Mike Jaggers-Radolf’s excellent post on Brett Gardner, and several of the comments it generated, got me thinking about how he was a player that virtually everyone who follows the minor league missed on (see Mike Axisa’s mea culpa here). In particular, I wanted to address several points raised in the comment section of the Gardner post, which formed the inspiration for this post. Tom Swift got my brain going by asking:
We should consider how it was that Gardner was not more highly thought of as he came up in the minors. My recollection is that the hype was much more about AJax than about Gardner. Is there something wrong with how we evaluate prospects? By we, I mean fandom, not the Yankees.
That question got me thinking about how everybody missed on Brett Gardner. Now, we didn’t miss on everything. We knew he had at least 70 speed (on the 20-80 scouting scale), was a good contact hitter, had decent plate discipline, and could play a good centerfield. We knew he had very little power, as evidenced by his whopping total of 4 home runs in his minor league career. But still, it was somewhat miraculous that a guy who walked onto the baseball team at the College of Charleston (not exactly a baseball powerhouse), was considered an overdraft as a 3rd-round pick out of college by the Yankees, and put together a solid but not amazing minor league career (but never being close to cracking the BA top 100 or the organizational top 5) has turned into one of the most valuable players on baseball’s most expensive team.
Scouting reports of Gardner as a minor leaguer seemed to largely typecast him as a speedy 4th-outfielder type who would get the bat knocked out of his hands once he faced some real major league pitching. His plate discipline, which noticeable from looking at his statistics, was largely chalked up to poor minor league pitching. After all, there’s no way a major league pitcher would a speedy singles hitter like Gardner, right? After walking 79 times in 2010, and being among the league leaders in pitches seen per plate appearance over the past few seasons, it looks like we can put that concern to rest.
In my opinion, Gardner was underrated in the minors for several reasons. One had to do with his physical appearence: his 5’10″ 185 lb. frame reminds nobody of an intimidating offensive threat, and more resembles Juan Pierre or Reggie Willits (two common comps for his potential ceiling), both useful players but ultimately limited enough offensively to prevent them from being legitimate starting-caliber players for the bulk of their career. These types of comps can often be very difficult to shake, and often become the lens through which the player is viewed for the bulk of his minor league career.
The second has to do with Gardner’s lack of minor league power. People who follow minor league prospects (myself included) are often intensely focused on power for both pitching and hitting prospects, and a guy who doesn’t have much home run power or a power fastball is often dismissed as a role player at best in the future. His plate discipline was noted, but it perhaps would have made more of an impression if it was accompanied by his pitches/at bat numbers.
Additionally, very few people saw Gardner’s elite defense coming. He was known to be an outfielder with top-notch speed, but he was criticized for not taking great routes to the ball. Instead, he often relied on his speed to bail him after making poor reads. Unlike his size or lack of power, this was ultimately a fixable defect, and fix it he did. Anyone who watches Gardner play left field today can see that his success is not only due to his blazing speed, but also to his quick reactions and great anticipation. Additionally, the lack of minor league defensive metrics make it hard to distinguish a good outfielder from an elite outfielder, where it might be easier to identify a good defensive catcher or infielder (where throwing is much more important).
So where does this leave us? Brett Gardner’s major league value is considerable, but a lot of that value is tied up in skills that are very difficult to quantify at the minor league level. As a result, he was consistently underrated throughout his minor league career. This brings me to the second question (also by Tom Swift): are there any Gardner-like players in the Yankee system that have been overlooked due to the current paradigm for evaluating prospects? Almost certainly. I’ll name a few guys who might be similarly overlooked, even if none of these players are likely to post a 6-WAR season anytime soon.
Offensively, overlooked guys (though less so these days) may have strong plate discipline, but a low batting average or unimpressive power production. Two guys immediately jump to mind here: Ramon Flores and Dante Bichette jr. Neither of these guys projects to have anywhere near the defensive value of Gardner, and both are projected to hit for more power, but both have shown an exceptional skill at drawing walks against minor league competition. Flores has walked 12.6 percent of the time in A-ball, while Bichette has walked in a whopping 18.5 percent of plate appearances in rookie ball. While these numbers may decrease as they move up, plate discipline tends to be a fairly sustainable skill. JR Murphy is another guy who has shown the ability to take a walk, though his stock is a little too high to be considered overlooked.
As for sleeper prospects with speed and defense, Ray Kruml and Melky Mesa spring to mind. They’re both in the same Trenton outfield, but they might have the speed to become valuable defensive outfielders if everything goes their way. They both have offensive shortcomings (and neither has shown any level of plate discipline resembling Gardner). Abe Almonte down in Tampa also has good speed and the tools to be a good defensive centerfielder (plus some decent plate discipline), but his inability to stay healthy or hit for average has held him back.
It’s hard to envision another Brett Gardner in the system, but of course, the minor league Brett Gardner was not projected to become the player he was today. It would be too strong to say he was an anomaly, but he is a rare case of a prospect being able to break through what was perceived to be his ultimate ceiling, and show significant improvements across the board. Whether it was the result of a tireless work ethic or untapped natural talents we’ll never know for sure, but it would be great for the Yankees to uncover some more Brett Gardner type prospects in the system. And as a prospector, I’ve definitely learned to pay closer attention to defense and plate discipline, even if they are difficult to quantify well at the minor league level.
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