What Went Wrong: Brett Gardner

Gardner likes to flip his bat after striking out (Paul Sancya/AP)

Mike set the stage in his post on what went right with Brett Gardner:

Gardner showed up to Dodger Stadium the proud owner of a .321/.401/.408 (.373 wOBA) batting line on the morning of June 27th, but he took a Clayton Kershaw fastball off his right wrist in his second plate appearance of the game.

In reaching that .373 wOBA, Gardner had pulled off a fantastic month of June. In his 72 PA he hit .383/.472/.533, by far the best month in his short career. The hit by pitch ended that month a few days early, but he was back in the starting lineup on July 1, ready to continue his assault on opponents’ pitch counts.

When a player sustains a wrist injury we often fear for his power. So many players have seen their power completely sapped because of wrist troubles. The Yankees’ very own Nick Johnson presented such a case. He underwent season-ending wrist surgery in 2008 and came back in 2009 to produce a mere .114 ISO; his career mark to that point was .187. Gardner appeared to put those fears to rest in just his third game back from the injury. He hit a grand slam off Toronto’s Ricky Romero. The next day he hit another homer, though that was of the inside-the-park variety.

One home run by itself, even from a player who does not normally hit them, does not necessarily signal something about a player’s condition. Those two homers — one of which should have been a caught ball — represented Gardner’s only extra base hits in his first 68 PA back from the injury. During that time he hit just .185/.353/.296. The next eight games saved his month; in those 29 PA Gardner hit three doubles, which improved his month-long ISO to .117, which ended up being his second highest of the season. He also produced a .141 ISO in September. So much for the wrist injury effect.

While a power dip might not have coincided with the wrist injury, a heightened strikeout rate did. Gardner did strike out in 20 percent of his AB in June, a jump from his 14.7 percent rate in the first two months, but given his other numbers that was fine. He was making fewer outs and hitting for more power. You trade that for strikeouts without hesitation. But from July through September Gardner lost those power and on-base gains while seeing a significant uptick in his strikeout rate, 26.3 percent. That’s not a good thing for a guy who can create favorable situations when he puts the ball in play.

Still, it’s tough to pin the causation of Gardner’s rising K rate on the wrist injury. As you can see, it had been a rising trend all season long:

Gardner's strikeout rate

Might pitchers have figured out to start throwing him more strikes, since he can’t do much damage with them? Conventional wisdom might suggest that, but Gardner’s walk rate says something else:

Gardner's walk rate

I’m not sure what this says about how pitchers approached Gardner. It might appear as though he got a lot less aggressive. Fewer pitches swung at could lead to more looking strikeouts and more walks at the same time. But that wasn’t necessarily the case with Gardner. Prior to June 27 Gardner saw 1,227 pitches. He swung at 391 of them, about 32 percent. After June 27 he saw 1,355 pitches and swung at 423 of them, 31.2 percent. The biggest difference is in his swing and miss percentage, which went from 2.4 percent before the injury to 3.5 percent afterward.

Gardner’s spray chart changed around the same time as the injury as well. We’re dealing with half-season samples, so there’s nothing definitive in what we’re seeing. But it does appear suspicious that Gardner stopped hitting as many balls to shallow center and right, spots at which he got hits in the first half.

First half spray chart
Second half spray chart

We can still see that patch in left where Gardner slaps the ball for base hits, but we don’t see that shallow belt that led to so many hits in the first half. What we do see, though, is a number of balls fielded deeper in the outfield. While the focus of this post is on the negatives of Gardner’s second half, the deeper hit balls has to be taken as a positive.

Again, while we’re looking at the wrongs of Gardner’s season, we need to put them in perspective. Part of his second half woes stem from a diving BABIP. As you can see:

Gardner's BABIP

I’m not sure exactly what caused the dip in BABIP. Maybe Gardner was swinging at poorer pitches — his whiff rate does suggest that. Maybe he was getting unlucky — the subsequent rise towards the end of the season does point in that direction. My best guess is that he just went through a normal slump, exacerbated by the wrist injury. Thankfully, towards the end of the season he started to look more like he did in April.

The title of this article is What Went Wrong, but that isn’t to say Gardner’s season went wrong. It actually went great on the whole. But there were some issues during the season that perhaps prevented him from performing to the best of his abilities. There is a sentiment among some fans — I’m not sure how widespread — that Gardner is nothing more than a fourth outfielder and that he hit over his head in 2010. I beg to differ. During the off-season I ranked among the “you can’t count on Gardner” crowd, but after watching him for a full season and examining him closely I feel differently. I think Gardner can be a solid option both in the lineup and in the field.

That isn’t to say that his season went perfectly. It obviously didn’t. In the second half he swung and missed more often, which led to more and more strikeouts. A guy with Gardner’s speed, and lack of power, needs to put the ball in play more often. But even as he faltered he ended up with a spectacular season. I don’t see any reason, barring injury, why we can’t expect him to improve in 2011.

What Went Right: Brett Gardner

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

It’s been quite some time since the Yankees had a true speedster in their lineup. Alfonso Soriano thrice stole 35+ bases in pinstripes, but his ability to flirt with 40+ homers annually is where the majority of his value lied. The Yanks tried to incorporate Brett Gardner into their lineup last season, but he eventually lost his job to Melky Cabrera and settled into more of a reserve role. With Johnny Damon in Detroit and Melky in Atlanta, Gardner was given another chance to earn a full-time job in the Yankee outfield, and this time he didn’t disappoint.

Gardner started his season off in style, slashing a single to the opposite field off Josh Beckett in his very first at-bat of 2010. Two innings later he battled the Red Sox righthander for eight pitches before slashing another single to left, this time driving in a run. Derek Jeter followed that up with a single to put men on the corners, and with Nick Johnson staring at an 0-2 count, Jeter broke for second and Victor Martinez tried to gun him down. Gardner broke for home instantly and beat the relay to the plate, making him the first Yankee to steal home since Alex Rodriguez back in 2004. Two at-bats into the season, a professional wreaker of havoc of born.

Coming into 2010 as a complete unknown, Gardner established himself as the Yanks’ everyday leftfielder by hitting .323/.397/.385 (.377 wOBA) through the season’s first month. He tormented opposing pitchers with his patience, leading baseball by seeing 4.61 pitches per plate appearance (Daric Barton was a distant second at 4.40) and finishing second in the league by making contact on 97.5% of the swings he took at pitches in the zone. His 2.9% swing-and-miss rate was the fourth lowest in the game. Gardner’s overall on-base percentage of .383 led the Yankees, and only two AL outfielders (Josh Hamilton and Shin-Shoo Choo) bested that mark. Once he reached base, he made life even more miserable for the fellas on the mound, swiping 47 bases (83.9% success rate). Only three big leaguers stole more.

A two-way threat, Gardner brought his Gold Glove caliber defense to leftfield in deference to the veteran Curtis Granderson, who assumed the centerfield job from the 2009 Gardbrera mash up. It’s only a one year sample, but Gardner led all of baseball, regardless of position, with a +22.3 UZR and +39.7 UZR/150. He ranked third in both John Dewan’s +/- system (+18) and in out-of-zone plays (78) among corner outfielders, and his defensive exploits earned him a Fielding Bible Award.

Gardner showed up to Dodger Stadium the proud owner of a .321/.401/.408 (.373 wOBA) batting line on the morning of June 27th, but he took a Clayton Kershaw fastball off his right wrist in his second plate appearance of the game. It all went downhill for Gardy offensively after that, and Joe will break it all down a little later today. But for now, this post is meant to acknowledge Gardner’s awesome season, not focus on his second half. At 5.4 fWAR he was the 19th most valuable player in all of baseball in 2010 and seventh most valuable among full-time outfielders. There’s no other way to describe it; Brett Gardner’s 2010 season was a smashing success for both him and the Yankees.

Mailbag: A long-term deal for Hughes?

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Tommy asks (via Twitter): do yanks go y2y with hughes or try to lock him up? wang theory or cano theory? what arb # will he submit?

With young players taking over the baseball landscape and becoming more and more important by the day, teams are locking up their best 20-somethings to long-term deals that accomplish two things. One, it gives the team some cost certainty since the arbitration process can be tricky. Secondly, and more obviously, it gives the player financial security in exchange for the chance of large arbitration paydays. There’s definitely something to be said for being set for life before your 30th birthday. The guys over MLBTR recently put together two posts looking at why young starters are extended and why they aren’t, so make sure they give those a read. Teams are basically trading increased risk for potential savings.

Phil Hughes is arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason, so the days of him being a cheap player pulling down a salary in the mid-six figures are over. He’s got a healthy amount of big league experience to his credit (369 IP to be exact) and will now be making a salary more in line with his talent. Granted, he’ll still be criminally underpaid compared to players on the open market, but that’s how this business works. I plan on looking at his arbitration case a little deeper in the next week or two, but expect him to earn somewhere in the neighborhood for $2M in 2011, or a 400% raise.

The Yankees have only signed one player to a long-term guaranteed contract through his arbitration years in the last decade or two, and that’s Robbie Cano. They signed him to a four-year deal worth a guaranteed $30M before the 2008 season, buying out his four seasons of arbitration eligibility (he was a Super Two) and potentially two more years of free agency if his 2012 ($14M) and 2013 ($15M) options are picked up. That deal looked a little questionable at first, but after Robbie’s stellar 2009 and 2010 efforts, it’s turned out to be a bargain for the pinstripers.

They also had the option of signing Chien-Ming Wang to a similar deal, which seemed like a logical thing to pursue on the heels of his consecutive 19 win seasons. Arbitrators love wins, so CMW had the goods to land himself a nice payday. Instead the Yanks went year-to-year with the righty, and ended up saving themselves millions after he broke down rather catastrophically, starting in the 2008 season.

That’s generally been the team’s policy, to go year-to-year and minimize the risk. They certainly have the financial wherewithal to pay large arbitration raises and I’m sure they’ll happily do so for productive players, but they’re also covering their asses in case of a physical breakdown or inexplicable ineffectiveness. Just looking around the league, contracts given to young pitchers have been hit or miss. For every Adam Wainwright (four years, $15M) there’s a Rich Harden (four years, $9M), an Ian Snell (three years, $8.6M) for every Jon Lester (five years, $30M), a Nick Blackburn (four years, $14M) for every Ubaldo Jimenez (four years, $10M). They all seem like great ideas at the time, but not too many of them end up being worth it for the team.

There’s really no reason to expect the Yankees to buy out Hughes’ arbitration years with a long-term deal right now, it goes against everything they’ve done in the past. Cano was the exception, not the norm. And it’s hard to blame them. Like I said, they’re protecting themselves by remaining flexible with his contract situation year after year. You’re not going to find a bigger Phil Hughes fan than me, but given how young he is (especially coming off a career high workload), there’s no reason for the team to lock themselves into a deal just yet. For now, just sit back and enjoy watching the kid pitch. Let the Yanks worry about his contract status.

Kontos takes a beating in Arizona

Keith Law provides a little blurb on Manny Banuelos from his outing in Saturday’s Rising Stars Showcase (Insider req’d)…

… a ridiculous changeup that had plus arm speed and hard, late fading action, and he touched 94 as well. I don’t see much physical projection with Banuelos, who is already pretty maxed out physically (unless he gets taller — he is just 19), but his feel for pitching and fastball command are extremely advanced and tightening his curveball would give him three above-average or better pitches too.

Sounds good to me.

AzFL Phoenix Desert Dogs (16-8 loss to Peoria) this team stinks, seriously
Brandon Laird, DH: 1 for 5, 1 R, 1 2B, 2 RBI, 1 K
Joe Pirela, 2B: 0 for 5, 1 K – .175/.224/.206 … it’s a hitter’s league!
Craig Heyer: 2 IP, 3 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 5-0 GB/FB – 24 of 42 pitches were strikes (57.1%)
George Kontos: 0.2 IP, 5 H, 8 R, 8 ER, 3 BB, 0 K, 2-0 GB/FB – half of his 34 pitches were strikes … allowed two homers too, but at least one of the walks was intentional … this is bad George, very very bad
Ryan Pope: 1.1 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 0 K, 1-2 GB/FB, 1 E (throwing) – 19 of 29 pitches were strikes (65.5%)

The Boss and Billy up for Hall consideration

Even in death, George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin remain linked. The two headline a list of 12 individuals under consideration for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame as part of the Expansion Era ballot in front of the veterans committee this year. Results of the voting will be announced during the Winter Meetings on December 6 at 10 a.m.

To gain entrance into Cooperstown, candidates must receive votes on at least 75 percent of the 16 ballots casts, and George and Billy join ten other former players on this year’s slate. Also up for consideration are former players Vida Blue, Dave Concepcion, Steve Garvey, Ron Guidry, Tommy John, Al Oliver, Ted Simmons and Rusty Staub; and executives Pat Gillick and Marvin Miller. Of the 12, only Martin and Steinbrenner are deceased.

The Expansion Era ballot is something of a new creation. To ensure more veterans earn their spots in the Hall, the Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors opted this year to split baseball’s history into three eras with a three-year cycle. This year, the Expansion Era (1973-present) receives consideration. Next year, Golden Era (1947-1972) baseball folks will get their due, and in 2012, Pre-Integration (1871-1946) candidates will be up for a vote. If the Boss, for instance, isn’t elected this year, he won’t get another shot until 2013.

“Our continual challenge is to provide a structure to ensure that all candidates who are worthy of consideration have a fair system of evaluation. In identifying candidates by era, as opposed to by category, the Board feels this change will allow for an equal review of all eligible candidates, while maintaining the high standards of earning election,” Jane Forbes Cook, chair of the Hall, said.

Those who will consider the ballot include: Hall of Fame members Johnny Bench, Whitey Herzog, Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer, Tony Perez, Frank Robinson, Ryne Sandberg and Ozzie Smith; major league executives Bill Giles (Phillies), David Glass (Royals), Andy MacPhail (Orioles) and Jerry Reinsdorf (White Sox); and veteran media members Bob Elliott (Toronto Sun), Tim Kurkjian (ESPN), Ross Newhan (retired, Los Angeles Times) and Tom Verducci (Sports Illustrated).

Interestingly, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America put forward the ballot, which means that many of the people who relied on George Steinbrenner for copy consider him at least worthy of consideration. For us, this isn’t the first time we’ve pondered Steinbrenner’s role in baseball history and the merits of his career. In fact, on the week of his 80th birthday and shortly before his passing, I explored this very topic. Both Wallace Matthews and Filip Bondy said the Boss should be in Cooperstown. I wasn’t as sure:

When George’s health started to slip away, the tributes came out in full. Matthews, who doesn’t want to limit the Hall of Fame to only those who were “exemplary human beings,” says Steinbrenner should be in Cooperstown because of his contributions to the game. The Yankees, through their spending, have radically changed baseball economics, and even when the game off the field shakes down to 29 clubs facing off against George’s dollars, Steinbrenner’s clubs have kept on winning. TV deals are more lucrative because of him, and record-breaking crowds flock to see the Yanks both at home and on the road. What’s good for baseball is, after all, good for baseball.

But George isn’t an easy man to pigeonhole. He violated campaign finance laws and was suspended after he sent a private investigatory to spy on Winfield. He was a cranky and temperamental owner whose need to have his finger stirring the pot probably cost the Yankees more championships during his reign than they won. Some would say he ruined the game with his spending.

The question, I said then, remained open-ended, and four months after his death, it’s still as muddied. He changed baseball, some would say for the better, others for the worse. But it might boil down to one simple fact: If Marvin Miller isn’t elected to the Hall of Fame, neither should George Steinbrenner. If Miller gets in, all bets are off.

Open Thread: Yankees on Twitter

I don’t know how many of you out there use Twitter, but it’s turned into the go-to place for up-to-the-second news and information. Not just about baseball either, though that’s mostly what I use it for. Anyway, I wanted to compile a list of all of the Yankee players and prospects on Twitter in case you missed any of them, so here it is…

The Yanks’ 2009 fifth rounder Caleb Cotham was on Twitter for a while, but apparently he deleted his account at some point. Oh well. You can also follow David Robertson‘s wife Erin (@ERob3) and Swish’s better half JoAnna Garcia (@JoAnnaLGarcia). Here’s the full list of MLB players with verified Twitter accounts. I recommend David Price, Will Rhymes, and the king of big leaguers on Twitter, Logan Morrison. Obviously some are more active than others.

As for the individual teams, you of course have the big league club (@YankeesPR), plus five minor league affiliates: Triple-A Scranton (@SWBYankees), Double-A Trenton (@TrentonThunder), High-A Tampa (@TampaYankees), Low-A Charleston (@ChasRiverDogs), and Short Season Staten Island (@SIYanks). They’ll tweet lineups, injury news, signings, stuff like that. If there are any Yankee players or related personnel you know of that aren’t mentioned above, well quit holding out and post them in the comments.

Oh, and follow everyone at RAB too. There’s me (@mikeaxisa), Ben (@bkabak), Joe (@joepawl), Steve (@SteveH_MandAura), and then @RiverAveBlues and @RABFeed. The former is for quick comments, discussion, and random links, the latter automatically tweets a link whenever a new post goes up.

Once you’re done with that, use this sucker as your open thread for the evening. MNF has the Steelers at the Bengals, and that’s pretty much it for sports. Talk about whatever you want, just be cool.

Miller, Morgan out at ESPN Sunday Night Baseball

The rumors have been bubbling for weeks, and Richard Sandomir of The Times has the scoop: After 20 years as the Worldwide Leader’s lead baseball team, Joe Morgan and Jon Miller are out at ESPN. Morgan’s contract has not been renewed, and Miller has been asked if he wants to stay on as the network’s radio voice for its baseball slate. Sandomir reports that Miller and Morgan will likely be replaced by Dan Shulman, Orel Hershiser and Bobby Valentine, if he’s not chosen to manage a Major League franchise.

“We’ve decided to make a change and introduce new voices and new perspective,” Norby Williamson, an ESPN executive vice president, said to The Times. “Twenty one years is an eternity in this business. And today is about acknowledging the contributions they made to the franchise.” I guess Ken Tremendous and Co. can rest easy now.