While not much remarked upon, in 2012 the Yankees completed their eighth consecutive season with a left-side infield of Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. At this juncture, it seems likely it will be nine seasons running with this trio in 2013. In that time, the Yankees have claimed just a single pennant, which was cashed in for a WS championship in 2009. Despite that pennant drought (by Yankee standards), the Yankees did make the playoffs in all but one of those eight seasons.
This Yankee trio is in the same class for longevity as the 1970s Dodgers who famously featured Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey (and Steve Garvey at 1B) from 1973 to 1981, a period during which the Dodgers claimed four pennants, but only one World Series title.
Usually when a team maintains the same infield year in and year out, defense is at least part of the reason why. But, that hasn’t been the case for the Yankees. After the jump, I’ll explore this topic in a bit more depth.
It’s no secret to any regular readers of this site that Derek Jeter is not in the lineup for his defense. Even a casual fan will probably notice that Jeter seems unusually limited in his range, both to his left and his right. I live on the West Coast and don’t see a great deal of the Yankees, but even in the 10 or 15 games I may see during a season, I’m struck by how often a ball that seems to be hit where you’d expect a shortstop to be able to make a play often results in Jeter taking a step or two towards the ball and then pulling up, as the ball bounces through to the outfield, or is even fielded by the 2nd or 3rd baseman (though, usually, without the opportunity to make a play for an out). Also common to see, especially on plays to his right, is Jeter getting to the ball but not getting off a throw.
So, what does that look like in fielding statistics? Let’s start with WAR Fielding Runs, available on Baseball-Reference.com (called Rfield when running a P-I query, but Rdrs in the Fielding Stats section of B-R player pages). This metric is derived from Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), a relatively new defensive metric that combines observational data for a variety of defensive plays, including fielding batted balls (of course), but also fielding bunts, backing up throws, cut-offs and the like. WAR Fielding Runs is a representation of the estimated number of runs the fielder has saved or cost his team. Here is how Jeter has fared since 2005.
This list is showing the best and worst 10 Rfield scores of the past 8 seasons for shortstops who qualified for the batting title, plus Derek Jeter’s results. Thus, there are 160 such seasons, with Jeter having two of the 10 worst scores, and 7 of the 31 lowest marks. He had one season of positive Rfield in 2009, perhaps not coincidentally the Yankees championship season.
Prior to consistent compilation of observational data such as that used for DRS, defensive metrics focused primarily on a player’s fielding chances. Total Zone Runs (TZR), used in B-R’s WAR Fielding Runs prior to 2003 (shown as Rtot in the Fielding Stats section of B-R player pages) , compares a player to a theoretical average player, but without regard to whether that player actually had as many fielding opportunities as the average player. Thus, a player may score poorly or very well with TZR because he had an unusually low or high number of opportunities. Such variations from “average” could be due to a variety of factors including the pitching staff’s handedness, its GB/FB tendences or even whether it was an unusually low or high strikeout staff. Other factors may include whether opponents faced most often were mostly left or right-handed batting teams, which in turn may also be influenced by the pitching staff’s predominant handedness and also by peculiarities of the home field that would influence batting approaches. Thus, there are valid reasons to suppose that TZR may not actually be providing a true picture of a particular player’s fielding skill.
Another observational fielding measure available for the past 11 seasons is Ultimate Zone Runs or UZR. The idea behind UZR is not to compare players to a theoretical average player but, rather, to assess the level of success a player had with the fielding opportunities presented to him, and compare that to the level of success other players at the same position had with their fielding opportunities. Since 2002, all batted balls in play have been assigned a zone number indicating in what part of the field the ball was hit. Different zones are deemed to belong to certain fielding positions and, thus, all balls hit to a fielding position’s zones are considered fielding opportunities (as opposed to fielding chances) for the position. The proportion of these actual opportunities that are converted into outs, for all players at a position, becomes the “average” above or below which a player is scored. Thus, there’s no longer any basis for saying “yeah, but …” when arguing about the merits of a player and why that player does well or poorly using a particular metric. UZR tells you how well a player did in his own context versus other players at the same position in their own contexts. So, here’s how Jeter has fared under UZR since 2005.
To get the same number of 160 seasons, I’ve used the top 160 season innings totals from the data available at Fangraphs.com. This corresponds to the players compiling 1030 or more innings (about 115 games) at shortstop in a season since 2005. While these may not be exactly the same player seasons as used with the B-R data, they will be very close to the same. As before, these displayed seasons are the best and worst 10 UZR scores, plus Derek Jeter’s results.
So, aside from an extra bottom 10 placement for Jeter, UZR is a bit more generous than Rfield, but only a bit. Notice that Orlando Cabrera dropped from 9th best to 10th worst in consecutive seasons, aged 33 and 34. Just shows that losing a fraction of a step can be all it takes to make a big difference in results.
Now you may be saying “Why am I picking on Derek Jeter?”, to which my answer is simply the Jeter is the most obvious place to start in evaluating the Yankees infield defense. For some perspective on Jeter, consider:
- Jeter ranks lowest among all players since 1901 at -231 career WAR fielding runs. Jeter passed former teammate Gary Sheffield early in the 2011 season and is the only player at or below the -200 mark.
- Jeter has 13 seasons with Rfield scores of -10 or less. Former teammates Sheffield and Bernie Williams rank 2nd and 3rd with 10 and 8 seasons, respectively.
- In his 18 seasons, Derek has had positive Rfield scores only 3 times, in 1998, 2004 and 2009. Fangraphs has him with only two seasons (2002, 2009) with positive UZR scores.
However, Jeter is just the place to start. Lets look at his teammates, Cano and Rodriguez. I have read hypotheses that, conscious of Jeter’s limited range, his adjacent fielders may shade just a bit closer to Jeter to possibly get to some balls that Jeter can’t reach. If that is true, possibly we would see evidence in the fielding results for Cano and Rodriguez. Let’s see.
Here are A-Rod’s fielding results playing 3rd base next to Jeter.
Mostly better fielding percentages, but with reduced range factor compared to other third basemen, about one-quarter to one-third of a chance per 9 innings below league average. Fangraphs has Rodriguez with positive UZR only in 2004 and 2011.
What about Cano?
Again, very consistent results every year with Cano usually just a bit above league average range factor. However, Fangraphs has Cano with a cumulative -30.2 UZR with positive scores only in 2007 and 2012 (although he has not had a UZR score below -3.0 since 2008). This suggests that Cano is getting more balls hit his way than the majority of second basemen, but is not turning those opportunities into outs as often. So, if in fact it’s true that A-Rod and Cano are trying to help out Jeter by taking plays that Derek can’t, that tactic may actually be hurting their own defense by placing themselves in less than optimal fielding position.
Conclusion? While the Yankees have had impressive offensive results from their three left-side infielders, the same can’t be said for their defense. That has contributed to overall poor team defense for the Bombers in most recent seasons. Fangraphs has the Yankees at no better than 22nd in team UZR in any season from 2002 to 2008, including a 5 season run of 28th twice and 30th three times from 2002 to 2006. New York improved its ranking each year, from 25th in 2008 all the way up to 8th in 2011, before sliding back to 20th last season.
Here’s a table of those team UZR rankings since 2002. You can sort on any year to see the ordering for that season.
Finally, it’s not just the infield that has hurt the Yankee defense in recent seasons. Here’s a list showing AL teams since 1961 with the most players compiling -10 WAR fielding runs or less.
|1||2004||New York Yankees||6||Miguel Cairo / Derek Jeter / Jorge Posada / Gary Sheffield / Bernie Williams / Enrique Wilson|
|2||2009||Kansas City Royals||5||Yuniesky Betancourt / Willie Bloomquist / Alberto Callaspo / Jose Guillen / Mark Teahen|
|3||2005||New York Yankees||5||Robinson Cano / Derek Jeter / Gary Sheffield / Bernie Williams / Tony Womack|
|4||1986||Seattle Mariners||5||Phil Bradley / Alvin Davis / John Moses / Ken Phelps / Danny Tartabull|
|5||1979||Oakland Athletics||5||Dave Chalk / Mike Edwards / Rickey Henderson / Dwayne Murphy / Rob Picciolo|
|6||2011||Minnesota Twins||4||Michael Cuddyer / Tsuyoshi Nishioka / Trevor Plouffe / Danny Valencia|
|7||2008||Detroit Tigers||4||Miguel Cabrera / Curtis Granderson / Carlos Guillen / Marcus Thames|
|8||2008||New York Yankees||4||Bobby Abreu / Robinson Cano / Jason Giambi / Derek Jeter|
|9||2006||New York Yankees||4||Jason Giambi / Derek Jeter / Alex Rodriguez / Bernie Williams|
|10||1998||Minnesota Twins||4||Marty Cordova / Otis Nixon / Alex Ochoa / Todd Walker|
|11||1996||Boston Red Sox||4||Jeff Frye / Reggie Jefferson / Troy O’Leary / Mike Stanley|
|12||1991||Seattle Mariners||4||Scott Bradley / Greg Briley / Jay Buhner / Henry Cotto|
|13||1988||California Angels||4||Tony Armas / Chili Davis / Jack Howell / Johnny Ray|
|14||1986||Milwaukee Brewers||4||Rob Deer / Ernie Riles / Dale Sveum / Robin Yount|
|15||1973||Chicago White Sox||4||Johnny Jeter / Pat Kelly / Eddie Leon / Jorge Orta|
|16||1965||Washington Senators||4||Ken Hamlin / Woodie Held / Frank Howard / Don Lock|