- Cary Greene
The Yankees' Defensive Juggernaut (Pt. 3)
Cashman has Created a Defensive Juggernaut in the Bronx
By Cary Greene
March 8, 2023
Part 1 and Part 2 of this series laid the foundation of our discussion centering on the Yankees being a massively improved team and we got into some very interesting discussion regarding whether or not defense truly matters and also, the whole concept of positional adjustments, which are useful when comparing players.
We examined the below chart that depicts the FanGraphs positional adjustments and I concluded that while the adjustments seem to make sense from a standpoint of comparing players and arriving at WAR value calculations that factor in a players offensive value and defensive value added together.
Personally I’m a lot more concerned with what zones the baseball is actually hit to and which positions are most involved in making putouts. I care less about positional adjustments when thinking about how a roster should be built. Therefore, I opened Pandora’s Box when I reviewed the 2022 batted ball data, which is below for referencing in today’s final installment in the series.
It turns out that last season, batted balls were fielded by outfielders 50.4 percent of the time and the positions that are involved in the most putouts are catcher, first base and center field. This batted ball dispersion is nothing new, for the trends don’t seem to vary much from season to season, though the emphasis big league hitters have placed on launch angle in recent times has created a trend correlating to more fly balls, less line drives and more ground balls - believe it or not.
Consider for a moment that strong defensive play, when compared to offensive production or good pitching, doesn’t impact winning nearly as much. In fact, year in and year out, defense, whether good or bad, only impacts about five to five and half percent of the total runs scored across MLB in any given year.
I cited a few recent examples to validate my assumption, mentioning that 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. Likewise, the same was true in the previous full season, when in 2019 only 5.2 percent of the total runs scored in MLB were impacted.
Last season proved to be more of the same as 20,817 runs were scored and again, only 5.2 percent of the runs scored were impacted by defense.
My conclusion was that 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.
My thinking regarding defense and positional focus is very in line with the way Brian Cashman has built the Yankees defensively. Personally, I’d obviously want my best defensive players at catcher, center field, first base and left and right field. Cashman rather miraculously acquired Jose Trevino, who turned out to be the league’s premier defensive catcher.
Would I want an outstanding shortstop? By all means, yes, but not at the expense of the positions I’d prioritize. My reasoning is that the Yankees have some pretty good talent knocking on the door. However, I do think the Yankees made a mistake by not truly addressing a position that FanGraphs and many fans also widely recognize as being the most important, which is shortstop.
Nonetheless, Cashman added former Gold Glovers Harrison Bader in center field and Anthony Rizzo at first base and he has the best outfielder in the game to play in right field in Aaron Judge - if he so desires to do that, while left field falls to Yankees depth pieces Aaron Hicks and or Oswaldo Cabrera among other contributors. Meanwhile, he’s opted to not prioritize expensive free agents or painfully difficult to trade for stars in favor of a true stopgap approach.
While it’s odd for a team with resources as vast as the Yankees to take this approach, Yankees fans have to recognize that Cashman certainly isn’t the reason for the perceived frugality. Clearly, Hal Steinbrenner is ultimately responsible.
Imagine what Cashman might have done if his budget wasn’t constricted to the degree Steinbrenner has imposed. My vision that I’ve outlined below would have driven the Yankees current payroll into the stratosphere of MLB, adding $63.35 million to the 2023 books and truth be told, I’d have also liked Tyler Anderson signed which would have elevated that number by another $15 million or so.
The Ultimate Oxymoron
It’s not that I don’t like what Cashman has done as he’s operated within an obvious budget directive above - one that deemed crossing into the Fourth Tier of the CBT as being verboten!
Positional adjustments exist so that fans can compare players after the degree of difficulty in fielding each position is taken into account. I’ve stated I wouldn’t look at positional adjustments in the least if I were building a roster. Defensively, I’d be most concerned where the ball is hit most often and which positions make the lion’s share of the putouts. Cashman seems to be in line with my thinking, but where I’d have differed from Cashman is regarding offensive production.
I’d also be far more concerned with offensive production than Cashman has been permitted to be and I’d tend to look at defense as being relatively unimportant at certain positions (This said by me, a huge fan of watching great defense). Would Hal Steinbrenner fire me as a result of my beliefs? More than likely, yes he would. Still, I do feel Steinbrenner should have been internally challenged and put to the standard his father held so dearly.
George Steinbrenner wanted to win. He didn’t want to just “make the playoffs.” That’s what separates Hal from his father. Hal isn’t really a winner and he’s in the midst of writing his legacy as I write these words. Time will likely remember him as “Hal the Good Enough.”
Here’s the Yankees positional roster I would have liked to have seen built. I would have wanted the strongest possible defensive catcher, center fielder and first baseman as could have possibly been signed or traded for and yes, my vision would have cost Steinbrenner an extra $65-plus million this season if executed. Here’s what could have been accomplished:
First Base (+$10 mil)
Our own Editor in Chief - Paul Semendinger was all in on Freddie Freeman last offseason and he made a ton of sense. If I’m building a roster designed to win a championship, I have to start with him because first basemen made 31.6% of all putouts (37,382) last season.
First base is easily a more important defensive position than FanGraphs perhaps tells us, as I grew up watching Chambliss and Mattingly and got to see first hand how subtly important stellar defense can be at the position. Don’t tell me my first baseman’s defense doesn’t matter because I don’t buy it. Freeman happens to be a dominant offensive player who plays adequate defense at first base and yes, he’s won a Gold Glove in the past, back in 2018 so while he’s not as accomplished as say Anthony Rizzo (who I really like), Freeman was the ideal first baseman for the Yankees to sign at the time he was available.
Freeman, who bats left-handed and is a former MVP, had a .393 wOBA and a 157 wRC+ last season for the Dodgers. The Yankees didn’t want to spend the money when they had the chance to sign Freeman, but they should have splurged here. He wound up signing a 6-year deal for $27 million a season. Therefore, his projected cost to the Yankees might have been 6-years and and say $30 million AAV?
If Rizzo’s 2023 AAV of $20 million were deducted, the Yankees payroll would have only seen a $10 million bump per season, which for a player of Freeman’s ability is pretty darn reasonable.
Catcher (+21.5 mil)
At catcher, while I’m fine with Jose Trevino given that he only makes $2.36 million, the Yankees should have signed J.T. Realmuto, who’s .354 wOBA dwarfed Trevino’s .293. Realmuto would have helped to eliminate the black hole that Trevino was part of, which was the bottom third of the Yankees lineup last season. There is no doubt that Realmuto would have been significantly more expensive than striking the jackpot with Trevino, who happens to have four full seasons of team control attached to him. As it were, Realumto signed with the Phillies in 2021 for 6-years and an AAV of $23.875 million.
Going with Realmuto would have added roughly $21.5 million more to the Yankees payroll this past season and of course, going forward over the length of the contract as well. Realmuto logged 133 games at catcher last season and having his bat in the lineup would have been a pretty substantial improvement over Trevino’s. Still, Trevino remains a fantastic bargain for sure.
Second Base (No Added $$)
I’m more than happy with Gleyber Torres with DJ LeMahieu and or Oswaldo Cabrera backing him up here.
Shortstop ($28.1 mil)
Given that Anthony Volpe is in the pipeline, I’m fine with Cashman’s now two year stopgap plan, which I believe Oswald Peraza is a part of. I see Peraza as a utility player whom the Yankees should probably test out eventually in center field. He’s fast and he has a strong arm. Volpe will likely be a good big league hitter. It makes sense to ultimately roll with Volpe here. For now though, let Peraza and or Isiah Kiner Falefa man the position.
That said, Cashman should have traded with Cleveland when he had the chance to acquire Francisco Lindor when he had the chance. Lindor is a good defensive player and he’s also a switch hitter and high performer on offense who posted a .342 wOBA / 127 wRC+ season last year while playing arguably better defense (-1 TRS / 13 OAA), depending on whether you like StatCast for Fielding Bible for defensive ratings.
Lindor of course wound up being acquired by the Mets and then subsequently extended to a 10-year deal with an AAV of $34.1 million. Acquiring him would have cost the Yankees several top prospects and then caused the payroll to jump $28.1 million this season (subtracting Kiner-Falefa’s contract).
I’ve often written that I think this was a big miss by Cashman, but history may show I was ultimately very wrong, if Anthony Volpe can become a star.
Third Base (-$29 mil)
As DJ LeMahieu loses range, he becomes more and more attractive at third base. I was against Donaldson ever being acquired, so I’ll pretend he never was. Gio Urshela was playing badly at the time he was dealt to the Twins. I was fine with moving him, but hated the trade. I’d prefer that LeMahieu be the man at third base going forward, until such time as Trey Sweeney perhaps forces his way into the mix.
If the Yankees had simply relied on DJ LeMahieu to play third base, they could have saved $29 million this season as Josh Donaldson wouldn’t have been needed at all.
Center Field (no added $$)
Harrison Bader is a fine defensive player and he’ll probably deliver enough offense to get by this season - he’s projected to be a rather league average .316 wOBA / 107 wRC+ player. There haven’t really been any free agents that screamed “sign me Brian” but the Yankees were kicking tires on Brandon Nimmo, who’s projected to be a .353 wOBA / 134 wRC+ contributor this year for the Mets and that’s some mighty nice production at a key position, one that ranks first in bated balls hit to in terms of zone and also is third in putouts.
The Yankees had a chance to upgrade here and sign Nimmo, but they passed. Obviously, signing Judge was really the priority. Since Judge plays center field well (1 TRS) and considering that the Yankees have Jasson Dominguez and Everson Pereira both knocking on the door, I’d have rather seen Bader traded and Judge used as the primary stop gap center fielder because he’s a lot more valuable in center field than he is in right field or left field.
Right Field (no added $$)
I’m 1000 percent fine with a platoon of Giancarlo Stanton as the everyday player and Oswaldo Cabrera as the insurance chip, spot starter extraordinaire and late game defensive replacement. If Stanton gets injured (and he most likely will), I’m cool with Cabrera playing regularly. Again, with Dominguez and Pereira both knocking on the door, it makes little sense for the Yankees to have wasted money on say Masataka Yoshida, who was signed to a pretty substantial 5-year, $90,000 deal by the Red Sox.
Left Field (+$15 mil)
This is the one position that was kind of a sticky widget for Cashman this offseason. My long term plan would likely involve Aaron Judge moving from center field to left field about the time both Dominquez and Pereira ascend, but that doesn’t help this season out much.
Seeing as how weakening rivals is a great way to achieve the goal of advancing in the postseason, I thought it was a bit of a head scratcher that Brian Cashman couldn’t block the Astros by signing Michael Brantley for one year and say, $15 million. I understand why this didn’t happen - as Hal Steinbrenner seems to have put a firm $293 million cap on the payroll to avoid the CBT’s Tier-Four, but the Yankees are dreadfully unbalanced this season and are simply too right-handed hitter reliant. Brantley is a plus defensive left fielder also and he would have been a perfect stopgap player. I think our own Andy Singer was in on Brantley this offseason, as I was as well. Signing him would have made sense.
Designated Hitter (+$19.75 mil)
If you don’t know it already, I wanted me some Schwaba. Cashman should never have let him go to the Phillies. Steinbrenner should have insisted that he be signed, like his father George would have done. Kyle Schwarber is a modern day Reggie Jackson.
Instead, Schwarber took his lethal left-handed swing to Philadelphia last offseason, signing for 4-years with an AAV of $19.75 million.
Adding Schwarber would have given the Yankees a Murderers Row v2.0! Can you even imagine how my lineup would look with Kyle Schwarber in it? In case you can’t, take a gander:
1. Lindor SS
2. Judge CF
3. Freeman 1B
4. Stanton RF
5. Schwarber DH
6. Realmuto C
7. Brantley LF
8. Torres 2B
9. LeMahieu 3B