When spring training began, the expectation was that both Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton would see time in left field during Grapefruit League action. To date, we have only seen Stanton there in actual games. Given how the Yankees have played it this March, it’s pretty clear that Stanton is going to be the one who plays left field when Brett Gardner has a day off.
It’s mildly surprising that we haven’t seen Judge in left field for any of this camp’s exhibition games. Of course, there are still two more weeks for Judge to get an opportunity, but there doesn’t appear to be any urgency to do so. Although the team hasn’t explicitly given its rationale for Stanton getting live game chances over Judge, there must be some reasoning behind it. So, why have the Yankees made Stanton the apparent alternative in left field? A few things come to mind:
1. Stanton has plenty of experience playing in an expansive outfield corner already.
As we already know, Yankee Stadium’s left field is pretty vast toward left center’s death valley. On the other hand, the park’s right field is quite small. Stanton’s former home field in Miami has a large outfield all around, including Stanton’s natural spot, right field. When it comes to navigating a huge outfield, Stanton has done that already, whereas Judge is accustomed to covering less ground. Point to Stanton.
2. Judge is returning from shoulder surgery, so perhaps it’s best to keep things business as usual for him.
We already know that the Yankees took it slow with Judge’s return, gradually working him back into full activity this spring. Perhaps the team decided that adding another wrinkle to his return was unnecessary, making the choice for Stanton in left an easier call.
3. FRAA, UZR, and DRS all preferred Stanton to Judge in 2017.
Per UZR and DRS last year, Stanton and Judge were virtually even defensively though both gave Stanton the slight nod. FRAA clearly preferred Stanton to Judge. All around, both outfielders are viewed highly for their defensive work, but Stanton’s efforts appear to be a tad better from this standpoint. Obviously, the Yankees didn’t simply look at these three stats and call it a day, but it might have helped a tad.
Alright, so there are some pretty good reasons behind the Yankees’ thinking. However, is there evidence that Judge might be the better choice? My opinion is yes. Here’s why:
1. Statcast Metrics prefer Judge.
|Player||Outs Above Avg.||Expected Catch %||Actual Catch %||5 *||4 *||3 *||2 *||1 *||Sprint Speed|
|Judge||6||87%||89%||2/24 (8%)||8/16 (50%)||14/15 (93%)||21/22 (95%)||37/38 (97%)||27.7|
|Stanton||-1||86%||86%||0/29 (0%)||8/15 (53%)||6/17 (35%)||19/21 (90%)||53/54 (98%)||27.5|
Even though some of the aforementioned advanced fielding metrics gave a slight nod to Stanton last year, Statcast left little doubt about who was better defensively. Judge beat Stanton in Outs Above Average by a wide margin, clearly grading Judge as an above average fielder, while it pegged Stanton to be a hair below the norm. Much of this is due to Judge making two percent more catches than were expected, meanwhile Stanton stood even.
When it came to difficult plays, Judge outshined Stanton. Stanton didn’t convert one 5 star play, while Judge was able to make two. Both made the same amount of 4 star catches, though Judge had one extra opportunity. Judge had the advantage in two and three star catches soundly. One star catches, or rather easy plays, were practically a tie. Considering how large left field is compared to right field at Yankee Stadium, I’d anticipate more difficult plays occurring in left. That would seem to make Judge better suited there compared to Stanton.
A quick summary of the 5 through 1 star categories:
5* = 0 – 25% catch probability
4* = 26 – 50% catch probability
3* = 51 – 75% catch probability
2* = 76 – 90% catch probability
1* = 91 – 95% catch probability
2. Judge has experience at other outfield positions more recently than Stanton.
As recently as 2016, Judge spent time in both left and center field while in Triple-A. It wasn’t much (63 innings in left, 26 innings in center), but it’s certainly more than Stanton has of late. In fact, since reaching the majors in 2010, Stanton has only one inning under his belt that wasn’t in right field. Considering both players’ recent experience, it seems like Judge would have an easier time transitioning to a new spot.
3. Judge is faster and younger.
This point could be construed as a stretch, considering a 0.2 MPH different in sprint speed is marginal. Furthermore, sprint speed doesn’t account for acceleration (i.e. how long it takes either player to get to their top speed). Still, I think it’s reasonable to give the nod to Judge in terms of athleticism because of the age difference. Judge is three years junior to Stanton, and younger people tend to be quicker than older humans. I don’t think it’s outlandish to think that Judge gets to his maximum running speed quicker than Stanton. Further evidence of this can be found by circling back to the Statcast metrics, which have Judge making tougher catches more frequently than Stanton. Those catches generally require more ground to be covered, so logic would indicate that Judge got to his top speed sooner than Stanton last season in order to make those low probability catches.
For all this talk about left field, Gardner can’t be left out. After all, he is expected to be the team’s everyday left fielder while Judge and Stanton mostly split duties between right field and designated hitter. Plus, Gardner has played in at least 145 games every season since 2013, so perhaps who’s in left when he’s not in the lineup won’t be a big factor this season. It sure seems like Stanton will only get a couple dozen games in left field at most, right? Maybe not.
Even though Gardner is very durable, it’s reasonable to think he belongs in a platoon permanently. In the last two years, Gardner has performed much better against right-handers than southpaws.
There’s been no hint that Gardner will predominantly play against righties this season, but it shouldn’t be a surprise if that’show it sorts out. If that’s the case, we should be seeing plenty of Stanton and Judge covering both corners while allowing another right-handed bat in the lineup (Miguel Andujar? Tyler Austin?). With how spring training has gone, it’s clear that Stanton will be the one getting the most reps in left as compared to Judge, if not all of them. It’s not a bad decision, per se, as Stanton is a sturdy fielder in his own regard. It just might not be the best decision.
UZR, DRS, and wRC+ splits via Fangraphs.
FRAA via Baseball Prospectus.
Statcast data via Baseball Savant.
(Photo credit: Reinhold Matay | USA TODAY Sports)