason playoffs bye.

23 Comments


Robert Malchman
Robert Malchman
Mar 07, 2023

Why is Aaron Hicks 99 wRC+ in red? Shouldn't it be in white?

Like
Cary Greene
Cary Greene
Mar 08, 2023
Replying to

Spread sheet maker user error. You are indeed correct on that one.

Like

Andy Singer
Andy Singer
Mar 07, 2023

Great article, Cary!


One minor point/not-so-minor point. Comparing DRS to total runs scored to determine the percentage of runs impacted by defense isn't quite right; in fact, the impact is far greater when you consider separately the players who contributed positive or neutral defensive value and the players who contributed NEGATIVE defensive value. Remember, total runs scored can only be a positive integer whereas DRS can be both positive and negative. Based on that fact, they must be considered separately and certainly means that defense has a far greater impact than 5% of runs scored.


Otherwise, really great analysis.

Like
Cary Greene
Cary Greene
Mar 07, 2023
Replying to

Good point Andy and I should have mentioned, my calculations of 5% to 5.2% actually factor in the Negative defensive vale as well as the positive. I should have mentioned it but now that you've caught that, we can cosnider the possible problem no longer an issue.

Like

fuster
Mar 07, 2023

as obvious as it seems, that catchers (35%) and 1Bs( 31.6%) are credited with such large percentages of put outs seems to reflect that the Yankees have a reasonable basis for favoring pitchers who create strike-outs and ground balls.

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Cary Greene
Cary Greene
Mar 07, 2023
Replying to

Great point fuster. If I was building a team, I'd certainly want a rotation that either strikes batters out or excells at limiting hard contact. That's why I wanted the Yankees to sign Carlos Rodon AND Tyler Anderson this offseason.


Rodon's 33.4% K-Rate is in the Top 5% in MLB. Combined with Cole (Top 8% / 32.4%), Severino (27.7%) and Cortes JR (26.5%), to the Yankees will mow a ton of hitters down this season. But the trade off is that three of the four give up way above average hard contact. That means, if they're not locating, they could run into trouble at times. Strong catching could possibly help with that but we've seen Cole get pounded at times…


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yankeesblog
Mar 07, 2023

The positional adjustment for DH makes no sense. By definition they don't play defense. It's like having a huge negative positional adjustment for pitchers because they contribute nothing to offense.

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Robert Malchman
Robert Malchman
Mar 07, 2023
Replying to

Give me strong hitters who can play competent defense over immobile behemoths who only get off the bench four times a game.


See how that works?

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