Monday, June 8, 2009

The Red Sox and the Yankees and defense

For all the things New York has improved upon in recent weeks, the defense stands out. In the five games against the Red Sox this year, the Yankees made seven errors -- including at least one in all five games -- and looked like a bad lounge act. Lately, the Yankees have been catching virtually everything within distance, a transformation that also relates directly to the moves they made during the offseason.

"We’ve played great defense," New York general manager Brian Cashman said. "It’s been a bunch of different things. The addition of Teixeira and Swisher has significantly improved out defense on the right side of the field." (Tony Massarotti)

The Yankees have a higher ERA (4.00 to 3.96) than the Red Sox in the last month but actually have allowed fewer runs (124 to 126). That, of course, has everything to do with defense -- an area in which the Red Sox continue to be deficient. Their 36 errors as a team ranks them in a tie for 19th in the major leagues. (The Yankees have 26 errors -- or about one fewer error a week.)

It goes far beyond errors, though.

Yesterday's game provided yet another example. Jacoby Ellsbury made the game's best defensive play, a spectacular diving catch in deep center field that aggravated a shoulder injury. It was as Web Gem as Web Gem gets. But that wasn't the only way Ellsbury impacted the game defensively.

It was the third inning. The Rangers, ahead by a 2-0 score, had runners on second and third with one out. Daisuke Matsuzaka left a fastball out over the plate, and David Murphy clobbered it. Two-run double. Four-run lead. That was all Vicente Padilla would need.

Watch the video again, though. Ellsbury actually takes two or three steps toward the infield before turning and sprinting for the wall -- at which point he doesn't have a chance. The ball doesn't hit the top of the wall or even the base of the wall. It hits the dirt on the warning track. If Ellsbury had read the ball off the bat -- something he did beautifully in robbing Kinsler an inning later -- he almost certainly would have caught the ball and saved a run.

For whatever reason, you only get an error if you get to the ball and drop it. You don't get an error if you misread the flight of the ball and never get close to it in the first place.

This is why the Fielding Bible's Plus-Minus stats and FanGraph's Ultimate Zone Rating come in handy. You can't just look at errors to judge defense. You can't just look at foot speed -- "He's fast! He's a great defensive center fielder!" -- to judge defense.

In fact, so far this season, Brett Gardner (8.2) and Melky Cabrera (0.8) rank higher on the UZR leaderboard than Ellsbury (minus-1.3).

(UZR -- as featured this spring in Sports Illustrated -- measures how many runs a player has saved his team or cost his team over the course of a season. Gardner has saved the Yankees 8.2 runs in the field, according to the measurement, while Ellsbury has cost the Red Sox 1.3 runs in the field. UZR/150, as you can imagine, extrapolates a midseason UZR rating out over 150 games to even things out between players who have played different numbers of innings in the field.)

But that doesn't mean all of Cashman's assertions about defense are correct, either. Here's how the two teams stack up according to UZR/150:

First base
Kevin Youkilis, 9.8
Mark Teixeira, 1.5

Second base
Dustin Pedroia, 7.8
Robinson Cano, 1.3

(So far, so good for the Red Sox.)

Third base
Mike Lowell, minus-12.7
Alex Rodriguez, minus-18.8

(This appears to belie the assertion both Cashman and Massarotti make about the impact of A-Rod on the Yankees' defense. Ramiro Pena had a UZR/150 of 5.1 in his 23 games at third base.)

Derek Jeter, 6.4
Nick Green, minus-16.6
Julio Lugo, minus-33.6

(Yes, it's that bad. Hurry back, Jed Lowrie.)

Right field
Melky Cabrera, 9.8
J.D. Drew, 4.0
Nick Swisher, minus-2.2

(This appears to belie the assertion that Swisher has had a positive defensive impact.)

Left field
Johnny Damon, minus-2.9
Jason Bay, minus-13.0

Everybody, all together
Yankees, minus-0.2
Red Sox, minus-6.8

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