For the majority of the past four seasons the Yankees have had the luxury of putting a top notch defense on the field anchored by former Gold Glove award winners at almost every position. The fact remains that many of those players were a bit past their prime but for the most part the defense the Yankees have put on the field these past four years has been solid. They didn’t make many mistakes, they hit they cutoff man, and they generally played smart baseball.
Well, during the first five games of this young season, the 2013 Yankees have looked nothing like their predecessors. The infield defense has been sloppy, teams are going 1st-to-3rd on every outfield single, and I don’t think a single New York outfielder has hit a cutoff man to date. And I haven’t even touched the surface on the defense behind the plate, where both Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart appear to be overexposed in full-time duty. Let’s break down some of New York’s issues on defense:
A big part of the Yankees’ problem appears to be stemming from insecurities at shortstop. Derek Jeter’s defense is a cause of constant complaint from the saber community and some of it is justified. The Yankee legend has been getting to fewer and fewer balls each year in the middle of the infield but that’s no reason to put him out to pasture. Jeter is one of the best player’s in the league at organizing a defense and getting the ball where it needs to be. In his absence New York has been frazzled in the middle infield and it’s shown. Just take a look at the 5th inning in Saturday’s 8-4 loss in Detroit.
To set the scene, the Tigers had just gone up 3-1 on a Miguel Cabrera RBI single. Cabrera was on 1st base with Yankee left-handed reliever Boone Logan on the mound, facing Prince Fielder. Fielder went yard against Logan on Friday, and after taking a few pitches Fielder ripped a sharp single to right fielder Brennan Boesch. Now Miguel Cabrera isn’t exactly the swiftest of runners but on this particular play he had designs on going to 3rd base.
Well Mr. Boesch decides that he’s going to bypass his cutoff man in favor of making the heroic 250 foot throw from the right field to 3rd base and the result is a predictable one. Boesch throws a 5 or 6-hopper into 3rd and Cabrera, who runs like he’s carrying a refrigerator on his back, is easily safe. Had Boesch made the proper play and hit his cutoff man, the riflearmed Robinson Cano, the Yankees probably would have gunned down last year’s Triple Crown winner.
Well on the very next play (see it here) Boesch still hadn’t learned his lesson and compounded his first mistake by making another. With Miguel Cabrera now on 3rd and Prince Fielder on 1st, the Tiger at the plate was Victor Martinez and he immediately hit a pop-up straight out to right field. Now maybe a perfect throw from one of the stronger armed players in baseball could have gotten Cabrera at the plate. But Boesch doesn’t exactly have the strongest arm, meaning he should aim for the cutoff man in order to keep Fielder from taking 2nd on the play. Only this time Boesch air mails every Yankee on the field, giving up the run to Cabrera AND 2nd base to Fielder. That’s a two-base sacrifice fly given up to two of the slowest runners in the league. That should never, under any circumstance, happen.
Now I’m not trying to pick on Boesch in particular. He’s only played a handful of games with his new teammates and that unfamiliarity can breed mistakes and he isn’t the only one making them. But those kind of mistakes are bound to happen when you completely overhaul your roster in the last week of Spring Training. Boesch, Vernon Wells, and Lyle Overbay were all in the lineup yesterday for the Yankees and they were all acquired towards the end of March. That kind of limited practice time left the Yankees defense with very little time to gel and it’s showing in the early going.
Overexposed behind the plate
Another big problem for the Yankees has been their defense behind the plate. The catcher position was always going to be one of the weak spots on the 2013 Yankees, especially after they opted not to resign veteran Russell Martin. Martin annually ranked among the league leaders in pitch framing and his ability to call a game and work with a staff was top-notch. That left the Yankees with a pu-pu platter composed of Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart, two career backups.
Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman was hoping that the pair would be solid enough on defense to warrant their lack of hitting prowess on offense, but so far the experiment has been a dud. No team has thrown more wild pitches through 5 games than New York has and teams have been unafraid to run and bunt on the Yankees.
Jose Iglesias, the Red Sox speedy shortstop, abused the Yankees catchers, bunting for hits in each and every game during the last 3 game series. To let an opposing hitter beat you that many times without swinging is disheartening and a scary proposition considering some of the other burners in the AL. Guys like Desmond Jennings of the Rays, Coco Crisp of the A’s, and Jose Reyes of the Blue Jays could have a field day.
As for the wild pitches, each one can deplete a pitchers’ confidence in his backstop which is dangerous because it could end up limiting what type of breaking balls the Yankees can throw with runners on base. It makes life a hell of a lot easier on hitters if they know they don’t have to worry about the breaking ball in the dirt on strike 3 and over time it will eventually lead to allowing more runs.
These aren’t the only issues New York has on defense either. Eduardo Nunez and Jayson Nix aren’t exactly anybody’s idea of a dream team combination at shortstop and despite all his magnificent range in center field, Brett Gardner’s arm is sub-standard for the position. But if you don’t get the fundamentals right, things like hitting the cutoff man, throwing out hitters trying to bunt their way on, and limiting runners to one base on singles, things become a lot easier. Unless this current roster of players improves on these fundamentals, New York could be staring down an awful large deficit in the AL East by the time guys like Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, and Mark Teixeira get back.