Granderson, Neyer, and the Yankees defense

Rob Neyer had a piece yesterday on his blog about the Yankees current outfield situation. A quick summary: Granderson’s defense in center field has gotten mixed reivews, and the Yankees are considering playing him in left. I’m usually a big Rob Neyer fan and agree with most things he writes, but not today.

Here is my problem with Neyer’s argument:

“My guess is that they’ll stick with Granderson in center field for practical reasons. The Yankees can always move him to left field. But once there, it might be problematic to return him to center if, say, they signed a new left fielder next winter. It’s pretty obvious that the organization doesn’t care about defense. That’s why they’ve got all those high-strikeout pitchers. They can carry Granderson’s decent glove in center for at least one season and probably more.”
(emphasis mine)

Neyer just spent the whole article talking about the Yankees potentially moving Granderson to left field, and then said that the Yankees don’t care about defense. Why would the organization even be discussing the option of moving Granderson to left if the team didn’t care about defense? The entire point of moving him to left would be to improve their defense.

The answer to this question depends heavily on the actual defensive abilities of Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner. Both players have question marks surrounding their respective defensive performances. Objective measures haven’t been kind to Granderson the last two seasons, but more subjective measurements tell a more positive story. Scouts would be extremely valuable in determining the truth here. Gardner has too small of a sample size to draw conclusions from UZR, but he has rated positively so far, and Sean Smith’s Total Zone has agreed. If Gardner is the elite defensive center fielder many believe he is, then making the switch could make sense. A center fielder gets more opportunities over the course of a season than a left fielder, and those opportunities should go to the better defender.

Keep in mind, though, that if Brett Gardner doesn’t hit well, then things could change quickly. If Gardner builds on his solid rookie campaign, then the outfield switch would probably remain in place. But if Gardner regresses and begins to struggle, Granderson then has to move back to center field, with Randy Winn filling the left field spot. Winn is 35 years old, has never been rated too highly in center field according to UZR, and hasn’t been a regular at the position since 2004. In short, Randy Winn shouldn’t be playing center field on this team. It should be pretty interesting to see how this decision plays out over the course of the spring.

(As an aside, why does Neyer question the Yankees acquisition and development of high-strikeout pitchers? Aren’t those are the kind of pitchers that every team wants?)

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Comments

  1. Pat Andriola said...

    If the Yankees had any sort of idea about acquiring strikeout pitchers to help the defense, I would think they’d be thinking of the relative weakness of their infield defense going into 2009, as strikeout pitchers (anecdotally at least) tend to be more fly ball pitchers, meaning they’d still care greatly about outfield defense.

  2. Bob said...

    Granderson will be just fine in the smaller center field in Yankee stadium. I have seen over 200 games in Comerica park and Granderson has been the only player consistently able to play center there effectively. His defensive play dropped off some last year but he was still very effective, just not the outstanding fielder he had shown previously. Granderson gets a good jump, has good (not great) speed, and always takes a good path to the ball. Comerica is 420 to dead center and approx 360+ in left center with a deep bump out in right center that creates an area approx 350 deep (vs 331 at the foul line). It is huge and he patrolled it well even with Ordonez in RF and Guillen/Thames/etc in LF.

    The Yankees would be nuts to play him anywhere else except center especially since they sent their CF prospect to the Tigers in the trade.

  3. Steve said...

    Neyer has always had an anti-Yankees bias and always looks for ways to knock what they do.  I’ve never been convinced that Garnder could hit on a major league level so I’d rather see Grandy in CF and find someone who can play left, maybe platoon Winn and someone else.  Not a big fan of Winn btw, but I guess he could be a good 4th OF.

  4. D Leaberry said...

    Sometimes I think some of those obsessed with statistics go a little overboard, especially on the more esoteric numbers-chrunching such as UZR.

  5. Chris said...

    Dan,

    You’re saying Neyer is coming to the conclusion that the Yankees don’t care about defense because he think the Yankees won’t actually move Granderson.  That’s backwards. 

    You’re also suggesting that the Yankees must care about defense because they mentioned the possibility of moving Granderson. 

    All Neyer is saying is that this is just talk, the Yankees probably won’t make the move even though they’d be a better defensive team.  Why doesn’t Neyer think the Yankees will make the move?  Because the Yankees just don’t care about defense that much.

    Really, you can’t quarrel with Neyer here.  Do the Yankees care about defense?  I, like Neyer, doubt that they do.  Two reasons: their offense is outstanding and the have a very good rotation.  Simply put, they can win without great defense.

  6. Dan Novick said...

    Chris,

    I’ll state my question again: If the Yankees didn’t care about defense, then why would they be considering moving Granderson to left field?

    This isn’t “just talk,” it’s something they are seriously considering. If they don’t make the switch, it could be for any number of reasons, some of which I mentioned in my original post.

    And here’s a few reasons I think the Yankees do care about defense:

    -They signed Randy Winn, who didn’t hit a lick last year.
    -They let Damon walk despite being a superior offensive player
    -Cashman told Jeter after 2007 that his defense at short was unacceptable and it needed to improve
    -Brett Gardner is the favorite to win the LF job despite not being much of a hitter.

  7. Dan Novick said...

    Also, to say that a major league team simply doesn’t care about defense is, in my opinion, an insult to that team’s intelligence.

  8. Hantu13 said...

    Jonathan Sher is right on about the Yanks, and Kevin is right about Neyer.

    Like all teams, the Yanks do care about defense, but have less of a need to exploit supposed market inefficiencies than other teams.  Granderson + Vasquez was a much better fit for Yankees needs than say Cameron + Halladay – more prospects + $$… 

    And purely on the subject of Cameron or Granderson, the Yankees chose the better player with a better contract…

  9. Dan Novick said...

    Kevin said:

    In Neyer’s verbiage, “care” means “have to make a priority”; in other words, this year the Yankees don’t have to “care” about having a great defensive team because their pitchers will allow a relatively small number of balls in play.”

    If Neyer meant that as his reason, then I think there’s an even bigger problem here.

  10. Keith said...

    I think the fact that the Yankees moved Alex Rodriguez to third base rather than Derek Jeter despite the fact that A-Rod was head and shoulders and torso better than Jeter defensively back in 2004 precipitated the notion that the Yankees care more about ego-scratching than defense.  The fact the Yankees continue to play defensive zeros Jorge Posada and Robinson Cano (although Cano did show some improvement last year) at the other two most premium defensive positions in baseball shows that the Yankees care more about offense than defense. 

    I think you’re taking what Neyer said too literally.  If I say that Jose Molina can’t hit, I’m not actually saying that he will go hitless in his next 300 at-bats, but rather that he is a poor excuse for a hitter.  It’s pretty obvious that Neyer doesn’t think that the Yankees care nothing about defense, just that it isn’t a major point of emphasis for them the way it is with some other teams.

  11. MarkF said...

    Why do folks say that Grnaderson is a poor fielder?

    Granderson is one of only 5 MLB CFs with at least 900 innings in each of the past 3 seasons (others are Hunter, Rowand, Cameron and C Young).  I know that playing a lot does not equate to being a good fielder, but it should indicate that Detroit thought he was a decent fielder.

    As for range, if we simply look at the # of putouts per 9 innings played and again only count CFs with 900 innings, Granderson was 6th, 3rd and 2nd overall over the past three years respectively in terms of this indicator.  Granderson also has a higher # of putouts / 9 inning than the other 4 over the 3-year span. As well, he has the most putouts over the past 3 years of all CFs

    Further, Granderson’s cumulative UZR over the past 3 years is surpassed only by 4 other CFs who have played at least 900 innings in 2 of the past 3 seasons (BJ Upton, Cameron, Bourn, and Beltran).  His total number of putouts might drop in a smaller park, but statistically and logically, he is a top 5 OF in the American League – if not all of MLB.

  12. Keith said...

    The Yankees (and perhaps Neyer) may just mis-evaluate defense, though. Granderson had more runs saved defensively than any centerfielder not named Franklin Gutierrez last year according to The Fielding Bible.  His only poor year defensively was 2008.  I think we can blame his April hand injury for much of that given the way he has rebounded.  I don’t believe that playing Granderson in left field would improve their defense one jot; they are better off with him in center.

  13. Jonathan Sher said...

    Dan,

    You may be right that the Yankees care more about defense than Neyer believes they do and for some of the reasons that you listed for Chris.

    But where I think you are off-base is your central argument: That the fact the Yankees asked Granderson about his willingness to move to left is evidence of their concern about defense. I think your argument is off because you are not adequately considering the timing of the request—in December, when the Yankees were hopeful of adding another piece to their outfield (after Granderson) but were not sure who that piece would be or if he would be better suited to center or corner outfield spot. In that context, Girardi’s question seems to have two purposes and neither was directly about improving defense:

    (1) The Yankees wanted to evaluate centerfield targets as well as corner outfield targets a and knew the former might only make sense if Granderson was willing to move.

    (2) The Yankees see Granderson as a key piece to their future and wanted to be upfront about the possibility of acquiring a centerfielder so their relationship with Granderson didn’t suffer.

    The more questionable claim by Neyer is that the Yankees acquired high-strikeout pitchers because they place so little value on defense. Put aside for the moment the issue that neither you nor I think the Yanks have been hell bent on offense at the cost of defense. Look instead of the pitchers the Yanks have acquired: Sabathia, Burnett and Vasquez. Does anyone but Neyer think they were acquired simply because they strike out a lot of people? Isn’t the obvious reason that:

    (1) Sabathia and Burnett were the best starters available as free agents and by a longshot. While it’s true both strike out a lot of guys, isn’t that true most of the time for the best pitchers?
    (2) Vasquez was the best starter available in a trade for a bargain price (as opposed to Halliday). Who was the alternative who doesn’t strike out a lot of batters? Joel Pineiro?
    (3) If you want the best pitchers, there are hardly any that don’t strike out a lot of batters.

  14. Dan Novick said...

    The Yankees weren’t looking at other potential center fielders after the Granderson trade. The free agent market looked like this:

    Rocco Baldelli
    Darin Erstad
    Ryan Freel

    And the trade market’s best pieces were Cody Ross and BJ Upton. None of those guys would have pushed Granderson to left field, and the only one who might have (BJ Upton) wasn’t even a realistic possibility.

    I just think that to assume the Yankees weren’t concerned with Granderson’s defense is foolish.

  15. Dan Novick said...

    I would like to add this as well. A quote from Brian Cashman, when asked who the starting CF would be if the season started today:

    “CASH: Curtis Granderson. But if Gardner proves our team is better with him in CF and he can be an everyday outfielder…he has a lot to show in a short amount of time in Spring Training. We believe he is better in CF and we believe Granderson would be terrific in LF. But, Granderson was acquired to be our everyday CF and that is our expectation.”

    http://nomaas.org/2010/02/the-mother-of-all-interviews-nomaas-v-brian-cashman/

  16. Bob said...

    MarkF – Well said. As you note, Granderson is one of the best defensive CF is baseball. His only real short coming is his arm, which is average. Gardner must have a real cannon or run like the wind because I doubt he gets a jump or takes a better line to the ball than Granderson.

    Yankee fans need to put the criticism of his defense by Tiger fans in the proper perspective. CF in Comerica park is HUGE. You have to be a top flight defender to play there otherwise balls will be dropping in left-center and right-center all day. Tiger fans & journalists are very concerned that Austin Jackson will not play up to Granderson’s level of defense and since he was the Yankee’s CF of the future, Granderson should do just fine there.

  17. Jonathan Sher said...

    Dan,

    Your claim: The Yankees weren’t looking at other potential center fielders after the Granderson trade.

    What six other journalists reported at the time: One week after the Granderson trade,  the Yankees were talking to the Brewers about a trade for Mike Cameron according to SI’s John Heyman, Tyler Kepner of the New York Times, MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy, Peter Abraham, Tom Haudricourt and Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News. Here’s a link to some of their reports:

    http://www.mlbtraderumors.com/2008/12/mike-cameron-ya.html

    Let me be clear: I think the Yanks do care about defense, as I said earlier. It isn’t as central a focus as in Seattle but that’s because the Yankees can afford to pay top dollar and don’t have as pressing a need to exploit what, before this off-season, seemed a market inefficiency – defense.

    Presumably, the Yanks didn’t acquire Cameron because they decided that a starting pitcher was a more pressing need and acted on that belief soon after, trading the key piece (Melky Cabrera) that would have otherwise gone to Milwaukee.

    In short, the Yanks thought it was a bigger upgrade to get a star pitcher in Vasquez than to get Cameron and moved Granderson and his defense out of centerfield.

    In short,  Cameron was on the radar and his is a very good defensive centerfielder.

    But I would argue Granderson is an adequate center fielder, certainly not a bad one, and the reason the Yanks considered moving him was they were considering trading for a better fielding centerfielder.

    Last year Granderson has a UZR/150 of 1.6. In the past four years he’s averaged just under 5 UZR/150, and while I’m no expert in defensive metrics, those who are suggest a sample size of three or more years. What evidence would you point to show the Yankees had reason to be worried about his defense?

    Brett Gardner has phenomenal UZR ratings in centerfield, and though that is a small sample size, Tom Tango’s Tom Tango’s Fans Scouting Report also rated him very highly on the skills most valued in a center fielder.

    If the Yankees were truly concerned about Granderson’s defense, if the inverse to that was foolish, as you say, wouldn’t they have already announced that he would play left so Gardner could play center, at least in the games that Gardner play?

  18. Dan Novick said...

    Forgot about the Cameron thing, my bad.

    “What evidence would you point to show the Yankees had reason to be worried about his defense?”

    UZR is just one of many ways to evaluate defense.

    “wouldn’t they have already announced that he would play left so Gardner could play center, at least in the games that Gardner play?”

    There are factors that go into this decision beyond raw defensive abilities.

    Sorry if I’m being annoyingly vague, but it’s 3 in the morning.

  19. Jonathan Sher said...

    Dan,

    You posted your quote from Cashman while I was composing my previous response and I posted that response before seeing the quote.

    I sounds to me that Cashman intends to start Granderson in center while giving the appearance of not ruling out other options. If he was more concerned about Granderson’s defense, I doubt he would say he expects Granderson to start in center and set his new acquisition up for failure.

    Thanks for posting the quote.

  20. Tony said...

    Folks did anyone notice the Mike Cameron comments were from December 2008 so have no part in this discussion. He signed with the red sox as a free agent

  21. Dan Novick said...

    Tony—

    You are correct about that, but it is true that the Yankees were interested at some point this winter. However, Cameron signed just a few days after the Granderson deal, so he was probably already in negotiations with the Red Sox by the time of the trade. Good catch.

  22. Tony said...

    Basically saying any team doesn’t care about defense makes no sense, you can argue that teams are willing to forgo defense for offense or the opposite but to make a blanket statement that any team doesn’t care about defense is silly. Teams ultimately care about runs scored versus runs allowed and how to maximize the difference within a budget.

  23. Tony said...

    I think the Yankee’s interest in Cameron was pretty much over when it became apparent that it would require a muilti year contract to sign him.

  24. Thomas said...

    The Neyer comment was a bit of a UFO, and when I see things like that from Neyer, I assume sarcasm (no evidence this time) or a desire to create an argument.

    After the 2008 season, Cashman said that the Yankees were not good defensively and needed to improve.  He attacked it in several ways.  One was, yes, using higher strike-out pitchers to decrease fielding chances.  This is actually an acknowledgment that they do recognize defense, and are addressing it in several ways.

    The also added Mark Texiera at first; replaced Bobby Abreu (minus UZR) in right with Nick Swisher (neutral); moved the declining Damon off center to left, where he initially rated a positive in the later part of 2008, before his collapse in 2009; and put the stronger Melky/Gardner combo in center.  Last, their coaching staff, led by Mick Kelleher, began to focus much more heavily on positional placement in the infield to try and improve the infield defense, especially Derek Jeter.  There is evidence with Jeter this worked. 

    Letting Damon walk, bringing in Granderson, and exploring the option of moving Granderson to left while putting Gardner in center is yet another example of the Yankees focusing on improving defense.

    The actions do not sound like a team that “doesn’t care” about defense.

  25. Chris said...

    You’re problem with Neyer’s argument is that you’re missing the point.  Neyer said that despite the mention of moving Granderson to LF, the Yankees would not move him – because the Yankees are not overly concerned with defense.  Where’s the inconsistency in that?

  26. Chris said...

    Also, Neyer is in no way questioning the Yankee’s acquisition of high strikeout pitchers.  He’s saying that one reason the Yankees can afford to field inferior defensive players is because they’ve been able to acquire several pitchers who can strike hitter out.

    You really missed the boat on your criticism of Neyer here.

  27. Dan Novick said...

    Chris,

    The inconsistency is obvious. If the Yankees didn’t care about defense, then why would they be considering moving Granderson to left field?

    Neyer thinks the Yankees won’t go through with the move, so therefore they aren’t concerned with defense? I don’t think so.

  28. kevin said...

    As others pointed out, Dan misread Neyer’s statement. Dan really needed an independent reader to check his article before he posted it. Neyer didn’t mean that the Yankees think that defense is unimportant as an overall concept. What he meant was that for the 2010 configuration of the Yankees, defense is less important than for other teams because they have high-strikeout pitchers. In Neyer’s verbiage, “care” means “have to make a priority”; in other words, this year the Yankees don’t have to “care” about having a great defensive team because their pitchers will allow a relatively small number of balls in play.

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