2011 Season Preview: Brett Gardner

Greinke made his case for a Yankees trade
Spring Training Game Thread: A Look At A.J.

As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will go up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

(Seth Wenig/AP)

“I guarantee you, [the Yankees] outfield next season will not be Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner.” – Ken Rosenthal on December 22, 2009.

To a distant observer, Rosenthal’s proclamation might have seemed accurate. Brett Gardner is hardly anyone’s idea of a left fielder, and these are the Yankees. They weren’t going to settle for a slap-hitting speedster in a position normally reserved for power bats, were they? Even when they had Johnny Damon out there in 2008 and 2009 he provided a decent amount of power — his .183 ISO in those two years ranked ninth among left fielders. With options, including Matt Holliday, still on the market, surely the Yankees would seek an upgrade.

Yet to the close observer, the idea of starting the season with Gardner in left field didn’t seem that absurd at all. The Yankees clearly liked the kid. They gave him the starting center field job out of camp in 2009, and even though he played his way out of it, he made an impressive bounce back after April. From May 1 through season’s end Gardner hit .286/.372/.413 in 219 PA. That’s a fairly small sample, of course, but there was definitely something in Gardner’s game that made him seem appealing.

The Yankees, of course, went into the season with Gardner starting in left, and the experiment went as well as anyone could have hoped. He hit .277/.383/.379 and played what might have been the best defense at his position. It added up to 5.4 WAR, sixth among MLB left fielders (and that counts Aubrey Huff, who spend most of the season at first base). Even in terms of offense he matched up well, finishing with a .358 wOBA, seventh among MLB left fielders (again, with Huff included). This year, no one is questioning the Yankees decision to stick with Gardner in left.

Best Case

(Charlie Neibergall/AP)

As we’ll see throughout this preview, Brett Gardner might be one of the toughest Yankees players to peg. Intuitively, it doesn’t appear that his skill set should work. He’s a slap hitter who draws much value from his patience at the plate. But why wouldn’t pitchers just throw him strikes? The worst he can do in most cases is hit a single. But for Gardner, that’s a pretty valuable outcome.

Whatever the actual case, pitchers don’t appear to throw Gardner strikes any more frequently than they do anyone else. He uses that to his advantage, drawing more than his share of walks. In fact, of the 216 times he reached base last year, 184 were a single, walk, or hit by pitch. But when you combine that with 47 stolen bases , those singles become more valuable. Of the 27 times Garnder was standing on first when a single was hit, he advanced to third base 10 times. Of the 9 doubles hit in that situation, Gardner scored six times. First base is not a bad spot for him to stand.

The question, of course, is not of what Gardner has done, but what he can do. Does he have the skills to repeat his performance from 2010? From the looks of his progression through the professional ranks, it appears so. He displayed a distinct trend starting in AA. He would get a mid-season promotion and falter a bit at first. Then he’d start the next season at that level and thrive. This carried over to the majors. He debuted with 141 PA in 2008 and sported a paltry .282 wOBA. In 2009 he stumbled out of the gate, but as noted above he recovered and finished the season with a .337 wOBA. Last year it was .358, which represented further improvement. Can he take another step forward this year?

As we’ve written many times, Gardner’s numbers took a dive after he was hit on the wrist on June 27. From that point forward he hit .232/.363/.340. Some of that might have been natural regression. Still, I don’t think his absolute ceiling is far off from the .321/.403/.418 he was hitting after getting hit on the 27th. A .300/.400/.400 line is certainly possible if he remains healthy all season.

Worst Case

(Bill Kostroun/AP)

Gardner has suffered hand and wrist injuries in each of the last two years, which is always cause for concern. He doesn’t rely on power, so if his is sapped it shouldn’t make much of a difference. But as he showed in the second half of last year, simply swinging the bat can become a chore. He took more and more pitches — good pitches, too — as the season wore on. IT sometimes played to his advantage, but more and more often he was caught looking at strike three.

After undergoing wrist surgery this off-season, Gardner appears to be back in form. But what if he suffers another injury, whether via bean ball or by sliding hard into a base, as he did in 2009? If that happens early in the season it could be an enormous detriment. But regardless of when it happens, it will certainly affect him at the plate. For a player who relies so much on a small skill set, that can be a crippling problem.

Beyond injury, there’s a chance that Gardner just got incredibly lucky in the first half of 2010. I’m not sure I totally buy that, but it’s certainly possible. What, then, is his floor in terms of production? I think it’s safe to say that he’ll always hit better than he did in 2008. Could he hit worse than in 2009? Could he turn in a Reggie Willits type season, .258/.341/.302? Again, I suppose that’s possible. Given what we’ve seen from Gardner, I’d say that’s absolutely the worst case.

What’s Likely To Happen

Not many hitters ever attain a .383 OBP, and even fewer sustain it. Given Gardner’s ability to slap singles and take walks, he can continue to hit that mark. If not, I don’t see him far below it. Here is how the projection systems see him:

Bill James: .275/.377/.371
Marcel:     .269/.357/.378
PECOTA:     .260/.357/.364
ZiPS:       .260/.356/.367
CAIRO:      .270/.358/.372

They’re all pretty much in the same range — except, of course, for James, where the projections always trend higher than the others. Still, if I were picking a most likely scenario for Gardner, that’s the one I’d choose. The others seem a bit pessimistic, perhaps because of Gardner’s high BABIP in 2010. But some players simply have that ability. For a guy who walks a lot, Gardner might be a guy who only swings at good pitches and therefore makes better than average contact (even if the ball will only go for a single). I think that when we’re getting down in to PECOTA and ZiPS range, we’re looking at something closer to his worst case.

At this time last year, none of us knew what to expect from Gardner in the upcoming season. This year we have something of a better idea, but the disconnect between Gardner’s appearance and his numbers leaves many of us skeptical that he can continue producing at an elite level. But given his history of improvement at each professional level and the possibility that he stays healthy all season, I think we’ll see something of a repeat performance out of Gardner.

Greinke made his case for a Yankees trade
Spring Training Game Thread: A Look At A.J.
  • I am not the droids you’re looking for

    I will take the Over on every one of those projections.

  • Rockdog

    Great piece, as usual. I had a quick question: Has anyone done a study to see how well the projection systems have actually projected results?

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      Sure, plenty have been done through the years, and the methodology is tweaked as needed. ZiPS has been the most accurate in the last three or four years.

      Projections aren’t predictions, remember. They’re not trying to tell you the future, just giving you an idea of a guy’s career path.

  • Gonzo

    FWIW, Marcel has his BABIP at .323 just under his .324 career average. Although it looks like he is improving. I hope he can continue his trend of getting better. IIRC, he would take time to adjust in the minors. Let’s hope he continues to adjust now that he’s at the pinnacle.

  • YanksFan

    And to believe some people scoffed when Cash said he was their version of Ellsbury.

    I like his approach at the plate & OPB of .370 w/ gold glove D & steals makes a very attractive player.

    • http://www.retire21.com first name only male (formerly Mike R. – Retire 21

      Gardner’s good, but he’s no Ellsbury. That kid is a future MVP candidate.

      /You can’t predict baseball’d

  • http://www.retire21.com first name only male (formerly Mike R. – Retire 21

    Gardner is just a high BABIP kind of player because of his speed. He can reach first on ground balls that would be outs for other players.

    • The Real JobaWockeeZ

      I didn’t research it but I doubt it affected his BABIP that much. How many outs did he beat out that weren’t on errors? Like 10-15 maybe?

      • Chris

        Last year Gardner had roughly 370 balls in play. With that sample size, the difference between a .340 BABIP and a .313 BABIP would be about 10 hits.

  • hogsmog

    Haha, I hadn’t scrolled enough down the page, and the beginning of the second paragraph read “As we’ll see throughout this preview, Brett Gardner might be one of the toughest Yankees.” :P

    • Nedro

      Anyone calculate a G.R.I.T. analysis on Gardy?

    • Nedro

      Anyone got a G.R.I.T. factor on Gardy?

      • Nedro

        Sorry. Damn Droid.

  • Sean C

    Gardner is one of my favorite Yankee players to watch. He is insanely valuable to this team in terms of production vs. dollars. I know too many Yankee fans that were clamoring for the signing of Crawford earlier this offseason. We already have a cost-controlled, in-house solution (albeit with less power), but give me Gardner over Crawford any day.

    • Nedro

      Totally with you. With his wheels, probably one of the most entertaining guys on the team. So exciting to watch him motor 1st to 3rd or whatever. Seems like a Crawford signing was all but a foregone conclusion last season, but I kept saying I didn’t think it would be that much of an upgrade, for the money. Hope he can keep it up. Love me some Gardner

  • David in Cal

    Nice article. I think Gardner has the possibility of repeating the first half of 2010, which would make him incredibly valuable.

    My one concern is the surgery. As I understand it, that’s not a common surgery and the results aren’t always good. I worry about the possibility that the surgery may not have helped Gardner, or may have even harmed him. But, other than medical worries, I think Gardner could be outstanding.

  • Accent Shallow

    I’m at least a little concerned about Gardner, as he has less of a margin for error than Swisher/Granderson, since he has much less power.

    Hopefully he’s better than those projections.

  • A fan

    Gardner was someone, for some unknown reason, that I completely latched onto and wanted nothing more than for him to stick – I really wanted him to get a fair shot last year, and he did not disappoint. I’m hoping for more of the same this season – really fun player to watch play the game.

    • Eric

      Oh my god! Me, too.

      For me, it started in 2009, around the time he hit that inside the park job.

  • Nogomo

    Gardy’s not hard to peg: he’s an excellent ball player and a total asset to the team. When he gets on base, things happen. Did you mention he gets a lotta infield hits? I can’t fathom how anyone would value Swisher over Gardner. Power is overvalued because you can’t count on it consistently. You win more consistently with guys that can get on base and steal, and who lock down their positions on D. Swish is at best an OK defender, cannot run and is too streaky a hitter for my taste, though I like him a lot too.

    • Eric


  • Monteroisdinero

    Love Gardy. My advice to him is once a month, swing at a first pitch just to keep the scouting reports honest.

    Most of the time he can get to a 3-1 count since he will take a strike almost every at bat. Only the best pitchers will go 0-2 on him. 3-1 is a great hitter’s count but he will still end up going to 3-2 most of the time.

    if I were an opposing pitcher I would be very frustrated facing Gardy.