Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports has a column published today contrasting New York Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson’s defensive abilities this season, with the question marks surrounding his future at the position while he was with the Detroit Tigers from 2006 to 2009. Rosenthal hints at a bit of irony in the difference between the two teams’ evaluations, pointing to a couple examples of his sparkling defense from last night as proof that Granderson is a stellar defensive talent.
While there is little doubt that Granderson’s diving catch to end the sixth inning was spectacular by every definition:
I’m not so convinced by Granderson’s bacon saving grab in the first.
Rosenthal describes the catch like this:
The Yankees’ Curtis Granderson froze on Don Kelly’s drive with the bases loaded and two outs in the first inning Tuesday night in Game 4 of the Division Series. He froze, and the ball took off, rising quickly.
Granderson quickly retreated, nearly stumbling as he sprinted seven steps back. He leaped, caught the ball over his left shoulder and crashed to the ground on his stomach.
What Rosenthal doesn’t mention and what you don’t see in the GIF above is that Granderson’s route to the ball included three steps in toward the infield, before he shifted direction and began running back to make an off balanced catch. There was no freeze at all. In fact, he did something fundamentally wrong off contact.
However, two exciting catches does not a good center fielder make, just as one poor route to a line drive doesn’t mean that a center fielder is terrible.
Fielding numbers, always good for an eyebrow raise or two, often painted Granderson in good light during his time in Detroit, while in New York he’s been measured to be a below average center fielder defensively. This makes these conflicting perspectives curious to say the least.
Word circulated that the Tigers were unhappy with his reads and routes in center field. The following spring, [Detroit manager Jim] Leyland acknowledged that center field was a “tough place to play in Detroit,” and said that Granderson also had problems on the road “a little bit, too.”
“I’ve watched a lot of tape on him,” [New York Yankees third base coach Rob] Thomson said of Granderson then. “This kid is a special cat. He’s really athletic, really strong, really fast, a quick-twitch guy. I think a lot of that stuff is overblown. He is a much better defender than people are giving him credit for.”
“We have him as an above-average defensive outfielder,” [New York Yankees GM Brian] Cashman said. “Our numbers don’t match some of that stuff. He comes out high on our defensive measurements.”
What I take issue with in this article is that there’s little to no mention of what having Brett Gardner in left field adds to the equation, and how the way in which he plays his position not only allows for Granderson to be sub par in center but also contributes to defensive metrics calculating him as so.
Jay Jaffe, writing for Pinstriped Bible in August talked about this idea:
There’s always an issue with defensive stats when it comes to adjacent fielders; if both of them can get to the ball but one routinely lets the other handle it, that will skew the stats, but so long as one of them does the job, everything is copacetic from a team defense standpoint. That may be what’s happening here, but in any event, it could be worth revisiting the choice of which of the two outfielders plays left field and which plays center field, if not now, then next spring. Until then, it’s worth keeping an eye on who gets those balls in the left-center gap.
Daniel Barbarisi writing in the Wall St. Journal went to the trouble of investigating the data and watching video to come to the conclusion that:
[Gardner] is effectively a second center fielder, ranging wide over the left side of the field in ways no other left fielder is doing. He frequently takes balls away from center fielder Curtis Granderson, when traditionally, it’s vice-versa. The way Gardner covers ground allows the Yankees to use different defensive alignments, shifting Granderson more toward right field in some situations because they assume Gardner can cover all of left-center.
While ESPN’s Mark Simon suggests that the balls in play that Gardner is taking away from Granderson wouldn’t pad the Yankees true center fielder’s defensive numbers enough to produce a dramatic increase, there’s little question that a full season of playing center to Gardner’s left field results in less chances than if Gardner wasn’t playing in left field. No outfielder’s range numbers come anywhere close to the Yankees left fielder’s.
While we may question Joe Girardi’s decision to bunt from time to time or Brian Cashman’s off season acquisitions or lack thereof, these two guys aren’t idiots. They know that Gardner is a more traditional center fielder in his ability to cover great distances quickly, and I doubt that any defensive metric, whether it’s the Yankees own or UZR, is going to tell them that Granderson is the best defensive option in their outfield. Perhaps I’m giving them too much credit, but I find it hard not to believe that Yankees management has come across some advantage to playing Gardner in left and Granderson in center, and they’re running with it.
I tend to like things that defy conventional wisdom. And maybe that’s why I’m assuming that the Yankees have found a heretofore undiscovered advantage, whether it’s based on their home ballpark or something else, to playing Brett Gardner in left and Curtis Granderson in center field.
To me this is the irony that Rosenthal seems to be seeking in his piece today. It isn’t the difference between the Tigers and Yankees evaluation of Granderson. Or even that the Tigers got a pretty good defensive center fielder from the Yankees in return for Granderson. It’s that, with all due respect to Nick Swisher, of the two players covering the most ground in the outfield for New York, the better one plays the position that’s normally reserved for a weaker defender.