In a recent piece by Fangraph’s Dave Cameron on Mark Buehrle (great read, check it out) he broke down why the big lefty’s ERA has tended to outperform his FIP consistently throughout his career. He illustrated that a major part of the reason is an inherent bias in both stats. Pitchers like Buehrle who generate lots of ground balls often have infielders who tend to make more errors, since they have more chances. So the gap between ERA and FIP is at least partially due to unearned Runs, which of course don’t count towards ERA.
But that got me to thinking about what types of pitchers fit the current Yankee defensive strengths and weaknesses, and leads me to believe that Buehrle would be a bad fit. As a lefthanded pitcher opposing managers will tend to stack their lineups with righty batters. As a ground ball machine, most of those righties will pull the ball to the left side of the Yankee infield, playing right into a Yankee weakness. Jeter and A-Rod are players who will turn ages 38 and 37 respectively next summer and are locked into long term deals, one has to question the wisdom of signing a pitcher to a multi year deal that will accentuate the weakness in both player’s game, namely range. Jeter’s lack of range is well known, and has only been in positive territory once (2009) over the past nine years, going all the way back to when he was 28 years old in 2003. Alex was surprisingly outstanding last year in terms of range, but he missed two months and played just 762 innings at his position last year. Since 2005 he’s been in negative territory most of the time, some years more than others. Take the large sample over the small one on Alex’s glove. It should be noted that Jeter and A-Rod are both very sure handed, which mitigates some of their lack of range. The right side of the Yankee defense that features Cano and Tex is better, though it has to be noted that Robbie’s range has been in negative territory more often than not over the course of his career. But most years he’s around average, and we all know how good Tex is over at first base with the glove. If you’re targeting a ground ball specialist, I’d favor a righthander over a lefty.
If there’s one area of the Yankee defense that really shines, it’s in the outfield. Brett Gardner is all-world with his glove, leading all of baseball at all positions in advanced defensive metrics last year. He is actually so good that the best explanation for the speedy Granderson being in negative range territory last year is Brett taking some of his chances. Nick Swisher has been better than he generally gets credit for, perhaps due to the fact that his speedy counterparts allow him to position himself better. I’m sure the short porch in Yankee Stadium doesn’t hurt either. But Nick has been in positive territory in terms of range all three seasons he’s been with the team. The best defensive configuration features Gardner in CF, where he can cover ground on both sides of the field and maximize his value, which is largely a function of his defense. But even having him in LF allows the other two fielders to play a few steps over to the right, so overall outfield coverage still benefits from his presence. In targeting pitchers, Lefties who generate fly balls can best take advantage of the Yankee outfield defense and YS3 configurations.
So we’ve established that right handers who generate ground balls and Lefties who generate fly balls are the best fit for the Yankee defense. Of the available free agents who matches up the best? CJ Wilson and Beurhle are lefties who generate loads of groundballs, so they’re not a fit. Righty Edwin Jackson has had solid GB rates the past two seasons, and has lowered the sky-high walk rates he had earlier in his career to roughly 3/9IP the past 3 seasons. He has also been better at keeping those fly balls in the ballpark the past two years. Righty Hiroki Kuroda has good GB/FB rates which account for over 80% of the chances he’s allowed over the past 4 seasons. On the trade front, lefty Gio Gonzalez generates loads of grounders and fly balls, with the remaining defensive chances being a modest career 17.2 LD%. Matt Cain is apparently off the market, but he is very much a fly ball pitcher which has to concern you as a righty pitching in Yankee Stadium. Of the pitchers I’ve named, Edwin Jackson would seem to be the best fit in this area.
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