The Yankees’ starting rotation has rightly been identified as one of the team’s weakest links in April, but should the defense be taking the brunt of the criticism?
The Yankees have made the fewest errors of any team in the majors, but, according to most sabermetric measures, its defense still ranks as one of the worst in baseball. As a team, Yankees’ fielders rank 28th in Baseball Prospectus’ Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (PADE), 27th in UZR/150, and 26th in baseball-reference.com’s defensive efficiency. Even though advanced metrics that measure defense often need to be taken with a grain of salt, when there is a consensus among the various calculations, they carry added weight.
According to the metrics, the Yankees’ outfield has been a particularly weak part of the defense, which should come as no surprise to those who have watched most of the games. The most obvious culprit has been Raul Ibanez, who has logged 79 innings in the outfield and already had two fly balls roll past him to the wall, but even Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher have been laggards. Unfortunately for the Yankees, their porous outfield defense has coincided with a starting rotation that has become increasingly prone to allowing fly balls. Over the first month of the season, the starters have compiled a ground ball rate of only 41%, which is the sixth lowest total in the majors. With more balls being hit in the air to outfielders who aren’t catching their fair share, maybe the rotation’s league-leading BABIP of .346 isn’t bad luck after all?
Based on the 1.5 run discrepancy between ERA and FIP, one might conclude that the Yankees’ defense has been the main cause of the rotation’s struggles. In reality, there is plenty of blame to spread around. On the one hand, the rotation’s K/9 rate of 8.26, which ranks third in the majors, implies that the staff collectively has the “stuff” to succeed, but at the same time, its extraordinarily high HR rate of 1.56 suggests that even the best outfield in the game wouldn’t be of much help. Regardless of which element is the chicken and which is the egg, both the starters and the defense will have to improve if the Yankees’ hope to achieve greater stability from their rotation.
The Yankees seeming disregard for defense (how else to explain the insistence that Eduardo Nunez and Ibanez are capable major league defenders) is ironic when you consider that last year’s defense (and the outfield in particular) was a strength and the starting rotation exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. Was that a coincidence? This season’s reversal in both segments seems to imply a correlation, which, if valid, could mean that Brett Gardner’s return will have a greater impact on the rotation than Andy Pettittte’s. Until then, Yankees’ starters would be wise to start to tinkering with a sinker because an outfield featuring both Nunez and Ibanez probably wont be of much help in the meantime.