From Pete Caldera (Boston Herald):
During off-season discussions about potential acquisitions for the 2009 Yankees, the talk about Mark Teixeira wasn’t solely centered on his offensive output.The runs he could save at first base were as much of the conversation as the runs he could produce in the middle of manager Joe Girardi’s batting order.
“We talked about improving our pitching and defense, as well as adding some offensive firepower, because we’d lost some players,” Girardi said. “But pitching and defense were really important to us.
“We knew we were getting the complete package when we got him.”
So, after securing their current top two starters in free agents CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, the Yankees signed Teixeira, whose yearly 30-plus homer, 100-plus RBI output as a switch-hitter were the obvious attractions, but didn’t tell the complete story.
In a recent Sports Illustrated story ranking player defense, Teixeira was rated the majors’ best defensive first baseman in 2008. Teixeira earned high marks for his ultimate zone rating, a formula by FanGraphs.com that measures a player’s range based on outs converted.
But even those stats can’t measure Teixeira’s true value to his club.
This year, all Mick Kelleher has to see is Teixeira snaring blazing one-hop shots to either side, stretching for throws in the dirt, or whirling and zipping throws to any base to know what the Yanks acquired.
“I think he’s the best first baseman that I’ve ever seen,” said Kelleher, the Yankees’ first base coach and longtime infield instructor.
A big-league infielder for 11 seasons, Kelleher played with Keith Hernandez in St. Louis, and coached in the Cubs’ organization when Mark Grace played first. But what makes Teixeira stand out to Kelleher is his entire army of skills.
“He’s got range both ways. He’s quick as a cat off the bat. He’s an accurate thrower. He picks everything. He’s aggressive. He’s a big target to throw to,” Kelleher said. “And he’s smart. He’s real smart. He positions himself real well. He understands hitters. He’s always thinking about (position) depth. He’s a very special player.”
Caldera cites Teixeira’s ultimate zone rating from 2008, when he was phenomenal between Atlanta and LA. However, his UZR this year is average or you can say that it’s slightly below average at -1.1 (UZR/150 = -1.2). I’ve written about this before, as this has been the case for most of Teixeira’s career. Basically, according to UZR, his range is below average. Assuming his rating is an accurate representation of his defense at first, I think most fans believe Tex is great because of his reflexes (he can snare a ball with the best of him), his vertical range (as opposed to his lateral range), and his ability to limit errors and scoop throws (although that can be disputed). He’s good at all of that, but his range from left to right is just not as good as a Casey Kotchman or a Lyle Overbay (not that any of us want Casey Kotchman or Lyle Overbay over Mark Teixeira).
Despite Tex’s range issue—let’s face it, he’s a pretty large guy—his defensive strengths, particularly his receiving ability, have been valued by his teammates. Robinson Cano and Derek Jeter have both noted that they love having Teixeira over at first. He’s a big target that can pick their throws out of the air or in the dirt. In Caldera’s piece, Mick Kelleher states this, saying that Tex allows Cano and Jeter to be “free and easy” when they throw to first. Based on this, I would say that Teixeira’s UZR doesn’t necessarily capture his full defensive value, although you can see improvements in Cano and Jeter’s ratings, especially with regard to error runs (Cano, specifically), which may have been influenced by Tex’s glovework.
This seems like a fair assessment of Tex’s defense in that he’s good at a lot of things and helps his team in ways that Jason Giambi never could. However, with that said, lateral range just doesn’t appear to be his strongest attribute.
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