The New York Yankees had a middle-of-the-pack defense last year based on the crude measurement of batting average on balls in play allowed. A more easily understood measurement and a result of BABIP allowed, defensive efficiency, can be calculated as 1-BABIP allowed. It is not park adjusted and is usually expressed as a percentage. Last year the Yankees had a defensive efficiency of .702, good for 20th in the league. More advanced metrics were slightly more bullish. Ultimate Zone Rating, based on video data, rated them at +12.5, good for 13th in the league. Defensive Runs Saved had them at 10th in the league at +10. The advanced metrics point to an above average defense for 2013. However, they have a lot of roster turnover among position players and it is beneficial to see how the team should perform defensively this coming season.
Catcher- The Yankees will go from one excellent pitch framer to another: Chris Stewart to Brian McCann. Both have rated among the best at stealing strikes, a formerly hidden value, the past few years. McCann was at -2 DRS while Stewart was at +1 for the non-pitch framing aspects of catching (throwing, bunts, etc). They were both around 2 runs saved from blocking pitches in the dirt. Stewart typically gets a better defensive reputation from Nichols’ Law of Catcher Defense, but Stewart to McCann is essentially a lateral move on defense.
First Base- Lyle Overbay has been an excellent defensive first baseman and it continued last year over 1031.0 innings. DRS had him at +5 and UZR had him at +2.7. Left-handed throwers are typically more valuable at first base because of their ability to throw to second base easier on double plays and quickly apply the tag on pickoffs at first. However, Mark Teixeira, owner of 5 Gold Gloves, is still valuable defensively. A career 61.5 UZR and 94 DRS validate the hardware he has won. While Teixeira is getting up there in age and defense peaks early, he should still be an asset for the team. Tex might not be the best in the biz anymore, but first base is the least important position on the field. It is much more vital that he finds his hitting stroke this upcoming season. Besides the Jason Giambi experiment, the Yankees have always had good defensive first basemen dating back to the Don Mattingly days and it should continue next year.
Second Base- Robinson Cano was one of the top 10 defensive second basemen for the past few years. He brings great range and a shortstop’s arm to the keystone. Nobody turns two as smooth as Robbie. He rated slightly above average using both UZR (.8) and DRS (6). The Yankees will employ some combination of Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts next year. For his career Johnson has a -4 defensive runs saved and -7.5 UZR at second base. He grades out much better at third and the corner outfield spots. His calling card is playing multiple positions adequately instead of one position really well. This provides further credence to the idea that he is more suited as a platoon player or even as a bench player rather than a full-time regular on a first division team. Brian Roberts is +19 and 24.5 using DRS and UZR for his career. However, most of that value was accrued early in his career before injuries (knee) and age (36) certainly sapped his range. It is hard to know how much the downgrade from Cano to Johnson/Roberts will be without knowing the playing time for the latter two. The downgrade will not be negligible, though.
Shortstop- This is the one position where the Yankees could get way better or get slightly worse compared to last year. Last year they were towards the bottom of the league for shortstop defense through DRS (-23) and UZR (-17.8). While they employed various journeymen like Luis Cruz, Reid Brignac, along with Eduardo Nunez and his -28 DRS (almost -3 wins) over 608.1 innings was the main culprit. Amazingly, the Yankees could downgrade from that low bar if Derek Jeter plays substantial innings at the position. Going back to 2003 Jeter has graded out at -147 runs (a cost of almost 15 wins) defensively at shortstop. His bat is extremely valuable at the position but he has (and really has always had) the range of a potted plant. A move to center field a dozen years ago would have been beneficial. This range problem would only get exacerbated as he comes off a major leg injury and enters his age-40 season. The flip-side is that the Yankees give most of the innings to Brendan Ryan. Ryan is an excellent defender as shown by the +97 DRS and 51.4 UZR since 2007. This would be the best move as it gets one of the worst defensive shortstops of all-time off the field and one of the best on it. Additionally, it would help Jeter stay healthy enough to contribute with his bat. Of course, the Yankees will do everything they can to appease Jeter, so he will likely see at least some time at the position. Too much time could be very costly for the team.
Third Base- We don’t know who will play the position at the moment as Alex Rodriguez‘s suspension is still in limbo. DRS likes A-Rod for his career at third base (+8), while UZR doesn’t (-15.5). Both systems liked him at shortstop over the limited data set (just one full year in 2003). His defensive numbers were great in 2011 but have gone down since due to diminished range from his bum hip and increased age. If Alex Rodriguez isn’t suspended and Jeter plays a decent amount of innings, then the left side of the infield could be very sieve-like. This would really hurt left-handed pitchers who get ground balls (CC Sabathia) as the other team will load up on righty batters and players tend to pull their ground balls. As an aside, Kelly Johnson would be an above average defensive third baseman, but would create a hole at second base with the oft-injured and defensively declining Brian Roberts.
Left Field- Vernon Wells played the most innings, 623.0, at the position last year and actually graded out well. A former center fielder, Wells was +5 and 3.4 for DRS and UZR, respectively. Alfonso Soriano, a much improved outfielder, picked up almost all of the innings after he was traded to the team and Wells was relegated to the bench. UZR (79.0) has liked him over his career in left field while DRS (-4) has not. His arm, a more easily measured aspect of defense compared to range, has saved over 20 runs during his career in left. Brett Gardner will start at the position next year. Gardner, a center fielder by trade and left fielder by name, will combine with Ellsbury to form 2/3 of a great outfield defense. This rivals the Andrew McCutchen/Starling Marte duo in Pittsburgh. Gardner is a legit +20 run defender in a corner spot where he is compared to mostly hulking sluggers rather than speedy center field ball hawks. What he loses in positional value he more than makes up for with his defense. The upgrade from Wells/Soriano to Gardner is huge and Yankee pitchers should benefit from his speed and ability to cover Death Valley. His accurate arm featuring a quick release is also an asset.
Center Field- Brett Gardner played here last year and as previously mentioned will now slide over to left field after the signing of Jacoby Ellsbury. Ellsbury is at the very least Gardner’s equal in center and possibly better. This is not unlike the Angels playing Peter Bourjos (when healthy) over Mike Trout in center field. Ellsbury is +21 DRS and 28.9 UZR over his career in center field. With the positional adjustment for playing a tougher position, center field, Ellsbury is projected to be worth 4.5 to 6.9 runs on defense according to projection systems Oliver and Steamer.
Right Field- The choice of right fielder at Yankee stadium should be slightly similar to left field in Fenway Park. With the short right field porch, it could pay to punt defense at the position to sneak another good bat in the lineup. Last year the Yankees did the opposite. Going with Ichiro, a very good defender but an almost-zero with the bat, for 993.1 innings. His +7 DRS and 11.6 UZR (and some base running) kept him from being replacement level. This year the Yankees look to alter the shape and increase the size of the production in right field. They will go with some combination of Carlos Beltran and Alfonso Soriano. As previously mentioned, Soriano grades out fairly well defensively according to UZR while not so great with DRS. And while the arm was a slight asset in left, it could be a huge liability in right as opposing teams go first to third all day long. Carlos Beltran, on the other hand, has started to slip from his formerly great days as a center fielder. DRS (-6) and UZR (-15.3) didn’t like him last year in right. His knees are a major reason why. Perhaps surprisingly, a converted second baseman often ridiculed for laziness and an inability to judge a fly ball in left field, Soriano, might present the better option than a 3-time Gold Glover in center field, Beltran. Soriano and Beltran will end up switching between right field and DH, but I’d have to think the Yankees will want more return for their $15M a year investment on Beltran and will not make him a bat-only player.
The difficulty in even measuring past or present defense makes it very hard (compared to offense or pitching) to project future defense. The data is not extremely precise and it is best to use larger samples of data (3 years at least), multiple metrics (UZR, DRS, FRAA, etc.), and to regress heavily. However, it is valuable to talk in relative terms and it looks like the Yankees will at least have a similar quality defense compared to what they had last year with some upside to be top 10 in the league depending mostly on how great Gardner and Ellsbury perform, how much Jeter is relegated to DH, and who will man the hot corner.