It seems that everyone has labeled the 2010 baseball season as “the year of the pitcher.” And rightly so: offense has been down this year as a result of more dominant pitching. This is especially characteristic of the Yankees: their 3.94 team ERA would be the lowest since 2002.
But what has been overlooked is the rise in solid defense in baseball. This has been a trend for quite some time now. In 1975, the average errors committed per game was 1.9. Now, that number is about 1.2.
You can attribute any number of factors to that: better field conditions, better training, more strikeouts. As far as the Yankees are concerned, the 2010 season might be their best defensive season…ever. Take a look at the number of errors Yankee teams have made since 1974:
I used this cut-off because Fangraphs only has fielding data back to 1974.
First, a few explanations: the data for 1981, 1994, and 1995 are considerably low because they were strike-shortened seasons. And obviously, the data for 2010 is low because the Yankees have only played 98 games.
The Yankees have made 41 errors this year, which means they are on pace to commit about 68. That would be the lowest since 1974, including the strike-shortened years.
The infield, especially, has been excellent this season. Here are the amount of errors the starting infielders are on pace to make this year:
Mark Teixeira: 3
Robinson Cano: 2
Derek Jeter: 7
Alex Rodriguez: 10
And this is the amount of errors the starting infielders made in 2005:
Tino Martinez/Jason Giambi: 15
Robinson Cano: 17
Derek Jeter: 15
Alex Rodriguez: 12
But the amount of errors per season doesn’t reveal everything. A fielder could take a safer route to a ball to avoid committing an error. An official scorer can rule an obvious error a hit under a number of circumstances. Just because a team commits less errors doesn’t mean it is a better fielding team (though it does help).
I went to another fielding stat to analyze the Yankee defense: UZR. For those that may not be into sabermetrics, UZR stands for Ultimate Zone Rating. It puts a run value to defense, so the UZR from a player or team would be the amount of runs saved or given up over a certain period of time. I don’t understand how it is calculated, but it works.
Fangraphs has UZR data back to 2002. Here are the Yankees’ UZR totals since then:
Pretty revealing stuff. The 2010 season is the first season (in the UZR era) that the Yankee defense has actually saved runs. It’s a far cry from 2005, when the Yankees had the worst defense in baseball with an absurd -138 UZR.
Based on those numbers, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Yankees struggled in the playoffs from 2005-2008 and succeeded in 2009 with significantly better defensive stats.
But above all, the Yankees have just gotten better over the past few years. Mark Teixeira is a huge upgrade at first over Jason Giambi, Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner have been much better in the outfield than guys like Bernie Williams or Bobby Abreu were (or Gary Sheffield and Bubba Crosby), and Robinson Cano has emerged into one of the best second basemen in baseball.
There are still 64 games left, so anything can happen. But it’s safe to say that the Yankees will continue playing solid defense. And I imagine that when the season is over, the Yankees will have their first positive UZR season ever.