Defense is a difficult area for statisticians to analyze because there are so many different ways to define value in a player’s defensive abilities. While statisticians have made huge strides in finding new ways to compare players’ defensive value, most defensive metrics are new and do not provide an ironclad argument of defensive talents. However, two defensive metrics, Fielding Percentage and Ultimate Zone Ratings, I find are the most effective methods to compare player abilities.
I compared each starting Yankee’s career average Fielding Percentage at each position (in older players like Jeter and A-rod I used their most recent three years) to the three year average of American League players that qualified. In order to qualify, a player had to play at least 900 innings at that position. So when I say “AL average”, realize that means the average for the previous three years. Let’s take a look at the Yankee starting lineup and determine how they stack up against the rest of the AL and what we can expect in 2012.
Catcher: Russell Martin
Catchers are a beast of their own when it comes to their defensive value. Not much can be determined from their UZR because, well, they don’t cover much ground. So in this case, what is important for catchers’ run prevention are things like stolen bases, limiting passed balls, and generally fielding the position well. We’ll focus on Martin’s stolen base percentage, which takes the number of stolen bases divided by the total number of those caught stealing and stolen bases ((SB/(SB+CS)). In layman’s terms, the higher the percentage, the worse you are at keeping runners from stealing.
The average for American League catchers Stolen Base Percentage has been 73%. Over Russell Martin’s career he’s posted a 68% SB Percentage. We have to take this information with a grain of salt because these numbers do not take into account pitchouts or stolen bases on account of a bad pitch or that he played in the NL. Anyhow, this is great news for Yankee fans because this is a vast improvement over Jorge’s 80% SB percentage over his final four years. Martin’s fielding percentage however sits at .990 for his career, while the AL average was .992. While there is room for improvement, know that most putouts for catchers are strikeouts so we shouldn’t be too worried about his below average numbers here.
First Base: Mark Teixeira
It seems like I can’t get away from writing about this guy. He’s known for his fantastic glove work and in 2012; we shouldn’t come to expect anything less. His career .997 Fielding Percentage dwarfs the AL average of .994. Over the past three years, he’s saved about six runs for the Yankees. His value to the Yankees cannot be understated.
Second Base: Robinson Cano
Since Larry Bowa worked with him, he’s become one of the smoothest fielders in the game. He’s raised his fielding percentage each year from when he broke into the big leagues. I for one love his laidback demeanor when he turns two. It’s a thing of beauty, however his UZR definitely isn’t. He’s essentially been responsible for allowing six runs over the past three years. There is a positive to this; he more than makes up for it with his bat.
Third Base: Alex Rodriguez
A-rod has been a bit of an anomaly. In 2006, the only year where he didn’t best the American League third basemen’s average of .960, he fielded a horrid .936. Arguably, his worst season to date, he improved upon that considerably and since that time he’s responsible for saving about 4 runs spanning those seasons. A-rod won’t be a liability for the games he does start at third, he needs to stay healthy.
Shortstop: Derek Jeter
Derek Jeter’s one knock throughout his career has been his lack of range, mainly to his left. So when looking at a stat such as UZR, we don’t get the full picture of his value. He surely has less range than say, Jose Reyes, but Jeter’s consistency and the fact that he rarely made errors was why he was so valuable. Of the last three years, the AL average was .974 while Jeter’s career average sits at .976. There should be no cause for worry as he’ll do no worse than the middle of the pack SS in terms of Fielding Percentage. The cause for worry comes from his diminishing range and the fact that balls that an Eduardo Nunez would reach, Jeter may not anymore. Jeter better hit because allowing 4 runs for the year is not a great tradeoff.
Left Field: Brett Gardner
Brett Gardner said earlier this off season that he wanted to improve his defense. In his first 900 innings in LF, Gardner made 1 error in 209 chances. In 3400 innings, he’s made 27 assists to his 8 errors. His UZR in LF for the past two years, are you ready for this, estimates him saving about 51 runs. His range is phenomenal, he has a strong enough arm to prevent runners from taking that extra base, and he is a year to year Gold Glover. Take a minute to appreciate how valuable a guy like Brett is when you watch him this year.
Center Field: Curtis Granderson
My motto for 2012: the Grandy Man Can. This guy has done everything you could ask for in his first two seasons with the Yanks. His defense was superb his in 2010 and then subpar in 2011 but we all know he more than made up for that with his bat. Over the past three seasons (including time spent with the Tigers), Granderson’s UZR and Fielding Percentage were zero and .993 respectively. We can come to expect that Granderson’s fielding percentage will stay above the AL average, he won’t cost the Yankees any runs, and in turn, be an asset to the defense.
Right Field: Nick Swisher
2011 was Swishers best defensive year in terms of UZR and Fielding Percentage. He’s only had four years that would qualify him as a RF and his fielding percentage across those years aligns with the AL average at .988. In his 4 years with at least a 1000 innings spent in RF, he’s saved about 12 runs total. Not too shabby if you ask me. The problem is he’s one year older and while he doesn’t have a lot of ground to cover in right, he still has a nagging groin injury so we’ll see how that affects his total defense.
Overall, I think the Yankees stack up better than the average AL team defensively. I would take them as a whole, over a number of squads but in the overall picture, they were the 20th best defense in the entire league last year and we can expect that same type of finish this year. The Yankees set themselves apart from the rest of the AL with the bats. Run prevention is very important but at the end of the day, if you field the ball well enough, you should be in great position to outscore your opponents. With the season starting tomorrow, I hope the bats don’t die.