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Checking on Miguel Andújar’s left field defense

Brett Gardner is one of the greatest defensive left fielders ever, but he only has one Gold Glove. His career overlapped with the Royals’ Alex Gordon, who was a smidge better. Gordon never played an inning in the outfield until he was 26 years old and had failed off of third base. His career path is almost identical to that of Miguel Andújar, the Yankees’ starting left fielder for the foreseeable future.

In no way can we reasonably expect a Gold Glove from Andújar, let alone eight like Gordon collected at Gardner’s expense. It’s been about a month since he took hold of the everyday job though, and since his first start in left this year he’s slashed .313/.326/.506. Offense is a rare commodity these days, so with numbers like that the job is his to lose. Let’s take a look at what kind of defender he’s become at his new position.

Flashing leather and potential

Andújar certainly possesses the athletic ability to become a quality defensive left fielder. Statcast ranks him in the 62nd percentile of MLB players in sprint speed. Even more impressively, he’s 81st percentile in outfield jump. While he isn’t a base stealer, he’s an above-average runner with quick reactions on contact— learned from his years manning the hot corner.

We all know he was, uh, something of an adventure at third base, but athleticism was never the issue. His two main problems were fielding ground balls cleanly and throwing accurately. There aren’t too many tough hops in the outfield, mitigating the first issue. As for his arm, he always possessed plenty of strength to make long throws across the diamond, which should serve him well in left. Aiming for a mobile cutoff man as opposed to a stationary first baseman and eliminating the need for off-balance throws should turn his arm into an asset.

Here are some of his best plays. On May 23, he dove to steal a hit away from the White Sox’ José Abreu (initially ruled a hit, then overturned):

Then on May 29, he laid out to rob Nomar Mazara in Detroit:

The expected batting averages on these line drives were .580 and .620. Both of them should have been hits based on their exit velocity and launch angles, but Andújar took them away. It’s notable that he was charging in on both plays. That appears to be more natural to him than going back on a fly ball in these early stages of playing the outfield. For a converting third baseman, that makes a lot of sense.

Room to improve

While there’s a lot to like about Andújar’s defense so far, there are also plenty of growing pains. Let’s revisit that 81st percentile outfield jump. Statcast breaks down the jump into three components. The first two are reaction (0-1.5 seconds after contact) and burst (1.6-3.0 seconds after contact). He’s 1.5 feet better on average than a standard MLB outfielder in each of those categories. Out of 99 qualified outfielders, his reaction is fifth-best and his burst is 21st.

He drives like a high-performance sports car with his quick jumps… but he’s low on power steering fluid. He loses 1.2 feet off his average jump by taking poor routes to the ball. This is understandable from a converted infielder. It’s important to recognize that these jump metrics are all averages though. Sometimes he gets a phenomenal jump and takes a direct route as shown in the videos above. Other times he completely misreads the play and looks bewildered as the ball drops in for a hit.

He boosted Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts’ batting average on June 5:

… and again on June 6 (though he made amends with a great throw):

Both of these hits had expected batting averages of .150, but Andújar bungled them into a double and a single.

Perhaps the best summation of his glovework in left is this liner off the bat of Tampa Bay’s Brandon Lowe on June 1:

The shot had a .590 expected batting average, but he got an outstanding jump and made the catch. His natural athletic talents overcame his terrible route that looked like the way a chess knight moves. It’s still early days, and as he gains experience he’ll surely upgrade his ability to read fly balls.

Andújar is a raw left fielder, but he possesses the skills to improve rapidly. In the near future, we can expect several plays worthy of applause as well as chagrin. Long term, he could become a very good defender— even if he doesn’t make us forget Alex Gordon or Brett Gardner.