How many over the typical replacement player does Brett Gardner provide the Yankees? That’s a tough question to answer. One of the best easily accessible methods to determine this is fWar, over at Fangraphs. Fangraphs will tell you that Gardner was worth 5.1 wins over replacement in 2011, and 6.1 in 2010. A lot of people think that this doesn’t pass the smell test, since it would make Brett Gardner right about as valuable as Robinson Cano. Intuitively, that doesn’t make a lot of sense to us.
The problem lies in measuring defense. That’s been the hardest thing for people to measure for a long time. Scoring runs is easy to measure, because the batters are solely responsible over the long run. Preventing runs, on the other hand, comes from a combination of the pitcher and 8 defenders in the field. How much credit do the defenders get, and how much credit do the pitchers get?
Fangraphs uses Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), which has its problems. UZR, in the basic explanation, takes the number of plays that could possibly be made by a defender and divides it by the number of plays that they successfully make, then converts that into runs and compares it to other players at the position. Brett Gardner has consistently posted a very high UZR score of 31 UZR / 150 games, or between 3 and 3 and a half wins per season.
That’s probably not news to many people reading this site. UZR has its problems, but I don’t think that Brett Gardner suffers from those problems. UZR is prone to sample size issues. Because there are 9 fielders (including the pitcher) in the field, even a 162 game season isn’t a sufficient enough sample size to overcome random statistical noise. That’s why we shouldn’t trust Alex Rodriguez’s 4.2 fWar this season, despite playing so few games and not hitting as well as he usually does. His defense improved, but there’s not enough of a sample size in his 2011 UZR to make the judgement that he would be worth +20 runs on defense over 150 games. That’s too big of a jump to believe.
However, I don’t think that UZR’s normal problems apply to Brett Gardner. Gardner has been a consistently excellent defender for three years now, and our eyes confirm this. There’s no reason to doubt that he’s one of the best, if not the best, fielder in left field.
What about that left field thing? I’ve heard a lot of people say that Gardner’s UZR is an illusion, because he plays left field, and is thus compared to other left fielders. He makes a ton of plays, and that raises his average far above mediocre competition. My problem with this critique is that it doesn’t make any sense. Sure, Brett Gardner should probably be a center fielder. His skills would still be strong (possibly Gold Glove caliber) in that position, but he’d likely be in the +10 to +15 range, not +30. While that may make some sense, its also worth remembering that he’d be compared to different replacement players. Simply manning left field gives Gardner a -5.8 run positional adjustment. Curtis Granderson’s time in center field earned him a 2.2 run adjustment. The LF-CF thing evens out for the most part. If anything, his value would actually increase in center, given the marginal increase in opportunities.
Here’s the real leg to stand on if you think Brett Gardner’s value is overstated: left fielders haven’t hit much lately. Brett Gardner, of course, is one of those light-hitting left fielders, but he’s was actually better than the average LF in 2011, who hit .251/.311/.393. Left field was the second-lightest hitting position after catcher. That’s not going to last for long. Gardner’s value will take a hit over time as the average left fielder stops being a hole in the lineup and starts providing offense again. But that doesn’t mean that Gardner’s real value is low to a team. We can only really compare these things against the league’s competition. And even given that kind of regression to the mean, Gardner would still be a very valuable player.
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