The Yankees’ infield defense took a big hit with the loss of Brendan Ryan, who’s expected to miss the start of the season with a pinched nerve in his back. Ryan’s not much with the bat, but when it comes to picking it at short, he’s one of the best. Ryan was unlikely to be the Yankees everyday shortstop this season, but figured to start at least a couple of days a week and also serve as a frequent defensive sub off of the bench.
With Ryan out of the picture, the lion’s share of innings at short will fall to Jeter and Eduardo Nunez, who both leave a lot to be desired defensively — and that’s putting it nicely. Even before he missed all of last season with a perpetually broken ankle, the soon-to-be-40 Jeter lacked the range needed to play an adequate shortstop. Nunez, meanwhile, has has proven time and time again that he’s unable to keep his errors under control, posting an abysmal .937 fielding percentage since 2011.
On a full-season basis, Ryan’s been worth about 12 runs above the average shortstop over the last three years — good for third in baseball behind only Andrelton Simmons and Clint Barmes. Meanwhile, Jeter and Nunez are near the bottom of the list, accruing -15 and -39 runs respectively. Splitting the difference between these two figures, the gap between Ryan and Jeter/Nunez is something like 40 runs — or four wins — over a full season of innings.
That 40 run differential works out to a non-negligible quarter point in ERA — and will likely be even higher with a ground-ball pitchers are on the mound. Hiroki Kuroda (47%) and Ivan Nova (54%) both induce more ground-balls than the average pitcher (43%) and the same will probably be true of Masahiro Tanaka and his nasty splitter. Additionally, both David Robertson and Matt Thornton had GB% greater than 50% last season, meaning Ryan’s defense sure would have come in handy in the late-innings.
Brendan Ryan is not a great baseball player by any means. Thanks to his anemic hitting, he was worth -0.6 fWAR in 2013 and will probably flirt with replacement level this year as well. Nonetheless, he provides plus-plus defense at shortstop — something the Yankees won’t come anywhere close to replicating in his absence. Jeter is easily the better hitter, which might make him better than Ryan overall. Still, at the very least, Ryan’s a useful late-game defensive sub on a team that could really use one. Hopefully, Ryan’s back heals up quickly and he’s able to continue being the elite defender he’s been in the past. In the meantime, his defensive prowess will be sorely missed by the Yankees and their pitchers.