In a recent article in The Hardball Times ’5 Questions’ series (BTW-great series, a must read to get up to speed across the leagues) I came across this lil’ gem in the Detroit Tigers review from author Brian Borawski.
2005 – .713 (2)
2006 – .704 (1)
2007 – .706 (1)
2008 – .712 (1)
First, a little explanation. The first number is obviously the year. The second number is the defensive efficiency of the team that won the American League pennant, and the number in parentheses is that team’s rank in the American League. Bottom line, over the past four years, defense has helped win championships. You have to go all the way back to 2004 when the Tampa Bay Rays and Seattle Mariners finished first and second in the American League and neither team made the postseason. Just as a side note, this is a good reason to have every Hardball Times Baseball Annual on your shelf because it made this analysis a piece of cake.
While we all tend to focus on the quality of the pitchers, the quality of the defense behind them often goes unnoticed. The connection between pitching and fielding is an obvious one. As clearly shown here, the ability of a team to turn batted balls into outs is highly predictive of a team’s success.
As we leave the steroid era behind, Baseball is slowly returning to the game of my youth, one where light-hitting glovemen can flourish. Girardi and Cashman realize this, and have made some dramatic fielding improvements on this year’s team. Teixeira’s glove stands to be a huge upgrade over Giambi’s, replacing the next to worst 1B glove in baseball (-18) with 2008′s best (+24). Replacing Abreu’s horrendous glove (-24) with the league average gloves of Nady/Swisher stands to be a big upgrade as well. A more committed Cano could reverse his bottom of Baseball 2008 glove (-16) to his 2007 top 5 output (+17). Brett Gardner in CF figures to be a significant upgrade over Damon, and a smaller one over Melky. Finally, while Betemit wasn’t a starter, he did play in 84 games last year and his UZR went from acceptable at 1B (-2.2) to unbelievably bad at 3B (-50.1). Replacing him with Cody Ransom should be a nice bench upgrade.
That’s the good news, now for the bad news. While Jeter improved on his MLB worst 2007 (-34) to being a simply subpar glove in 2008 (-11) but he was still tied for 4th from the bottom at his position. Improved fielding on the right side on the infield may allow Cano to play a few steps over, but the end of Jeter’s days at SS are within sight. Unfortunately for the 09 Yanks, that end won’t come this season. Despite the glowing reports coming out of ST on Posada, he is coming off shoulder surgery and the best case scenario the Yanks can come up with has him playing 120 games. Until we see him successfully throwing out runners on a fairly regular basis in real game situations, I still view him as an unknown. To be honest, I don’t believe the reports on how great he feels. I don’t expect the Yanks to tell the league anything else. The proof will be in a representative sample size of caught stealing %, and that’s something we won’t have until the end of April.
The Yanks stand to pick up 100+ plays over their 2008 team, but having liabilities at two key defensive positions is something that can’t be dismissed. Overall, they should still be much improved in 2009.
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