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Brendan Ryan Makes Living on Defense

by Matt Kardos | Posted on Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

(TRENTON) The New York Yankees have had the fortune of being able to roll out the premiere shortstop in baseball for the better part of the last two decades. At age 39, soon to be 40; Derek Jeter is no longer a guy that the organization can play every single day. In the interest of trying to keep Jeter healthy and fresh as the season lags on into the dog days of summer , the importance of having a steady backup who can relieve the aging icon a few days a week is important. The value of defense and the importance of steady fielding up the middle is at an all-time high as the Yankees have begun to employ the defensive shift more than ever. Enter 32-year old veteran shortstop, Brendan Ryan, who is currently rehabbing a neck injury with the Thunder and is expected to rejoin the big league club shortly.

Yankees SS Brendan Ryan began a rehab assignment with the Thunder last night. Photo by: Matt Kardos

Yankees SS Brendan Ryan began a rehab assignment with the Thunder last night. Photo by: Matt Kardos

Ryan was acquired by the Yankees last September from the Seattle Mariners on an expiring contract in exchange for what ultimately amounted to cash considerations. General Manager Brian Cashman liked what the gritty infielder brought to his club and inked him to a two-year contact with a mutual third-year option in December worth four million dollars.

As a .233 career hitter with a total of just 19 homers and 187 RBI, the true value of Ryan comes on the defensive end of the game. The slick-fielding Ryan ranked first in the league in defensive WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in 2009 and 2012 and finished in the top-four in 2010 and 2011. With respect to the offensive talent surrounding him and the value that his glove brings as a replacement role player to Jeter, Ryan believes that the Yankees are an ideal fit for a player with his skill-set at this stage of his career.

“Having spoken with Mr. Cashman, they wanted guys that will just stick their nose in there and compete at the plate,” said Ryan. “I think all of this metric stuff that I couldn’t begin to understand is probably coming in at a good time; it definitely helps my case a little bit. It shows that I don’t have to hit .360 to have an impact on a daily basis. You look at our squad and see all-stars everywhere and that’s not a bad place for somebody to just fill-in and shorten games a little bit. I don’t think that you need a guy to hit 40 homers at shortstop; that’s not what I am going to do. With all of those guys around you, it seems like a good place for a guy who can play some defense.”

The defensive shift has become more of an organizational philosophy this season and has been used on an everyday basis at all levels. Because Ryan missed so much time this spring with a neck injury, he is just now starting to acclimate himself to the intricacies that the different shifts entail.

“I have been watching as much as I can,” said Ryan. “When we were discussing the shifting during the spring, I thought that it was cool that we all aren’t in one way or the other. I’m here for my defense and I see some things out there and feel like I can put myself in the way of the baseball and you can use that shift to give yourself a median from where to start from.

Brendan Ryan takes pride in being a defensive specialist

Brendan Ryan takes pride in being a defensive specialist

Ryan added, “They’re doing the shifting in High-A, in extended spring training, they’re doing it up and down the organization, which is smart; it gets guys used to playing in weird spots. It’s good that what they are saying is trickling down here so that we are all on the same page; it’s good stuff.”

In a game that is littered with power hitters and gaudy offensive numbers, Ryan is a player that garners little attention or praise around the league. The value of defense isn’t always visible in the daily box scores or in the highlight reels, but it goes a long way in helping a team win ball games. Ryan says that he really began placing an emphasis on his defense when he was coming up as a young minor leaguer in the St.Louis Cardinals farm system.

“Defensively, I got the chance to work with Jose Oquendo in St.Louis for years,” Ryan explained. “To me, there is nobody that I have met or come across who can teach infield instruction the way that he taught me. He changed everything for me; without him I certainly wouldn’t be here today.”

Oquendo was a player with a very similar career to that of Ryan. In twelve major league seasons, ten of which spent with the Cardinals, Oquendo hit .256 with 14 career homers and 256 RBI. He was, however, among the league leaders every year in defensive WAR and fielding percentage. As a youngster coming up in the system, Oquendo saw potential in Ryan and helped him maximize his strongest asset on the diamond.

“He took me from being a guy that you see a million of in the minor leagues; a guy who can make some of these tough plays and get a rise out of the crowd but then you get the double-play ball and “boink” it,” said Ryan. “He helped me iron-out making the routine play every single time.”

Ryan added, “I made 30-plus errors in Low-A and that was pre-Oquendo and then after meeting him, the game started to slow down for me and became a lot more fun defensively, more-so than even at the plate. Everyone likes going up there and whacking a double into the gap but to me, there is no greater thrill than taking a base-hit away or really getting that guy out that should be on first or second.

According to Ryan, the shortstop position is much like a fraternity. A majority of players at the position will keep tabs on each other and engage in brief conversations when they are on the base paths. Ryan recalls past experiences he has had with Jeter before becoming a Yankee that helped him improve as a player both mentally and mechanically.

Ryan credits much of his defensive success to Jose Oquendo who helped him coming up with St.Louis.

Ryan credits much of his defensive success to Jose Oquendo who helped him coming up with St.Louis.

“I can remember a moment when I was struggling coming in to play against the Yankees a few years ago,” Ryan said. “Jeter came over to me and tried to get me to cheer up a little bit and told me to keep my chin up and offered me some hitting advice or whatever. I thought that was the coolest thing ever and I never forgot that.”

Ryan added, “When I came over to the Yankees last year, it was obviously a tough time for him and I think that he was doing the best that he could to stay positive, as frustrated as he was. My first day, I showed up to an empty locker room; the locker on my left is Ichiro and the locker on my right is Jeter. Right away, he ran up to me and welcomed me in, he shook my hand and told me that he was glad to have me; all of the things that you would expect Derek Jeter to say.”

As Jeter winds down in his farewell tour, the ultimate test for him will be to maintain his health so that he is at full strength by the time the postseason rolls around in October. Nobody has ever thrived in clutch situations and given every ounce of his effort quite like Jeter has during the course of his long and illustrious career. For all intents and purposes, Jeter may be the most polarizing figure in the history of the game; in many ways the exact opposite of Ryan. It is players like Jeter that franchises build around and sustain long term success with, but it is players like Ryan that every good team needs to win over the course of a 162 game schedule. The long-time adage states that the commitment to defense wins championships; Ryan wouldn’t have it any other way.

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