Yankees Defense Good Enough for Playoff Contention, The Rest?

yankees-defenseIf there’s one underlying theme to the New York Yankees’ winter, it’s been improving the defense. Whether that means addition by subtraction with Derek Jeter‘s retirement, keeping together another strong bullpen lead by strikeout machine, Dellin Betances, or simply getting younger and more athletic, it has all contributed to the same cause. Keeping runs off the board.

Last season, the Yankees’ average age was 30.2, trailing only the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies for oldest team in the majors. Of course, this implies one of the things we could deduce with absolute certainty is the Yankees had to get younger to make the playoffs. They have done that.

Going into 2015, New York will have players 31 or younger at every position except right field, first base and DH on offense and CC Sabathia in the rotation (once Nova returns in June). The entire bullpen, or anyone playing any sort of role, will be under 30-years-old. They have improved defense at third base (a full year of Chase Headley) and shortstop Didi Gregorius replacing Jeter might be the biggest defensive upgrade in Baseball), the two places they needed it most. They lowered their age by a full two years down to 28.1 this winter. Still among the worst, but an improvement nonetheless.

If you buy into advanced metrics, the Yankees are one of the top three most improved defenses in the sport, joining the Indians and Dodgers and projected to improve their UZR rating by 25, which is on par with adding a gold glover caliber defender and a great defender to the overall defensive performance. In other words, the Yankees will go from average to elite. Last season, only the Detroit Tigers had a lower ranked defense of any playoff team compared to the Yankees.

So we can cross “defense” and “age” off the list, the Yankees did as conceivably well as possible this winter and all other things equal, would be a contender if these were deciding factors. Keep in mind, the three youngest teams all failed to make the playoffs as well and so did seven of the nine youngest teams overall.

That leaves us with pitching and offense, two other things the Yankees failed to reach contender status with in 2014. Of the five playoff teams, all of them finished top three in a major category either with pitching or hitting. The Baltimore Orioles and Tigers were offensive powerhouses. Detroit ranked 2nd in runs, 4th in Home Runs and 1st in both OBP and OPS. The Orioles were 6th in runs, but were first in home runs and third in OPS. Detroit got on base a lot and had big hits, Baltimore hit a lot of home runs (34 more than the next closest team). Any extremes like that will cover a lot of flaws.

Baltimore didn’t reach 96 wins with just hitting though (whereas Detroit mostly did reach 90 wins relying on hitting). The Orioles were 3rd in ERA, 6th in WHIP, and 5th in BAA. How did the other three teams make the playoffs? Oakland was 2nd in ERA and BAA and 1st in WHIP. They were also 5th in OBP and 3rd in Runs.

The Kansas City Royals and Los Angeles Angels? Angels scored the most runs and were 4th in OBP and OPS and on the pitching side, BAA and WHIP. The Royals were top five in ERA, mainly thanks to a historically good bullpen. They also, quite simply, gained a lot of hits and stolen bases finishing: 2nd in hits, 1st in stolen bases but 10th in OBP.

So how do the Yankees compare at the bat? They ranked behind all five teams in: Runs, OBP and OPS. They were better than just the Tigers in ERA, but middle of the road in everything else. The real problem here is the Yankees were bad in a lot of things, especially on offense, but were elite at barely anything. They finished 5th in WHIP, 4th in strikeouts (offensive) and 3rd in stolen bases. They also gave up the most home runs in the league and were bottom five in: Runs scored, BA, OBP and OPS. The pitching was average, the offense was abysmal.

It would appear the Yankees’ biggest ground to gain was with the offense and they will be heavily invested in: A-Rod’s bat, Headley’s full season and hoping a much improved defense and a healthy and/or adjusted: Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann will make up the rest. Ignoring the numerous health questions in the rotation, New York actually made giant strides towards becoming a playoff team again. They went younger, they gained a projected elite defense, and they maintained everything that won’t hurt them in terms of pitching.

If this team is to make the playoffs, it’s going to have to score more runs and get on base more, even with the improvements in other facets which should help prevent runs. Health and offense were the two biggest question marks with this team heading into the winter, and they remain the two concerns coming out of it.