Commentary

Teixeira a defensive wizard for Yankees

First baseman making up for his lack of offense this postseason with stellar defense

Originally Published: October 22, 2009
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira has shown a defter touch with leather than wood this month, so it's fitting that his most historically noteworthy moment of the 2009 postseason came in the field rather than the batter's box.

[+] EnlargeMark Teixeira
Rich Pilling/Getty ImagesMark Teixeira is among the best defensive first basemen in the game.

The play in question occurred in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, after Angels outfielder Bobby Abreu carelessly rounded second base on a double against Phil Coke. Yankees center fielder Melky Cabrera retrieved the ball and hit cutoff man Derek Jeter, who spun and fired to Teixeira to nail Abreu on his way back to the bag.

It was only the second 8-6-3 putout in Major League Baseball postseason history -- and the first since the 1951 World Series between the Yankees and New York Giants. For trivia fans, Willie Mays, Alvin Dark and Whitey Lockman combined to cut down Allie Reynolds in that one.

Teixeira smiled when informed of his involvement in a statistical rarity.

"We're always looking to get that extra out," he said. "Derek's done it his whole career, and all infielders can look at what he's done and learn from it. So that's neat. It's really cool."

Among scouts, opponents and the teammates who watch Teixeira's glove work with regularity, "neat" and "cool" rank among the more restrained adjectives making the rounds.

After leading the American League with 39 homers, 122 RBIs and 344 total bases to inject himself in the MVP debate, Teixeira has had a trying postseason at the plate. True, his 11th-inning walk-off homer against Minnesota reliever Jose Mijares gave New York a 4-3 victory in Game 2 of the division series. But he's hitting .133 overall in the playoffs (4-for-30), with eight strikeouts and one extra-base hit.

Still, Teixeira has found a way to compartmentalize his frustration and make an impact with his glove. When he's not picking throws in the dirt, he's sprawling to catch wide throws and keep his foot planted on the bag. He has displayed range to both sides, a strong and accurate arm, and an unflappable demeanor when forced to react quickly in big spots.

"Just drape him in gold," said Nick Swisher, New York's right fielder and backup first baseman. "The thing that surprised me the most isn't necessarily his range or his ability to get to ground balls, but his ability to pick balls out of the dirt. Wow -- it's impressive. Those guys in the infield should be thanking him."

Teixeira came to appreciate the importance of defense as a youth, when his father, John, a former Navy pilot, stressed the importance of practice and tending to minor details. He recalls taking as many ground balls as swings in the batting cage in his teen years. At Mount Saint Joseph High School in Maryland, Teixeira played third base and shortstop, but he wore No. 23 in tribute to his favorite player, Don Mattingly.

Nick Swisher Just drape him in gold. The thing that surprised me the most isn't necessarily his range or his ability to get to ground balls, but his ability to pick balls out of the dirt.

-- Yankees RF Nick Swisher on teammate Mark Teixeira

Teixeira had a reputation as a fine defender when the Rangers selected him out of Georgia Tech with the fifth pick in the 2001 draft, and it has followed him to ensuing stops in Atlanta, Anaheim and New York. He won back-to-back Gold Glove Awards with Texas in 2005 and 2006.

Jeter learned to appreciate Teixeira's defensive acumen when they played together for Team USA in the 2006 World Baseball Classic.

"He has such a long wingspan. That's one thing," Jeter said. "And from playing with him in the WBC, you could tell he takes a lot of pride in his defense. I don't know what else you want him to do over there."

Teixeira's defense was a major selling point for agent Scott Boras in the free-agent sweepstakes this past winter. The Yankees ranked 25th in the majors in Baseball Prospectus' defensive efficiency rankings, which measure a team's ability to turn batted balls into outs, and general manager Brian Cashman was keenly aware of the need for an upgrade at first after watching Jason Giambi play 113 games at the position in 2008.

Teixeira has helped elevate the play of the entire New York infield, and the 2009 Yankees ranked a respectable 13th in defensive efficiency.

"He's not better than I thought he was," Cashman said of Teixeira. "He's exactly what I knew he was. He came into New York last year and single-handedly crushed us with his bat and his glove. He just smothered rallies with play after play after play."

Teixeira has given the Yankees a well-rounded package in exchange for their eight-year, $180 million investment. He appeared in 156 games this season and has averaged 151 per year in seven big league seasons. A switch-hitter, he posted a .951 OPS from the right side of the plate and a .911 mark from the left. He also slugged .502 on the road as a complement to his .627 slugging percentage at Yankee Stadium.

Cashman also said Teixeira has a "David Cone-like" ability to relate to the media. That's no small thing for a player whose big contract is going to make him a target for criticism when things go wrong. Even though Teixeira hasn't hit much in October, he's always standing by his locker ready to be accountable.

"He's very bright and articulate, and he knows how to communicate," Cashman said. "He knows the potholes to avoid, but he can give at the same time. He has a lot of common sense and intelligence. He understands his responsibilities don't just begin and end with playing ball."

As the past two weeks have shown, field awareness is part of the equation. On the aforementioned 8-6-3 putout, Cano ranged out toward center field as the Yankees' first relay man. Jeter lined up behind him, and Teixeira tended to his responsibilities as the trail man. You could say Teixeira was just doing his job. But fundamentals are so vital in the postseason that they tend to be magnified, both the good and the bad.

An NL advance scout said it's no accident Jeter and Teixeira are going to make plays in October that some others might not make.

"They're so alert," the scout said. "You know they're always going to be lurking around out there. If you're not careful, they'll pick your pocket."

Teixeira hasn't hit to expectations yet, but the Yankees lead the Angels 3-1, they're one win from the World Series and no one will accuse him of a failure to contribute. That's a tradeoff he'll take every time.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer