Speed, Defense, and the Possibly Not Fluky Power of Brett Gardner [2015 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the first three or four months of the 2014 season, Brett Gardner was the Yankees’ best position player. He signed a four-year, $52M extension in Spring Training and rewarded the team by hitting .284/.363/.467 (133 wRC+) with 15 homers in his first 462 plate appearances of the season. Gardner was a middle of the order hitter batting leadoff.

A late-season abdominal injury hampered Brett down the stretch — he hit .185/.232/.306 (46 wRC+) with two homers in his final 174 plate appearances — yet he finished the season with a still solid .256/.327/.422 (110 wRC+) batting line to go along with his typically strong left field defense. The abdominal injury was bad enough that Gardner had surgery after the season.

Coming into the 2015 season, Gardner is clearly a core player for the Yankees, and not just because he’s homegrown. He’s arguably their best all-around position player — no worse than their third best position player behind Jacoby Ellsbury and Chase Headley — and will occupy a prominent lineup spot for the third straight season, likely leadoff or the two-hole. That comes with a lot of responsibility.

Yankees Need: The Table Set

Regardless of whether he bats first or second, Gardner is going to be tasked with setting the tone for the offense. The Yankees don’t have as much power as they once did, so now their offense is built on stringing together rallies, running the bases well, and old school run manufacturing. That starts at the top of the lineup with Gardner (and Ellsbury). Get on, distract the pitcher, raise some hell on the bases, and wait for someone else to drive you in. That’s Brett’s offensive job in a nutshell.

Gardner Can: Get On Base, Maybe Steal More Bases

Not counting his injury shortened 2012 season, Gardner has posted .345, .344, and .327 OBPs in his last three full seasons. And, as I mentioned before, he was sitting on a .363 OBP in early-August last year before the abdominal injury more or less rendered him useless. That’s Gardner’s game right there. He doesn’t hit for a high average — he’s consistently been in the .255-.275 or so range as a big leaguer — but Brett has always posted an above-average walk rate (8.8% last year, 10.0% career) and been an on-base guy.

The on-base stuff isn’t much of a question going into the new season. Gardner’s not old and he’s been getting on base at a similar clip his entire career, so there’s not much of a concern things will change this year. He’s fairly predictable in that regard. Stealing bases is another matter. Gardner stole 47 and 49 bases in 2010 and 2011, his first two full seasons, and then only 24 and 21 bases in 2013 and 2014, his last two full seasons. Furthermore, his stolen base attempt rate (steal attempts per opportunity) has dropped from 23.3% to 25.8% to 14.3% to 10.4% in his last four full seasons.

For whatever reason, Gardner simply isn’t stealing as many bases as he once did. Part of that is age — a 29-30-year-old player probably won’t attempt as many steals (or be as successful) as the same player during his age 26-27 seasons — and I’m sure part of it is injury. Gardner attempted 19 steals in the first half and only seven in the second half last season due to the abdominal injury. There are multiple factors in play here, at least one of which (last year’s injury) is in the rear-view mirror. Gardner’s job is to get on base first and foremost, and while the days of 45+ steals are probably over, I’m hopeful he can get back over 30 steals in 2015 with good health.

Yankees Need: More Of That Power, Please

After hitting a career-high eight homers in 2013, Gardner more than doubled that total with 17 long balls last year. It wasn’t just a Yankee Stadium thing either — he hit eight homers at home and nine on the road. Nine of the 17 were classified as “plenty” or “no doubt” by Hit Tracker too, meaning they cleared the wall by at least ten feet. Were there some cheapies? Of course. That comes with the ballpark. Brett hit more than a few bombs though. It wasn’t all luck. I don’t think anyone is expecting Gardner to hit 17 homers again in 2015, but double-digits? Yeah I think the Yanks are counting on that.

Gardner Can: Pull The Ball, Ambush Fastballs

Since the start of the 2013 season, eleven of Gardner’s 25 homers have come on the first or second pitch of the at-bat. Eight of those eleven (and 18 of the 25 overall) have come on fastballs. It’s become clear these last two years that Brett will pick his spots to sit on a fastball early in the count and straight up ambush. He’s not a power hitter by trade, so pitchers usually try to get ahead with fastballs, and Gardner has reacted by sitting heater and trying to go yard on occasion. Not all the time, just sometimes.

Furthermore, Gardner has also learned how to pull the ball in recent years, allowing him to better take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch and maximize his power in general. Hitters generally hit the ball with the most authority when they pull it. Here are Gardner’s percentage of batted balls pulled to right field in the air over the years:

2008: 15.6% (141 PA)
2009: 19.4% (284 PA)
2010: 20.7% (569 PA)
2011: 17.9% (588 PA)
2012: 10.0% (37 PA)
2013: 22.0% (609 PA)
2014: 30.2% (636 PA)

He’s pulled more balls in the air these last two seasons — especially last season, when only eleven qualified hitters pulled the ball in the air more often than Gardner — and that’s led to the uptick in power. Former hitting coach Kevin Long helped Robinson Cano become a superstar by teaching him how to pull the ball with authority and it appears he may have done the same with Gardner. Remember, Gardner wasn’t hitting nothing but cheapies. Most of last year’s homers cleared the wall with plenty of room to spare.

Between his tendency to ambush fastballs early in the count and his newfound ability to pull the ball in the air, there’s reason to think Gardner’s power display last season is for real. Maybe he won’t hit 17 homers again, I’m willing to bet that was his career power year, but maybe he won’t be limited to single-digit homers going forward. That’s assuming new hitting coach Jeff Pentland doesn’t make any drastic changes.

Yankees Need: Dominate In Left Field

The Yankees have morphed into a run prevention team and that starts in the outfield with Gardner (and Ellsbury). Left field in Yankee Stadium is not small like right field, there’s a lot of ground to cover out there, so Gardner’s speed and range is not insignificant. His defense allows Ellsbury to shade towards right to cover for the range-challenged Carlos Beltran, so having Gardner in left also helps improve the defense in right-center. The Yankees are going to have to keep opposing hits and runs to a minimum next year to contend, and Gardner is a huge piece of that puzzle.

Gardner Can: Play Strong Defense

Anecdotally, Gardner played very good defense in left field lat year but wasn’t quite as outstanding as he was in left field from 2010-11. The various defensive stats agree too. Here are the numbers:

DRS UZR Total Zone
2010 +26 +25.8 +26
2011 +23 +26.1 +23
2012 (only 15 games)
+1 +0.5 -1
2013 Played CF
2014 +3 +2.3 +1

So yeah, in his first full season as a left fielder since 2011, Gardner’s defense last summer did not appear to be as good as it once was. That doesn’t mean it was bad. He just went from arguably the best defensive left fielder in the game to slightly above-average. Gardner is clearly still an asset in the field, but his days as an otherworldly defender may be over.

Yankees Need: Stay Healthy!

This is pretty straight forward. Because he is one of their better players, the Yankees need Gardner to stay healthy and on the field. The Chris Young/Garrett Jones platoon would be a capable fill-in left fielder but a downgrade on both sides of the ball, as would minor league options like Ramon Flores and Tyler Austin. Gardner’s important! The Yankees need him on the field as much as possible.

Gardner Can: Stay Healthy, Knock On Wood

Aside from last year’s abdominal injury (as far as we know) and the oblique strain he suffered last in September 2013, Gardner’s major injures have been flukes. He broke his thumb sliding into second base in 2009, needed a wrist debridement after being hit by a pitch in 2010 (he played through it in the second half and had surgery after the season), then suffered a bone bruise in his elbow making a sliding catch in 2012. Hopefully Brett avoids anything unfortunate like that and can stay on the field in 2015. The Yankees need him.

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Only wrong answer at top of the lineup is one that doesn’t include Ellsbury and Gardner

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

On the very first day of camp last week, Joe Girardi held his annual start of Spring Training press conference and discussed the importance of settling on a lineup, among other things. “Figuring out our batting order I think is something important, because there are some people we don’t know exactly where they are at, and there are obviously some new people in camp,” he said.

The middle of the lineup is where the most questions exist. Figuring out the best way to align the three through seven spots with Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann, Chase Headley, and Alex Rodriguez will be Girardi’s toughest challenge, and he needs to see those guys in games before making a decision. The top and bottom of the lineup should be relatively easy. Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner at the top, Didi Gregorius and Stephen Drew at the bottom. Boom, done.

Here’s where it gets interesting: is it better for the Yankees to bat Ellsbury leadoff and Gardner second, or vice versa? They are two extremely similar offensive players. If you don’t believe me, look:

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ HR BB% K% SB/CS wRC+ RHP wRC+ LHP
2014 Ellsbury 635 .271/.328/.419 107 16 7.7% 14.6% 39/5 97 130
2014 Gardner 636 .256/.327/.422 110 17 8.8% 21.1% 21/5 116 96
2012-14 Ellsbury
1,594 .282/.336/.412 104 29 7.2% 14.3% 105/12 109 96
2012-14 Gardner
1,283 .266/.338/.418 110 25 8.8% 20.9% 47/15 111 106

Like I said, they’re almost the same damn player. Ellsbury hits more singles, strikes out less, and steals more bases. Gardner draws more walks and hits for more power. Neither has a crippling platoon split either. (Girardi has said he has no problem batting them back-to-back even though they’re both lefties.) The end result is two players with almost identical offensive value overall.

Over the years, all sorts of statistical analyses have shown the best hitter should bat second, but when you have two guys this similar, deciding whether to bat Ellsbury leadoff and Gardner second or vice versa comes down to a matter of preference. We have to start nitpicking. They’ve both gotten on base at the same rate, so the default “he has a higher OBP so he should bat leadoff” tiebreaker doesn’t even apply.

I see it this way: Ellsbury not only steals more bases, he’s also the more aggressive base-stealer. We’ve all seen Gardner sit around and wait until the third or fourth or fifth pitch of the at-bat to take off. It’s annoying. Ellsbury gets on and goes. Ellsbury and Gardner get on base at the same rate, but Ellsbury will get himself to second base quicker, and that’s who I want leading off.

In addition to that, Gardner has a bit more power — he had a higher ISO than Ellsbury last year (.166 vs. .148) and over the last three years (.152 vs. .130) — and batting him second means there should be a few additional runners on base when he bats. That will help turn some of those solo homers — Gardner hit 17 homers last year and 14 were solo shots because he batted leadoff and the eight/nine hitters (Ichiro Suzuki, Brian Roberts, etc.) weren’t getting on — into multi-run blasts.

On the other side of the argument, we could say Ellsbury strikes out less than Gardner, meaning Girardi could be a little more creative with the better bat control guy hitting second. More hit-and-runs, that sort of thing. It’s an old school mentality but the Yankees are going to have to manufacture more runs that way this year. The three-run homers aren’t coming like they used to and Ellsbury’s contact skills (and both his and Gardner’s speed) is a weapon they can use.

Ellsbury was forced to hit third last year due injuries and whatnot, but he is totally miscast in that role. He’s at his best creating havoc in a table-setting role. Same with Gardner to slightly lesser degree. Unless the season gets underway and one guy is drastically outproducing the other, there’s no clear cut answer as to whether Ellsbury or Gardner should bat leadoff. The only wrong answer is the one where someone other than these guys hits first or second.

Ranking the 40-Man Roster: Nos. 6-10

Over these next two weeks we’re going to subjectively rank and analyze every player on the Yankees’ 40-man roster — based on their short and long-term importance to the team — and you’re inevitably going to disagree with our rankings. We’ve already covered Nos. 11-14, 15-16, 17-19, 20-25, 26-31, and 32-40.

(Patrick Smith/Getty)
Miller. (Patrick Smith/Getty)

As we enter the top ten of our 40-man roster rankings, we’ve reached the cornerstone players. The guys who are under contract or team control for multiple years and are expected to be key contributors going forward. Everyday players, no-doubt starting pitchers, late-inning relievers. The core of the roster.

Today we’ll cover Nos. 6-10, which are something of a mixed bag with three position players and two pitchers. But, again, these guys are all going to play major roles for the 2015 Yankees as well as the 2016 and 2017 Yankees, if not longer. Maybe not the stars of the show, but the best of the supporting cast. To the next group of rankings …

No. 10: Andrew Miller

2015 Role: High-leverage reliever. Maybe even closer. It remains to be seen exactly how the late innings will shake out, though there is no doubt Miller will factor into the eighth and/or ninth inning somehow. He’s left-handed but no lefty specialist — Miller is a very high-strikeout pitcher who dominates both righties and lefties. Joe Girardi won’t have to worry about platoon matchups when using his new bullpen toy.

Long-Term Role: The same, high-leverage reliever. The Yankees gave Miller a four-year contract worth $9M annually to replace David Robertson — Robertson got a bigger contract from the White Sox and New York gained a draft pick in the process — which maybe wasn’t the most popular sequence of events, but it was a sound baseball move. At age 29, Miller should have multiple peak years remaining before fading into a LOOGY later in his career. Then again, relievers age differently than everyone else. Either way, Miller was given that contract to be a factor in the late innings.

No. 9: Chase Headley

2015 Role: Starting third baseman. Make no mistake, the Yankees didn’t re-sign Headley to be a part-time player and Headley didn’t come back to the Yankees to be anything less than the starter at the hot corner. There is no third base competition between Headley and Alex Rodriguez. The job is Headley’s. The Yankees have made it abundantly clear.

As the starting third baseman, Headley will be expected to be a two-way threat. His defense is his best tool and he’s well-above-average at third. We all saw it last year. Headley’s offense is more of a question. He hit .243/.328/.372 (103 wRC+) with 13 homers overall last year, down from .250/.347/.400 (114 wRC+) with 13 homers in 2013 and .286/.376/.498 (145 wRC+) with 31 homers during his career year in 2012. The 2012 version of Headley ain’t coming back, but the 2013 version sure would be nice.

Headley. (Elsa/Getty)
Headley. (Elsa/Getty)

Long-Term Role: The third base job is Headley’s going forward even with 2013 first rounder Eric Jagielo slated to open the season at Double-A. (Jagielo has to work on his glovework before we have to worry about him displacing Headley.) The Yankees gave Headley a nice four-year contract worth $52M that I think we’re going to look back on next offseason and say it’s one hell of a deal. There are no good third basemen set to hit free agency these next few years.

Ideally, Headley would slot in not as a middle of the order guy, but into the sixth or even seventh spot of the lineup. He did hit .262/.371/.398 (121 wRC+) with six homers in 58 games for New York after hitting .229/.296/.355 (90 wRC+) with seven homers in 77 games for the Padres last summer, and there’s no doubt moving from spacious Petco Park into tiny Yankee Stadium will help his offense. Headley is right in the prime of his career at age 30, and hopefully the guy we saw in the second half is the guy we’ll see the next four years. Maybe with more power too.

No. 8 Brett Gardner

2015 Role: Everyday left fielder and table-setter for the rest of the lineup. Derek Jeter‘s retirement means Girardi is free to use Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury — two leadoff hitters by trade — in the one-two spots of the lineup, in whatever order that may be. Gardner’s role is simple: catch everything in left and get on base for the middle of the order. If he hits 17 homers again like he did last year, great! But I don’t think that’ll happen.

Long-Term Role: Same thing, everyday left fielder and someone who hits high in the order. The Yankees finally got with the times and put an end to that silly “no extensions” rule last spring by signing Gardner to a four-year, $52M contract. That extension starts this year — the four-year contract was tacked on top of his existing one-year deal for 2014 — which means Gardner is locked up through his age 34 season. The Yankees have always spoken highly of him and they put their money where their mouth is last year.

Eovaldi. (Eliot J. Schechter/Getty)
Eovaldi. (Eliot J. Schechter/Getty)

No. 7: Nathan Eovaldi

2015 Role: Innings eater. Eovaldi, who turns 25 next month, will have a full-time rotation spot this coming season, though sticking a number on him (No. 2 starter, No. 3 starter, etc.) is pointless. He’s going to get the ball every fifth day and be counting on for innings, like the 199.2 he threw for the Marlins last year.

There’s more to the story though. In addition to eating innings, the Yankees will work with Eovaldi to get better results out of his high-end stuff. It’s a development year as well. No soon-to-be 25-year-old pitcher is a finished product. The Yankees acquired Eovaldi with the idea of getting good innings out of him now and great innings out of him later.

Long-Term Role: Frontline starter, or close to it. That might be a little too much to ask. I’m sure the Yankees would be thrilled if Eovaldi developed in a consistent above-average innings eater, a guy good for 200+ innings and, say, a 3.50-ish ERA. They paid a good price to get him in a five-player trade with the Marlins – second baseman Martin Prado and the generally reliable David Phelps — and control Eovaldi’s rights through 2017. The plan is to get good innings this year and dominant innings by 2017. Eovaldi’s development is critical to the future of New York’s rotation.

No. 6: Brian McCann

2015 Role: Starting catcher and middle of the order power source. McCann’s first year in pinstripes was a mostly disappointing mixed bag. His defense was very good — he threw out 37.2% of attempted base-stealers and again ranked as one of the game’s elite pitch-framers — as expected, and while he provided power at the plate (team-high 23 homers), his overall .232/.286/.406 (92 wRC+) line was less than hoped.

This coming season, the soon-to-be 31-year-old McCann will again handle everyday duties behind the plate. The Yankees are also hoping for a rebound at the plate, that his poor 2014 season was simply the result of moving to a new league and having to learn an entirely new pitching staff. With any luck, McCann will be more comfortable this time around and get back to being the guy he was with the Braves, who put up a 119-123 wRC+ four times in five years before coming to New York. He’s expected to drive in runs and lots of ‘em.

McCann. (Elsa/Getty)
McCann. (Elsa/Getty)

Long-Term Role: There are four years left on McCann’s contract and the reality is that there aren’t many everyday catchers at age 34+, which McCann will be in the last year of his contract. Since 2000, only 41 catchers age 34 or over have managed 400+ plate appearances in a season, and most of them were flat out awful. Here’s the list.

At some point the Yankees will have to scale back on McCann’s workload behind the plate, and it could start this year. That doesn’t mean he won’t be in the lineup — McCann could always DH, and, as we saw last year, the team is open to sticking him at first for a day — just that they have to protect him from the wear and tear of catching. They knew that going into the contract.

So, McCann’s long-term role is starting catcher and mentor to John Ryan Murphy, the obvious in-house candidate to take over as the No. 1 catcher down the road (unless Gary Sanchez shows marked improvement behind the plate this year). The perfect world scenario would be a Girardi/Jorge Posada-esque apprenticeship, where McCann’s time behind the plate gradually decreases and Murphy increases these next four years. No matter how many games he catches, McCann’s power is an important competent for the team’s offense.

Coming Wednesday: Nos. 3-5. Three young players, all with less than two full years of MLB experience, expected to be part of the core of the next great Yankees team.

2014 Season Review: The Homegrown Outfielder

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

As bad as the Yankees were in 2013, it was a very good year for Brett Gardner. Curtis Granderson‘s broken forearm and Derek Jeter‘s fractured ankle guaranteed him the everyday center field and leadoff hitter jobs, roles he had filled on an off earlier in his career. For the most part he was a number nine hitting left fielder from 2008-12. Gardner took advantage by hitting a solid .273/.344/.416 (108 wRC+) with a career-high eight homers and 24 stolen bases in 2013.

The Yankees rewarded Gardner’s strong season by … displacing him from center field and the leadoff spot by signing Jacoby Ellsbury to a gargantuan contract. Back to left field and the bottom of the order he went. But! The Yankees actually did reward Gardner’s strong season by giving him a nice four-year contract extension worth $52M in Spring Training, a few months before he was scheduled to hit free agency. Signing Ellsbury was about adding a very good player. Extending Gardner was about keeping a very good player.

Of course, things don’t always go according to plan, and Gardner wound up spending the majority of the 2014 season hitting leadoff anyway. He opened the year hitting seventh or eighth on most nights, but a combination of injuries to middle of the order hitters Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira forced Joe Girardi to bat Ellsbury third, clearing the leadoff spot for Gardner. One hundred and seven of his 141 starts this year came atop the order.

Gardner was New York’s second best player behind Robinson Cano last year, and for a big chunk of the first half, he was the team’s very best player in 2014. He hit .279/.347/.349 (100 wRC+) with a homer and seven steals in April before really hitting his stride in early-May. Starting on May 3rd — arbitrary endpoint alert! — and continuing though August 4th, a span of 82 team games, Gardner hit a stellar .292/.370/.506 (145 wRC+) with 14 homers and eleven stolen bases. Think about that for a second.

Okay, ready to continue? Miguel Cabrera hit .313/.371/.524 (147 wRC+) this past season. Gardner hit approximately that over a stretch of games equal to half a season while hitting homers at a 28-per-162-games pace. That’s a thing that actually happened. Gardner put up middle of the order numbers from the leadoff spot for a three-month chunk of time. During one series against the Rangers at the end of July, he managed to hit four homers in three games:

Date Tm Opp Rslt PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS wpa_bat” data-filter=”1″ data-name=”Win Probability Added”>Win Prob. Added
Jul 28 NYY @ TEX L,2-4 5 2 3 0 0 2 2 0 0 0 0 .276 .352 .437 .789 0.224
Jul 29 NYY @ TEX W,12-11 5 3 4 2 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 .283 .357 .455 .812 0.340
Jul 30 NYY @ TEX L,2-3 4 1 1 0 0 1 1 0 2 0 0 .283 .356 .460 .816 0.008
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/16/2014.

Two of those homers — the July 28th game — came off Yu Darvish, who Gardner had taken deep a week earlier as well. That series earned Gardner AL Player of the Week honors. On August 4th, the final day of this cherry-picked swath of games, Gardner’s season batting line sat at .286/.364/.468 (134 wRC+) with 15 homers and 18 steals in 22 attempts.

Did it last? Of course not. Gardner played through some sort of abdominal strain for most of the second half and hit a weak .159/.216/.217 (18 wRC+) in his final 40 games and 78 plate appearances of the season. That uglified his season batting line and dragged it down to .256/.327/.422 (110 wRC+) overall. That’s still pretty darn good, but not nearly as impressive as it was in early-August. The abdominal injury, which apparently was so bad it required offseason surgery, really ruined the final two months of his year.

Obviously, the power numbers were the most surprisingly part of Gardner’s season. His previous career high was eight homeruns set last summer. He more than doubled that and smashed 17 dingers in 2014. Some of them were Yankee Stadium cheapies of course, but Hit Tracker says 13 of the 17 would have been out in at least half the 30 ballparks. Gardner’s average homer distance was 385 feet, on par with Yoenis Cespedes (387.5 feet) and longer than 37-homer man Chris Carter (384.1 feet). He hit the Yankees’ very first homerun of the season — in their sixth game! — and he also hit the 15,000th homer in franchise history on September 21st. (No other team has even 14,000 dingers.)

I don’t think it’s a coincidence six of the 17 homers came within the first two pitches of the at-bat or that 13 of the 17 came on fastballs — Gardner will straight up guess fastball and try to ambush a pitch on occasion, and every so often he runs into one. That hasn’t only resulted in more homers either, this approach has led to more doubles and triples as well. Gardner and hitting coach Kevin Long acknowledged giving the ambush approach a try early last year, and look:


Source: FanGraphsBrett Gardner

Gardner’s power production has jumped noticeable the last two seasons. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still nothing more than a league-average power producer in terms of ISO, but Gardner was a pure singles hitter from 2008-12 who can now go yard if the pitcher makes a mistake or gives him the fastball he’s looking for. That makes him a lot more dangerous at the plate. I have no idea if Gardner will ever hit 17 homers again but that’s a conversation for another time. He hit them in 2014.

In the field, Gardner appeared to be something less than his usually awesome self, both according to the eye test and the various defensive stats. He wasn’t bad by any means in left field, but he went from being truly elite in 2008-12 to being just a tick better than average in 2014. That could be the result of a million things. Gardner could legitimately be losing a step in the field, or it could have been a down year defensively. Those happen just like down years at the plate. Maybe the adjustment he had to making moving back to left after playing center isn’t as easy as we think. Who knows. Either way, Gardner was an asset in the field but not otherworldly.

Overall, Gardner was again one of the team’s best players on both sides of the ball this past season. He led Yankees’ regulars in OPS (.749), OPS+ (111), SLG (!) (.422) and wRC+ (110) while ranking either second or third in homers (17), hits (142), doubles (25), steals (21), walks (56), total bases (234), AVG (.256), and OBP (.327). Had it not been for the abdominal injury, chances are Gardner would have led the team in a bunch of those other categories as well. He’s become a rock solid player for the Yankees and is a key part of the team as they try to get back to the postseason.

Brett Gardner underwent core muscle surgery last month

Brett Gardner underwent core muscle surgery to repair his right rectus abdominis muscle on October 16th, the Yankees just announced. The surgery was performed by Dr. William Meyers at the Philadelphia Vincera Institute in Philadelphia, PA. The team didn’t give any details about Gardner’s rehab timetable, but his agent told Dan Barbarisi it’s not serious and he will be back to 100% this month. Gardner played through an abdominal injury for most of the second half.

2014 Season Review: The Outfield Defense

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Yesterday afternoon, we looked at the mess that was the Yankees’ infield defense this past season. It wasn’t a mess all year, just most of the year. Things got substantially better once Chase Headley, Stephen Drew, and Martin Prado were acquired at the trade deadline. By then it was too late though. The damage had already been done the first four months of the season.

The outfield defense is another matter. The Yankees built a strong defensive outfield by pairing Jacoby Ellsbury with Brett Gardner, two of the best outfield glovemen in baseball. The generally immobile Carlos Beltran was slated for right field but the plan was to replace him with the still solid Ichiro Suzuki in the late innings, so the damage would be minimized. Ellsbury and Gardner were going to be the stars of the outfield show.

Because of injuries and ineffectiveness and all that, the Yankees had three players (Beltran, Ichiro, Alfonso Soriano) start at least 20 games in right field in 2014. Gardner was the only player to start 20+ games in left field (Chris Young started 16) and Gardner and Ellsbury were the only players to start 20+ games in center — Gardner started exactly 20 and Ellsbury started 138. Gardner and Ellsbury started in the outfield together in 120 of the team’s 162 games.

Overall, the Yankees’ outfield ranked 20th in baseball at -11 DRS and 18th with -7.1 UZR, which doesn’t pass the sniff test. Ellsbury was hit with -5 DRS and +0.5 UZR this year — one-year sample, yadda yadda yadda — continuing a recent trend of Yankees’ center fielders grading out poorly while playing alongside Gardner. It happened with Curtis Granderson a few years ago as well. I don’t buy Ellsbury being an average defender (per UZR) and certainly not a below-average one (per DRS). He was excellent. Right? I’m not the crazy one. DRS and UZR are.

For the hell of it, here are Gardner’s (left field only) and Ellsbury’s defensive spray charts from this past season:


Source: FanGraphs

Source: FanGraphs

One of these days commoners like me will be able to put together defensive heat maps that compare players — or entire outfield units — to the league average defensively. Something like this. Alas.

Anyway, those big blobs of green and spots of red doesn’t really tell us much. They look kinda cool if you know what you’re looking at, but that’s about it. Here are some more straight forward numbers on balls hit to the outfield. This table includes routine pop-ups, scalded line drive, and regular ol’ fly balls. If it made it to the outfield in the air, it’s included here.

Total Plays NYY BABIP MLB BABIP MLB Rank
Left Field 566 .4629 .4528 16th
Center Field 656 .3247 .3671 2nd
Right Field 536 .4683 .4284 28th
All Fields 1,758 .4310 .4315 16th

More balls fall in for hits in right and left field than center because those are the pull fields — hitters tend to hit for the most authority when they pull the ball, not when they go back up the middle. More batters are right-handed — there were 1.27 plate appearances by a righty for every one plate appearance by a lefty in 2014, including switch hitters — and that’s why hitters around the league had a higher BABIP to left field than right. Make sense? Good.

Ellsbury ran down almost everything so it makes sense the Yankees had the second lowest BABIP on balls hit to center in baseball this year. Only the Desmond Jennings-led Rays were better (.3159). Beltran and Soriano and almost everyone else they ran out there in right field stunk defensively this summer, so it’s no surprise the team had the third highest BABIP on balls hit to right. Left field is where it gets a little weird, because the Yankees are only middle of the pack there in terms of BABIP even though Gardner manned the position.

We’re used to Gardner being a top notch defender. One of the best in baseball. The numbers have said so for years and our eyes agreed. That wasn’t so much the case this year though. Gardner was good, don’t get me wrong, but he wasn’t as good as he has been the last few years. There were a few more balls hit over his head in particular, and the spray chart above reflects that. Maybe it was just an adjustment period as Gardner moved back to left field after playing center last year. Maybe he’s just slipping in the field. Maybe he’s mad at the team for signing Ellsbury and displacing him. Who knows? Whatever it was, Gardner’s glove wasn’t as good as we’re used to seeing.

There’s more to being an outfielder than simply catching fly balls, of course. Not every ball will be caught, and that’s when the throwing arm comes into play. This postseason has exposed all baseball fans to Alex Gordon, who shuts the running game down even when he doesn’t make a throw. Opponents know his arm is strong and accurate, so they don’t even bother testing him. Throwing runners out is both sexy and just one piece of the outfielder arm puzzle. Here’s how the team’s outfielders did at holding and throwing out runners:

Opp. Hold Rate Throw-Out Rate MLB Hold Rate MLB Throw-Out Rate
Gardner 160 64.4% 1.9%
All NYY LF 204 64.7% 1.5% 63.5% 2.2%
Ellsbury 165 44.8% 0.6%
All NYY CF 203 45.8% 0.5% 43.5% 1.9%
Ichiro 98 45.9% 2.0%
All NYY RF 176 42.0% 2.3% 46.0% 2.4%

Gardner was more or less league average at holding and throwing out runners this year. Left field isn’t a big throwing position anyway. The only real throws are to home plate, not the other bases. Ichiro has a strong arm in right but he takes for-frickin-ever to get rid of the ball, limiting its effectiveness. He was still roughly a league average-ish thrower while the team’s other right fielders were below-average. Blame Beltran and Soriano, mostly.

Ellsbury, on the other hand, was actually a bit above-average at preventing runners from taking the extra base but he rarely threw anyone out. In fact, he threw out exactly one runner trying to advance on a base hit this season. Just one. Here’s the play, which happened in early-September:

Ellsbury threw out two other runners on bases this year — he doubled Nelson Cruz off first when Cruz forgot how many outs there were, and he threw Dustin Pedroia out trying to stretch a single into a double. Saying Ellsbury’s arm is not strong would be an understatement. It’s one of the weakest outfield arms in baseball. He compensates for it by getting to the ball quickly and with a quick release, sorta like Hideki Matsui back in the day. Throwing is clearly Ellsbury’s biggest weakness as a player. That’s life.

The Yankees received three different levels of defense in the three outfield spots this year. They got good defense in left field, the bigger of the two corners in Yankee Stadium. They received excellent defense in center, and right field was pretty terrible despite the cozy dimensions in the Bronx. Throwing was an issue in all three spots though it was hardly a disaster. The outfield was clearly the strength of the team’s defense this year, and fly ball pitchers like Michael Pineda, David Phelps, Chris Capuano, and Vidal Nuno benefited the most.

Brett Garder named finalist for AL Hank Aaron Award

Brett Gardner has been named the Yankees’ finalist for the AL Hank Aaron Award, the team announced. The award is given annually to the top offensive player in each league, so Gardner doesn’t really have much of a chance of winning, but every team needs a nominee. There is a fan voting component, so cast your vote right here. The last Yankee to win the AL Hank Aaron Award was Derek Jeter in 2009.