The key to 2021

Here’s what we know about 2021: The Yankees are going to score a metric ton of runs, regardless of the simpleton nonsense about “too right handed” and too “all or nothing” we hear from the sports radio and tabloid crowds. They are going to score a lot runs even with a few injuries here and there because they have the depth to do so. Heck even with Stanton playing in only 18% of team games and Judge playing in 58% the Yanks have still led MLB in runs per game since the start of 2019.

We know that starting pitching is a concern. Starters number two through seven in the rotation have great resumes and/or potential, but come with A LOT of question marks for varying reasons. And we know that Brian Cashman is OK moving forward that way with the staff. By “that way” I mean going with risky but inexpensive options even when Yu Darvish and Carlos Carrasco were basically given away this winter.

We also know that the Yankee defense needs to improve on a team level. If your pitching staff has question marks you’re going to need to be able to convert balls put in play into outs at a high rate. And considering the Yankees were ranked 16th in overall defense last season by FanGraphs and were 16th in defensive efficiency (turning batted balls into outs) there’s certainly room for improvement. Combine that with the fact that even at their absolute best, Jameson Taillon and Jordan Montgomery were a little better than league average in K%, and Corey Kluber, despite being a whiff machine in his prime, is three years past his prime and coming off serious arm issue.  All of that adds up to a lot of balls put into play and an increased importance on the defense being able to convert those balls into outs.

What does it all mean?

To me it means that the key to the 2021 Yankees’ success, very well may be whether or not Aaron Hicks, Gleyber Torres and Gary Sanchez improve defensively.

Anyone who has ever played baseball, coached baseball, or watched baseball for any significant length of time knows that if your catcher, shortstop and/or centerfielder are weak links defensively, you have a serious problem. They are just simply involved in too many plays to be weak links. They don’t need to be Devon White, Johnny Bench and Ozzie Smith – but they can’t be “bad”.

And let’s call a spade a spade, Yankee fans: Hicks, Torres and Sanchez were all defensive weak links last season. If they improve, it could be a significant boost to the team’s run prevention capabilities and pitching staff. If they don’t improve, it could be putting gasoline on a potential fire of a pitching staff.

In case you’re curious just how bad the Yankees were at CF, SS and C last season…

Torres ranked 37th out of 39 shortstops in outs above average.

Hicks was 39th out of 39 centerfielders in outs above average.

And due to the shortened season in 2020 that kept sample sizes too small for many stats, we don’t know how Sanchez ranked last season in some cases, except for framing where he came in at the 37th percentile. But he does have a history and we know what he is: Good arm, not good pitch framer, and not good at blocking pitches (although not as bad as generally portrayed).

In fact, when you consider the above, you realize how good the Yanks were everywhere else on the field defensively to still come in at 16th overall.

Can Gleyber get better? To me he’s the biggest question mark. He’s always been a little below average at second base and well below at short. But to be fair, it’s a relatively small sample size and he’s only 24 years old. If the whispers about an undisclosed injury and being less than 100% fit in 2020 are legit, it stands to reason he’ll improve.

What about Hicks? Hicks was one of the better defensive centerfielders in the league in 2017, but his overall efficiency has dropped in each consecutive season since. His sprint speed, although still better than average, has also dropped three seasons in row and he’s mentioned his arm isn’t the same post-surgery. None of that sounds good, but even with the bad trends he was just about league average as recently as 2019. As long as he doesn’t decline further, and we chalk 2020 up to a small sample size we can expect him to be OK (which again is fine – as long as he’s not “bad”).

Sanchez is the most puzzling, yet I’m the most optimistic about him of the three. He improved greatly from 2016 to 2017 becoming one of the better defensive catchers in MLB. Then his overall defensive value (according to FanGraphs) has worsened in each consecutive season since. Like Hicks, that information may be unsettling, but at least we know Sanchez can be a good defensive player. Whether it’s coaching, personal responsibility or both that needs to improve, we know that at age 29 the ability is there.

Again, the Yankees are going to score runs and the pitching question marks will be resolved one way or the other as the season progresses. Regardless, if the Yankees can get league average or even a little better than league average defense from the C, SS, and CF positions that will go a long way toward not only their regular season success but their post-season success (as we know run prevention has been the problem in recent post-seasons).

Did I miss something? Let me know.

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