The season started slowly for both Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher, but both have managed to turn it around. Gardner got an earlier start, hitting his stride in late April and continuing through the present. It took Swisher another month to get into a groove, but now he’s resembling the player we saw the last two years. Right now Gardner and Swisher share an OPS, both at .779. That might make them appear equal in production, but they’ve gotten there in different ways.
Gardner, as it’s easy to imagine, has produced his numbers mostly one base at a time. Of his 91 times on base, 72 have been a walk, hit by pitch, or single. This gives him a .281/.360/.420 line, which is excellent for a guy with Gardner’s speed. Swisher, on the other hand, has used his normal combination of walks and extra base hits to accumulate his line. He has been on base 111 times, which includes 23 extra base hits, 48 walks, and three hit by pitches.
Is the fact that they share an OPS and indicator that they’ve been equals at the plate? Yesterday at FanGraphs Matt Klaassen examined the usefulness of AVG/OBP/SLG when we have better stats. OPS was fine for its time, but there are other measures, such as wOBA or Baseball Prospectus’s True Average, that put offensive events into better context. To that they’re also essential equals, with just one point of wOBA separating them.
So done deal, right? At this point they’ve produced nearly equal value at the plate according to both OPS and wOBA. But for the moment I’m not exactly satisfied with the answer, because wOBA does take stolen bases and caught stealings into account. That is not production at the plate (and I desperately wish for FanGraphs to move SB/CS to their baserunning stat next year and leave wOBA to plate production only). Stripping out baserunning, Gardner has a wOBA of about .341, while Swisher is at .348. Why the difference? Because at a time when offense is on the decline, Swisher’s power — a .167 ISO to Gardner’s .138 — has rendered him the superior hitter to this point, even though he slumped for the first two months.
At this point it might seem as though Gardner has been the better producer at the plate, since he turned around his season at an earlier point. But Swisher’s skill set has allowed him to make up the difference rapidly. It reveals a truth that we all know: Swisher is more valuable at the plate than Gardner. But it also reveals the further value in Gardner’s skill set. When we take stolen bases and caught stealings into account, Gardner’s wOBA is nearly equal to Swisher’s. When we add in UBR, FanGraphs’ base running stat, it becomes even more apparent that Gardner can compete with Swisher on an complete offensive level. Taking his batting and base running totals (from here), he’s four runs better than Swisher overall, 7.1 to 3.1.
Going forward, Swisher’s OPS figures to rise a bit, while Gardner might be near his peak. Maybe he adds some OBP, but Swisher has plenty of room to grow, given the skills he’s shown throughout his career. From an at-the-dish standpoint, by season’s end Swisher will almost certainly be the better hitter. But when we take into consideration the other part of offense, the bases, Gardner will make up some, if not all, of the difference. Different player provide value in different ways. The Yankees are lucky to have a good balance in this regard among their outfielders.
(And that doesn’t even mention defense, which is a completely different animal.)