The perils of projecting a young playerBy
In 2003, it seemed as though Scott Podsednik had broken out. Nine years after the Texas Rangers drafted him in the third round, he had a monster first full season in the bigs. Over 628 plate appearances he hit .314/.379/.443, ranking him second among NL center fielders in OBP and third in wOBA. It had been a long journey for Podsednik, a failed Rule 5 pick who eventually hit minor league free agency, and then waived by the team who signed him. But by 2003 Brewers fans had reason to be excited.
The production didn’t carry over to 2004, though. Podsednik, who had a .362 BABIP in 2003, saw that drop to .275 in 2004, which hampered his overall numbers. He fell to .244/.313/.364 and ranked fourth worst among qualifying NL center fielders in wOBA — and was further from the fifth worst than he was the absolute worst. He recovered to have a good season in 2005, but he’s been an inconsistent contributor since then. He had a hard time finding work in 2009, and is again many teams’ Plan B or C this winter.
Let this be a cautionary tale to those who extol the virtues of Brett Gardner. Yes, he put up good numbers in limited playing time during his first full big league season, but that’s hardly an indicator of what he’ll do next year. He had only 284 plate appearances in 2009, less than half the number of a full-time outfielder. That, plus his limited exposure in 2008, makes it difficult to project how he’ll hit in 2010. In other words, I wouldn’t buy CHONE, ZiPS, Bill James, or any other projection system on Gardner right now.
(Then again, I wouldn’t make any significant decisions based on projection engines. They might provide a good indicator of a player’s progression from year to year, but it’s nothing more than an indicator. This goes especially for young players, on whom we have much less available data.)
My main beef with the 2010 projections right now is how they assume Gardner will improve. Yes, that’s certainly possible. Many players improve in their second full major league seasons. But a player with Gardner’s skill set might find it difficult. Just look at his numbers in 2009 compared to Podsednik’s in 2003. They both had strikeout rates of around 16 percent, both had low isolated power marks (though Podsednik’s was about .020 better), and both had contact rates in the high 80s (though Gardner was about a percent better).
Podsednik and Gardner are similar in that they’re low-power, speedy center fielders who played to their strengths by taking a healthy number of walks — both had a walk rate of around 9 percent in their first full major league seasons. We often hear anecdotes of how this doesn’t bode well for the player’s future. Pitchers, unafraid of singles, will be more apt to throw strikes. Will this be true for Gardner?
It happened for Podsednik. In 2003 pitchers threw 49.8 percent of their pitches in the strike zone. In 2004 they threw him 56.2 percent in the zone. Podsednik maintained his contact rate, but predictably saw a dip in his walk percentage. He also hit far fewer line drives in 2004, dropping to 17.7 percent from 23.6 percent. That means more ground balls, which can be good, and more fly balls, detrimental for a low-power player like Podsednik. His fly ball rate rose by 3.5 percent and certainly factored in to his lower 2004 BABIP.
Brett Gardner, of course, is not Scott Podsednik. Maybe his second full season will play out differently than Podsednik’s. Maybe pitchers won’t make a similar adjustment, and Gardner can continue to walk at a good clip, allowing him to use his best asset, his speed, more frequently. But I don’t think that’s something we can count on. So many players of Gardner’s ilk — speedy, low power, mediocre contact rate — have struggled after initially succeeding.
So no, I don’t think that Gardner will be more valuable than Jason Bay in 2010. We have an idea of what Bay will produce. We do not really know what Gardner will do. Even though Gardner’s defense is easily superior to Bay’s, we still don’t have a good idea of how their offensive output will compare. I also think it’s way, way too early to just hand Gardner the center field job, especially after Melky Cabrera showed improvement in 2009. Yes, if his best case scenario plays out Gardner should get the nod over Melky. But it’s way, way, way too early to project that now. We just don’t have enough of an idea of how Gardner will produce over a full-time season.
For your own reference, here are three readily available projections on Gardner for 2010: