Over the last few days, you have read some well researched and cogently argued articles suggesting that Brett Gardner should start for the Yankees this season, and may actually be more valuable than a one dimensional player such as Jason Bay. I would like to spend a few minutes challenging that assertion. Joe Pawlikowski of River Ave. Blues has already touched upon some of the issues I would like to discuss, and I recommend his article highly.
The Sample Is Too Small
I would like to start by touching upon the defensive numbers. While Gardner grades out well in practically every defensive metric available, he has spent a total of 934.2 innings manning a major league outfield, spread over 138 games and 95 starts. Most defensive metrics need to be taken with a grain of salt until a sample as large as 3 seasons has been built up. Making comparative judgments about Gardner’s defense at this point is akin to reaching a conclusion about a player’s offense at the end of May. I think that it is fair to say at this point that Gardner’s defense is above average, but projecting him to be one of the best at his position in all of baseball is a misuse of metrics that are simply not equipped to support that sort of conclusion.
In regard to offense, again, the sample is 425 plate appearances, in which Gardner put up a .270/.345/.379 line. It is important to note that Gardner only started 63 games, and only faced lefties in 22% of his at-bats (27% of pitchers are lefthanders). To me, this suggests that Gardner had his spots picked for him, allowing his weaknesses to be minimized. I am not saying that he cannot improve upon his 2009 line. But I do think that it is hard to assume a natural progression from 2009 to 2010 should he be placed into an everyday role.
The Scouting Report
I know that I am typically a “numbers guy,” so I feel a bit uncomfortable reporting upon what I see, because as we all know, sometimes your eyes show you what you want to see. However, I think that any Yankee who watched the club daily will likely agree with most of the assertions I am about to make.
1) Gardner hits the ball in the air too often for a “speed guy.” His career GB/FB ratio is 1.45, which seems fairly high but in actuality needs to be a lot higher for a slap hitter with little power. A player who pops up 13% of his fly balls in the infield and beats out 16% of his groundballs in the infield needs to be hitting the ball on the ground a lot more (I just want to note that the small sample size issue remains relevant here as well. I am using the numbers to support my scouting report, but they do need to be taken with a grain of salt).
2) Gardner does not like to swing the bat. I think some of his walk rate is artificial because he often just keeps the bat on his shoulders. If the pitcher throws strikes, Gardner is almost certain to be in a tough count, and as pitchers learn this, he will walk less frequently. I do believe the numbers support this, as Gardner swings at a scant 35.4 % of pitches. As a point of reference, only 4 qualifying hitters swung less frequently than Gardner in 2009, and those hitters swung at pitches outside the zone less frequently than Gardner. Gardner also saw the most first pitch strikes of anyone in the top 10. Are these numbers definitive? Certainly not. But they do hint towards my suggestion: Gardner has more plate patience than he has discipline. As a fairly weak hitter who cannot make pitchers pay when they groove one over, Gardner may begin to see a ton of strikes early in the count. If that means he will trade some walks for hits, that would be fine. But if some of those walks begin turning into outs, Brett will lose some value.
3) Gardner does not make great reads in the outfield. He is incredibly fast and gets to some balls quicker than any player in baseball. His speed coming in also helps his arm play up. But he often finds himself taking meandering routes to balls, and does not seem very instinctual out there. I think his speed means that he will never be anything less than an above average outfielder, but his instincts may prevent him from becoming elite defensively.
Well, that is my case. I do not dislike Gardner and think he could be a starter for a lesser club. I am just not quite certain that he should be anything more than a 4th outfielder for the Yankees. At some point over the next few days, I’ll discuss Melky Cabrera and whether he could be sufficient in left field this season.
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