Fun with Statcast: Where does each Yankee hit the ball the hardest?

Carlos Beltran
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

This past season, MLB and MLBAM made Statcast data available to the public for the first time. Things like spin rate and batted ball velocity were suddenly right at our fingertips. The info as presented still lacks context — I have no idea if a 96.8% route efficiency is good or bad or average — but it’s a start. More information is a good thing.

Batted ball velocity is an interesting one because intuitively, the harder you hit the ball, the better. There’s something to be said to having the ability to place the ball in a good location, but hitting the ball hard is a positive. There’s a pretty strong correlation between exit velocity and BABIP. From Rob Arthur:

Exit Velocity BABIP crop

The averaged batted ball velocity in the AL this season was approximately 88.7 mph. The Yankees as a team had an 88.6 mph average exit velocity, but that doesn’t help us much. The individual players are most important, so we’re going to look at them. Specifically, we’re going to look at where each Yankee hit the ball the hardest, which for our purposes means 100+ mph. That sound good?

Before we start, it’s important to note exit velocity by itself is only so useful. Things like launch angle are important — it’s possible to hit a 100+ mph infield pop-up, for example — but there still hasn’t been a ton of research in that department. We’re going to keep it simple and just look at the pitch locations of the 100+ mph batted balls by each Yankee this past season. Got it? Good. So with a big assist from Baseball Savant, let’s dive in. (Click any image in this post for a larger view.)

Carlos Beltran

Carlos Beltran 100mph

Beltran led the Yankees with exactly 100 batted balls with a 100+ mph exit velocity in 2015. Seventy-eight of them came against right-handed pitchers, which makes sense since 71% of his plate appearances came as a left-handed batter. Those numbers are in line with each other.

There isn’t much data against southpaws, so that doesn’t tell us a whole lot, other than Beltran liking the ball over the plate. The pitch locations against right-handed pitchers is far more interesting. Beltran hit away pitches the hardest this past season. Almost all of his 100+ mph batted balls as a lefty batter came on pitches in the middle of the zone or away. There’s very few on the inner half.

Beltran is not an extreme pull hitter from the left side but he definitely doesn’t use the field a whole lot — only 20.3% of his batted balls as a lefty were to the opposite field in 2015. He pulled 45.2% and the other 34.5% went back up the middle. He’s able to do that despite hitting away pitches harder than inside pitches. Interesting! Being able to hammer outside pitches is cool, but would taking slight step back away from the plate better allow him to cover the inner half?

Alex Rodriguez

Alex Rodriguez 100 mph

A-Rod was second on the team in 100+ mph batted balls with 92. It appears he hits the ball the hardest in the lower half of the strike zone, and he also does a better job driving balls on the outer half of the plate, which is also interesting. Pulling inside pitches is anecdotally a good way to create exit velocity.

Chase Headley

Chase Headley 100 mph

Headley was third on the team with 69 batted balls of 100+ mph, so yeah, the gap between Beltran and A-Rod and everyone else was massive. Twenty-five of Headley’s 69 100+ mph batted balls, or 36.2%, came as a right-handed batter, which matches up with his plate appearance split (31% as a righty).

Again, the “vs. LHP” plot doesn’t tell us much because there’s not a ton of data, but wow, look at the “vs. RHP” plot. Headley loves down and away pitches, huh? Or at least that’s where he hit the ball the hardest in 2015. He didn’t drive anything — and by drive I mean hit a ball 100+ mph — up in the zone or in the inner half. So far the data has been the exact opposite of what I expected. I figured we’d see most 100+ mph batted balls on pitches up and/or in.

Mark Teixeira

Mark Teixeira 100 mph

If not for the shin injury, Teixeira would have been among the team leaders in 100+ mph batted balls, if not the leader outright. He had 66 of ’em. Teixeira has that big long swing from both sides of the plate so he loves outside pitches. The vast majority of his 100+ mph batted balls came on pitches on the outer half if not off the plate entirely. Let Teixeira extend his arms and he can do major damage.

Brian McCann

Brian McCann 100 mph

Another outer half guy. The Yankees have all these pull hitters and yet most of them seem to hit outside pitches the hardest, and McCann is no exception. He tied Teixeira with 66 balls in play at 100+ mph. It’s amazing to me McCann and the other guys can reach out and pull a pitch that far away from them with such authority. So if you want to limit hard contact, I guess the best way to pitch these guys is inside? That sounds a little weird given their pull tendencies, but the pitch location plots don’t lie.

Brett Gardner

Brett Gardner 100 mph

Okay, this is more like what I expected. Gardner is an all-fields hitter and the majority of his 53 100+ mph batted balls came on middle-middle pitches. There are a few on the inner half and a few on the outer half, but in general, Gardner hit the ball the hardest when it was right down the middle. That makes perfect sense. Brett’s not a brute masher like most of the other guys ahead of him in this post. He makes the hardest contact on mistake pitches over the plate.

Jacoby Ellsbury

Jacoby Ellsbury 100 mph

Ellsbury had 46 batted balls register 100 mph or better and, like Gardner, most of them came on middle-middle pitches. He did some more damage on down and away pitches and less on inside pitches than Brett, but generally the pitch locations are similar. These two aren’t power hitters. The pitcher has to give them something in the heart of the plate for them to really drive it.

Didi Gregorius

Didi Gregorius 100 mph

Ellsbury had one more 100+ mph batted ball than Gregorius in 77 fewer plate appearances. Didi is another guy who does most of his damage on pitches out over the plate, but he also showed the ability to reach out and drive pitches on the outer half this past season. Well beyond the outer half too. Gregorius had a handful of 100+ mph batted balls on pitches off the plate. Pretty crazy.

The Yankees worked with Didi this summer and in June or so he seemed to make a concerted effort to use the opposite field more often. His plot of 100+ mph batted balls ostensibly reflects that approach.

Dustin Ackley

Dustin Ackley 100 mph

This plot covers Ackley’s entire season, not just his time with the Yankees. He had 47 total 100+ mph batted balls in 2015, including nine with the Yankees. Ackley has tremendous natural hitting ability, and although it hasn’t shown up in the stats yet, he does a good job of covering the entire plate based on the plot. He hit balls 100+ mph that were in, out, down, middle-middle … basically everywhere but up, which doesn’t appear to be uncommon.

I am really curious to see a full season of Ackley next year, and not just because of this plot. Getting away from the Mariners and into hitter friendly Yankee Stadium is one hell of a change of scenery for a talented left-handed hitter.

Greg Bird

Greg Bird 100 mph

Bird wasn’t around very long this past season but his 35 batted balls with a three-figure exit velocity were ninth most on the team, ahead of guys with (many) more plate appearances like Chris Young (30) and Stephen Drew (24).

Based on the pitch location plot, Bird does his most damage on pitches down in the zone, which sorta jibes with opponents trying to beat him upstairs with fastballs all the time. I don’t think Bird has an uppercut swing, or at least not an extreme one like McCann or Teixeira, but the lower half of the strike zone is his wheelhouse. He can go down and golf pitches.

Aaron Hicks

Aaron Hicks 100 mph

Hicks, who so far is the Yankees’ only notable pickup of the offseason, had 35 batted balls of 100+ mph last season. As a right-handed batter, he was all about the low pitch. He could really go down and drive low pitches with authority from the right side of the plate.

As a left-handed batter, Hicks had the hardest contact on pitches middle and away. Not so much inside. That is his weaker side of the plate, historically, but being a left-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium comes with some perks. I’m looking forward to seeing what the Yankees and the hitting coaches do with him next season. There are reasons to believe Hicks is on the verge of really breaking out.

* * *

The Yankees had a bunch of other guys on the roster this past season who are still with the team, but they didn’t hit many 100+ mph batted balls at all. That group includes Rob Refsnyder (seven 100+ batted balls), Slade Heathcott (seven), Brendan Ryan (four), and Mason Williams (three). Click the links in parentheses for each player’s pitch location plot, if you’re interested.

Platoon

I’m hardly one who obsesses over dreams and they’re meanings, but for years now, I’ve had some recurring, sports-related themes in my dreams. Often, in some random context, I’m playing baseball or basketball, things I’ve done for most of my life. As a kid, I was decidedly mediocre at both of these, though getting contact lenses in the eleventh grade certainly helped. Nevertheless, when I have dreams featuring these two very familiar sports, I often find myself playing horrendously: I miss layups and jumpers at a Chucker Costanza like rate in basketball dreams and frequently in my baseball-inclusive dreams, I physically cannot throw the ball. Last night, I had a dream in which my wife and I were coaching a youth team, then I took some cuts against one of the pitchers and whiffed a lot–which I chalked up to playing slow pitch softball and not being used to hitting actual pitching–until finally smacking one over the shortstop’s head, just before the dream’s context and setting changed in a heartbeat, as they tend to do. I suppose the takeaway from this all, sparing you the Freudian dream analysis, is the simplest of all: even in our dreams, it’s damn hard to play sports, especially baseball. Players, managers, and teams have to constantly search for any advantage they can find and exploit in. For managers, one of the simplest and oldest advantages in the game is the platoon advantage. As Mike noted in late October, the Yankees led the league in gaining the platoon advantage over their opponents’ pitchers in 2015. 2016 has the potential to be no different, with at least three platoon situations presenting themselves early in the offseason.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Catcher: When the Yankees traded away John Ryan Murphy to the Twins in exchange for switch-hitting outfielder Aaron Hicks, it seemed to open the door for Gary Sanchez to (finally?) fully break through to the Major Leagues and get some consistent playing time. With Brian McCann entrenched behind the plate, Sanchez won’t be the full-time starter unless McCann gets injured. A platoon, however, could develop and give the Yankees value. As a young hitter with little experience to Major League pitching, Sanchez could benefit from a platoon that sets him up for success by limiting his exposure and letting him work against the types of pitchers–lefties–that he’s done well against. Like with any Minor League numbers, take these with a grain of salt, but Sanchez has put up an .863 OPS against southpaws throughout his career with a .241 ISO. His raw OPS against right-handed pitchers isn’t bad–.737–but it’s significantly lower and he’s flashed less power, a .147 ISO, against same-handed pitchers. Additionally, a straight platoon could give Sanchez more predictable playing time and give McCann more regular and consistent rest, something all catchers need, especially ones in their 30’s. On the other side of the ball, Sanchez’s defense, though improved, likely will never be a shining part of his game. Playing him against lefties and limiting him against righties will allow his potential shortcomings to be minimized.

So far, this seems like a decent plan. That doesn’t mean, though, that there aren’t things that would need to be considered. For one, Brian McCann actually has a reverse platoon split in his time with the Yankees, something I didn’t expect at all. The Yankees may also want Sanchez to get every day playing time in the minors until they feel he’s ready, rather than let him sit on the bench. While Murphy flourished with inconsistent playing time last year, the Yankees may not want to do that with Sanchez and opt to put him–along with Greg Bird, probably–in Scranton to see the field every day.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Second Base: Catcher is not the only spot on the field where the Yankees have a young player who may be ready to break out. Fans clamored for Rob Refsnyder through much of last season, and in 2016, they’re likely to get him–along with trade-deadline acquisition Dustin Ackley. This situation is likely more amenable to a straight platoon since the difference between Ackley and Refsnyder–while large, as one is an established-if-not-great Major Leaguer and the other is still unproven–is not as large as the difference between McCann and Sanchez. Neither one of these guys is making mega-bucks, so there’s no financial incentive to play one over the other more consistently.

A platoon at second base between these two would be best for them and the team as it would let their strengths play up, as platoons tend to do. In his career, Ackley has put up a replacement-level wRC+ of 80 against lefties. His mark against righties–97–isn’t great, but it’s much more palatable than the one against lefties. He’s also got a respectable .140 ISO against right-handed pitching and a solid 8.4% walk rate against them. Meanwhile, Refsnyder’s hit both types of pitchers will in the minors, but has outperformed against lefties: an .863 OPS against lefties compared to an .800 mark against righties. And with these two, you’ll let one of them shine. As soon as one starts to perform and the other starts to lag, you can ride that wave without too much consequence. If Refsnyder prevails, Ackley becomes the backup. If Ackley reclaims some of that prospect shine, Refsnyder can go back to AAA for some more seasoning and more reps.

The only real downside to this platoon is that neither of these players is strong on the defensive side of things. There’s also that chance that Ackley continues to be aggressively “meh” at playing Major League Baseball and that Refsnyder never blossoms into the player we all want him to be. The alternative in that nightmare scenario, then, is Brendan Ryan? Yuck.

Aaron Hicks
(Getty)

Outfield: Last week, I touched on the newest Yankee, Aaron Hicks, and his potential to get a lot of playing time even if he isn’t necessarily a starting outfielder, so I’ll be brief here as not to be repetitive. With Hicks in the fold, the Yankees can add a bit more balance to their outfield, balance that’s missing when two of the three outfielders are lefty hitters and one of them–Jacoby Ellsbury–has struggled against lefties recently. Manager Joe Girardi has also shown a propensity to platoon for Brett Gardner in the past and doing so with Hicks would be a fairly seamless transition. Carlos Beltran‘s concerns are from the defensive side, and it’s easy to see how much and how often he’ll be replaced on defense in the late innings. In that vein, a platoon involving Ellsbury, Gardner, and Hicks will always leave the Yankees with at least two–three when Beltran sits–outfielders capable of playing center field and playing it well, bolstering their outfield defense.

Hicks does struggle against righties, which limits his usefulness in resting Ellsbury and Gardner if the Yankees hit a long stretch of right-handed pitchers, but there is hope that some new adjustments can help overcome those (hopefully former) struggles. Regardless, Hicks’ defense and the injury concerns that all three starting outfielders have should give Hicks plenty of burn in the field and in the lineup, making a de-facto, if not de-jure, platoon situation.

Seeking the platoon advantage is something the Yankees have clearly prioritized of late and they’re set up to do so again in 2016. The ways hinted at here are not necessarily what will happen–it’s only November, after all–but it’s easy to see the Yankees tinkering with their lineup day in and day out to get the biggest advantage possible. They’d be foolish not to.

Feinsand: Yankees have discussed Gardner-for-Castro with Cubs

(Mitchell Leff/Getty)
(Mitchell Leff/Getty)

2:58pm: Feinsand says the Yankees are not interested in the Gardner-for-Castro framework. They do have some interest in Castro, just not at the cost of Gardner.

1:34pm: For what it’s worth, Jon Heyman says there have been no Gardner-for-Castro talks yet. The Yankees are looking for pitching in any trade.

12:00pm: According to Mark Feinsand, the Yankees and Cubs have discussed a trade that would send Brett Gardner to Chicago for infielder Starlin Castro. The Yankees talked to the Mariners about Gardner earlier this offseason — George King says they asked for Taijuan Walker in return — and Feinsand says they’ve discussed Gardner with “many teams.”

Last week Brian Cashman told reporters the Yankees are seeking “more balance” at second base, meaning a strong defender. They already have offense first options in Rob Refsnyder and Dustin Ackley. Castro, who turns 26 in Spring Training, played shortstop his entire career before moving to second base last August. He was a really poor defensive shortstop but the stats liked him at second, but it’s only a 38-game sample, so who knows.

Of course, there’s also the matter of Castro hitting .265/.269/.375 (80 wRC+) this past season and .265/.305/.383 (89 wRC+) over the last three seasons, covering nearly 2,000 plate appearances. He was very good in 2014 (117 wRC+) but awful in 2013 (74 wRC+) and slightly less awful in 2015 (80 wRC+). Castro has been one of the worst all-around regulars in baseball two of the last three years.

Gardner’s contract and Castro’s contract are basically a wash financially ($38M vs. $41.4M) but Castro’s deal includes one extra guaranteed year, so the annual salaries are lower. That would help the luxury tax situation, which I’m sure Hal Steinbrenner would love. Over the last year the Yankees have acquired talented young players who’ve fallen out of favor with their teams, and Castro definitely fits the bill.

While moving Gardner is certainly possible, Gardner-for-Castro doesn’t seem to pass the sniff test. It’s not only the “more balance” stuff, but Castro also has a history of off-the-field problems and has been considered a bit of a headache times throughout his career. The Yankees value clubhouse chemistry and good makeup and all that stuff very highly.

That said, the Yankees have some inside information on Castro. Special advisor Jim Hendry was the Cubs GM when the team signed, developed, and summoned Castro to the big leagues. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild was there for a year with Castro too, so at least he’s been in the clubhouse with him. There are some connections.

My guess is this leak came from Chicago’s side. The Yankees tend to keep things very close to the vest and the Theo Epstein regime has a history of leaking lots and lots of info to the media. We’ll see where this goes. I’m not a big fan of dealing Gardner for Castro but on paper it makes some sense, depending on your opinion of the two players.

Morosi: Yanks among teams to talk outfielder-for-starter trade with Indians

(Stephen Dunn/Getty)
Carrasco. (Stephen Dunn/Getty)

According to Jon Morosi, the Yankees are among the teams tho discuss an outfielder-for-starter trade with the Indians. The Dodgers and Blue Jays are also in that mix. The Indians came into the offseason needing at least one outfielder, and that was before Michael Brantley underwent shoulder surgery, which will sideline him for the first few weeks of 2016.

Cleveland does have some big time rotation depth and they realize that is their key to success. They’re only going to go as far as their rotation will take them. They want outfield help but won’t just give away a spare arm either. Here is the rotation depth chart on the team’s official site:

Indians rotation

The Indians also have lefty T.J. House as their seventh starter. He gave them 102 innings of 3.35 ERA (3.69 FIP) ball last year but missed most of 2015 due to shoulder inflammation. House did pitch in the Arizona Fall League and will be ready for Spring Training though.

Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar have been mentioned most often as trade bait* and both will command significant returns. Carrasco, 28, has pitched at an ace level since moving back into the rotation midway through 2014 — he has a 2.99 ERA (2.54 FIP) in 40 starts and 252.2 innings since rejoining the rotation — and his contract will pay him only $37.5M through 2020, assuming his two club options are picked up.

* Realistically, we can probably rule out the Indians trading the ultra-popular Corey Kluber. Trevor Bauer had a 4.55 ERA (4.33 FIP) this past season and had the highest walk rate in baseball (10.6%). The Yankees seek out guys with very low walk rates, so he doesn’t seem like a fit. Cody Anderson? Josh Tomlin? Eh. Carrasco and Salazar are both hard-throwers and the Yankees love that.

The 25-year-old Salazar went up and down a few times from 2013-14 before sticking for good this past season, pitching to a 3.45 ERA (3.62 FIP) in 30 starts and 185 innings. He is not signed long-term but is under team control as an arbitration-eligible player through 2020. The Yankees are said to be looking for starters they can control more than two years since basically everyone in their rotation except Luis Severino can become a free agent following the 2017 season.

Carrasco and Salazar are potential building block players because they’re so good and under control so long. The Indians don’t have to move them. It’s not like they’re impending free agents. They’ll only deal them if they get exactly what they want in return. The Tribe are a small market team with a tight payroll, so any idea of a Jacoby Ellsbury-Terry Francona reunion probably won’t happen. The obvious fit here is Brett Gardner.

The Yankees owe Gardner $38M over the next three years and even that might be too expensive for the Indians. New York could always eat some money to facilitate a trade — or take back a bad contract, like the $16.5M owed to Chris Johnson the next two years — which they’ve been willing to do in the past. They ate a bunch of money to move A.J. Burnett and more recently picked up part of Martin Prado‘s contract to get Nathan Eovaldi.

Either way, Gardner for Carrasco or Salazar straight up probably isn’t happening. I’d do either of those deals in a heartbeat which means they’re lopsided in favor of the Yankees, right? More than likely it would be Gardner plus stuff for Carrasco or Salazar, and the stuff would have to be pretty good too. Gardner and Aaron Judge for Salazar or especially Carrasco would not be an unrealistic request by the Indians in my opinion. Not at all. I’d still do either of those trades which means they’re still lopsided in New York’s favor.

Point is, there’s a potential fit here. The Yankees want a starter and have extra outfielders, the Indians need an outfielder and believe they have extra starters. This could work! Addressing Gardner’s salary and finding a common ground on the talent changing hands will take some work — what if the Yankees flipped Aaron Hicks instead of Gardner? — but at least this looks doable. The Yankees and Indians appear to match up well.

Brett Gardner and the Tale of Two Seasons [2015 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees had a lot of players coming into the season with health and performance concerns, and Brett Gardner was no exception. The team’s longest tenured non-A-Rod player played through an abdominal injury in the second half last year, an injury so bad it required offseason surgery. The surgery came with a four-week recovery time and Gardner was 100% come Spring Training.

With Derek Jeter retired, Gardner was certain to hit near the top of the lineup in 2015 after being the club’s best offensive player a year ago. (His 111 wRC+ led guys who were with the Yankees for all of 2014.) Whether he hit leadoff or second really didn’t matter. Gardner was one of the team’s best hitters and there was now a clear path to at-bats at the top of the order, which was a step in the right direction for an offense in need of help.

A Normal Spring

Abdominal injuries — Gardner had surgery to repair a core muscle near his ribs, specifically — are a pretty big deal in baseball. In all sports, really. Hitting and throwing requires a lot of quick-twitch movements. Gardner had no physical problems in camp but he didn’t hit at all: .186/.294/.220 with 16 strikeouts in 22 Grapefruit League games. Did anyone even mention that? I don’t remember that being talked about at all. Either way, Gardner was healthy and in the lineup come Opening Day, because duh.

An All-Star First Half

When the season started, Joe Girardi opted to use Jacoby Ellsbury at leadoff and Gardner as his No. 2 hitter. There was really no bad way to order them as far as I was concerned. As long as those two hit in the top two spots of the lineup, the Yankees were good. The first of the team’s 764 runs in 2015 came on Opening Day, on Gardner’s sixth inning solo home run.

That was the only run the Yankees scored in the Opening Day loss to the Blue Jays. Gardner nearly went deep in the first inning too, but Jose Bautista made a nice jumping catch at the wall. Here’s the video.

The Opening Day home run was the start of an outstanding first half for Gardner. He basically never slumped. Only four times in the first half did Gardner go back-to-back games without a hit and he never once went three straight games without a hit. He started the season by reaching base in each of his first eleven games and in 31 of his first 32 games. From April 18th through May 15th, a span of 25 games, Gardner reached base 40 times.

During his best hot streak of the season, an eleven-game stretch in late-June, Gardner went 25-for-50 (.500) with seven doubles, a triple, and four home runs. That’s a .500/.545/.920 (300 wRC+) batting line. It’s both an extremely small sample and cool as hell. The performance helped earn Gardner a spot on the AL All-Star Final Vote ballot, though he was later named to the All-Star Team as an injury replacement for Alex Gordon.

Gardner went 3-for-5 with a home run that afternoon. He came off the bench in the All-Star Game in Cincinnati and went 0-for-2 with two strikeouts against Clayton Kershaw and Mark Melancon, his former teammate at several levels. He also played one inning in left field and three in center.

Gardner finished the first half with a .302/.377/.484 (137 wRC+) batting line. He had ten homers and 15 stolen bases, making him the only AL player with 10+ homers and 15+ steals at the break. Also, Mike Trout (179 wRC+), Nelson Cruz (154 wRC+), J.D. Martinez (146 wRC+), and Bautista (138 wRC+) were the only AL outfielders with better offensive production in the first half. Gardner was a monster. The Yankees scored a lot of runs in the first half and he was a huge reason why.

A Disaster Second Half

Believe it or not, Gardner started the second half fairly well, going 10-for-39 (.256) with a homer and more walks (nine) than strikeouts (eight) in his first eleven games after the break. It all collapsed from there. Gardner put up a .208/.304/.257 (60 wRC+) line in August then a .198/.271/.321 (62 wRC+) line in September (and October). Ice cold like too many of his teammates.

Gardner hit six home runs in the second half and three of them came on the same day. The Yankees played a doubleheader against the Blue Jays on September 12th, and Gardner went 4-for-9 with three homers and a walk on the day. He drove in seven of their 12 runs in the doubleheader.

The overall numbers are ugly. Gardner hit .206/.300/.292 (66 wRC+) in the second half, dragging his overall season slash line down to a still respectable .259/.343/.399 (105 wRC+). He stole 15 bases (18 attempts) in the first half and only five (seven attempts) in the second half. Brett was two totally different players in 2015. He was unbelievable in the first half. Legitimately one of the most productive outfielders in baseball. Then, in the second half, he ranked 145th out of 156 qualified hitters with that 66 wRC+.

Gardner started the wildcard game in the leadoff spot — Ellsbury was benched against Dallas Keuchel in favor of lefty masher Chris Young — and went 0-for-4 with three ugly strikeouts. He grounded out in the eighth inning and heard loud boos from the Yankee Stadium crowd, which was dumb, but whatever. Fans were frustrated. The Yankees went from leading the AL East (by seven games!) to barely hanging on to a wildcard spot and Gardner’s disaster second half was a huge factor.

Before & After

Something changed this season. There has to be an explanation for Gardner going from great in the first half to a replacement level in the second half. Realistically, his true talent is somewhere in between the two halves. In fact, it’s right where he finished the season. Gardner hit .259/.343/.399 (105 wRC+) in 2015 after hitting .267/.350/.397 (108 wRC+) as an everyday player from 2010-14, so yeah.

The easy way out would be to blame it on simple regression. He was so insanely hot in the first half and then the other shoe dropped, bringing his numbers where they belonged. That is … unsatisfying. For instance, we know Gardner had some kind of wrist injury this year. We don’t know how much it affected his performance, but it would be silly to ignore it. Wrist injuries are kind of a big deal.

We know the raw stats, the 137 wRC+ in the first half followed by the 66 wRC+ in the second half. Let’s look at some batted ball data to see if anything else was going on.

Brett Gardner batted ball

Gardner hit considerably more fly balls in the second half than he did in the first half, which at least somewhat explains going from a .363 BABIP to a .247 BABIP. Fly balls are bad for BABIP business.

Even worse for BABIP business: not hitting the ball hard. Gardner’s hard contact rate fell big time after the All-Star break — he had a 27.5% hard contact rate from 2013-14, so his first half number isn’t unusual, but his second half number is way down — and that’s another BABIP killer. Unless you can expertly place the ball like peak Ichiro Suzuki, less hard contact generally leads to fewer hits. The wrist could be one possible explanation.

Gardner’s spray rates didn’t change much. He’s always been pretty good at hitting to all fields and in the second half he hit some more balls back up the middle rather than the other way to left field. That’s not really a huge deal in my opinion. Had Gardner suddenly started pulling like 50% of his balls in play, that would be a red flag. There’s only a slight change. No biggie.

More fly balls and less hard contact is a really good way to reduce offensive production. I can’t explain why it happened — I’m not even sure Gardner and the Yankees can explain it right now — but it happened. It would be nice if the wrist was behind all this, that way we could point to an injury and simply wait for it to heal. Injuries are a pretty good excuse most of the time.

It could also be that Gardner wore himself down in the first half. He has a history of being better in the first half — career 115 wRC+ before the All-Star break and 88 wRC+ after — and a few reports this summer indicated the Yankees are concerned Gardner’s hard-nosed style of play causes him to wear down late in the season. That’s a plausible explanation too. It also could be Gardner was a mechanical mess and lost his swing. It happens.

My guess as to the cause of Gardner’s second half fade: everything. It was a little of everything. The wrist, being worn down, some swing issues, some poor ball-in-play luck, everything. This could all be connected too — the wrist injury led to bad hitting mechanics, etc. I don’t think Gardner is suddenly a true talent 66 wRC+ hitter. He didn’t forget how to hit during the All-Star break. Something happened and I don’t know what.

Looking Ahead to 2016

There have been more than a few Gardner trade rumors this winter — we know the Yankees have talked to the Mariners about him — and while that’s nothing new, it does seem like there is a bit more validity to them this year. He’s one of their few (only?) movable veteran players and the Yankees would be able to replace him internally after picking up Aaron Hicks. For now, Gardner remains the team’s starting left fielder. I think a trade is a very real possibility though.

Devil’s Advocate: Reasons the Yankees should trade Brett Gardner

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

Once again, there has been a lot of talking about a possible a Brett Gardner trade this offseason. It’s been going on for a few years now, mostly because he is one of the few players on the roster with actual trade value. He’s the only veteran Yankee making real money with any sort of trade value. People like to talk trades and Gardner’s tradeable.

We’ve already heard the Yankees have discussed Gardner with the Mariners, though it sounds like those talks were preliminary more than anything. (Seattle’s recent Leonys Martin pickup may end those talks.) There’s been speculation other clubs like the Angels, Cubs, Nationals, Tigers, and even the Mets could be suitors for Gardner. Lots of contending clubs — and that’s Gardner’s market, teams trying to contend, there’s no reason for rebuilding clubs to get him — have a need in the outfield.

Even with his second half slump, Gardner was one of the Yankees’ best players this past season, hitting .259/.343/.399 (105 wRC+) with 16 home runs and 20 steals in 151 games. Only 15 players in baseball had 15+ homers and 15+ steals in 2015. Gardner was one of ’em. I have a tough time seeing how the Yankees could trade Gardner and actually improve, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth exploring.

As with any player, the Yankees are smart to listen to offers to Gardner. You never know when a team may be desperate and willing to overpay. (Overpay in your eyes, anyway.) Although I’m not necessarily hoping the Yankees trade Gardner, there are reasons it could be a good idea. Here are four in no particular order.

Avoid Decline Years

Gardner turned 32 in late-August and plays a hard-nosed style, so much so the Yankees are reportedly worried he wears himself out over the long season each year, leading to his second half slumps. His offensive production has actually held fairly steady since becoming a full-time player in 2010 …


Source: FanGraphsBrett Gardner

… though normal age-related decline figures to set in fairly soon, if it hasn’t already. Also, Gardner’s defense is not as strong as it once was. Both the eye test and stats confirm that. Gardner is still a really good defender, he’s hardly a liability out there, but he’s closer to league average than elite at this point.

And, of course, there’s the decline in stolen bases, which is pretty normal. Gardner swiped 47 and 49 bases in 2010 and 2011, respectively, missed most of 2012 due to an elbow injury, and has hovered around 20 steals a year from 2013-15. Stolen bases tend to peak very early in a player’s career, so it’s no surprise he isn’t stealing as many bases as he once did.

Gardner right now is still a really good player. He’s solidly above-average overall and is arguably the best all-around player on the Yankees. He’s no worse than their what, third best all-around player? That’s right now though. What about next year and the year after that and the year after that, all of which are guaranteed under his contract?

Gardner will decline at some point because all players decline at some point. The Yankees have almost certainly gotten the best years of his career and now they may be in position to avoid his decline phase — decline is not always gradual, remember — through a trade.

Shed Salary

I absolutely hate the idea of the Yankees shedding salary in order to make other moves, especially since payroll has not increased significantly over the last decade even though the new Yankee Stadium opened six years ago, but that’s the world we live in. Gardner is owed $38M over the next three seasons, including the $2M buyout of his $12.5M club option for 2016.

That’s not a huge contract — 18 outfielders have contracts with a higher average annual value, and a few more will join the list this winter — but it’s not nothing either. Shedding the $13M or so they owe Gardner each of the next three years means more money for … whatever. Pitching, second base, more outfielders, whatever. There are lots of ways to spend $13M annually and the Yankees certainly have no shortage of needs. Moving Gardner saves real dollars that can be put to use elsewhere.

Clear A Spot For Hicks & Co.

Late last week the Yankees acquired Aaron Hicks, a switch-hitter with center field defensive chops who Brian Cashman called “an everyday player.” Except he won’t be an everyday player, at least not with the roster as it currently stands. Gardner is locked into left field while Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran are set to again play center and right, respectively.

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

Trading Gardner clears up left field for Hicks — I’d be favor of playing Hicks in center and Ellsbury in left, but that ain’t happening — and allows him to play everyday. Also, the Yankees have some outfield talent in Triple-A they could also explore. We saw Slade Heathcott and Mason Williams last year, and there’s also Aaron Judge and Ben Gamel (and Jake Cave) in Triple-A.

The long-term potential of those other outfielders is up for debate — Hicks appears to be on the verge of a breakout, but who knows about the other guys — but the Yankees are never going to know what they have until they give them a chance. Trading Gardner clears left field and allows the Yankees to use Hicks, Heathcott, Judge, whoever. It creates more roster flexibility, basically. And it also allows them to potentially add some more balance to the lineup with a righty hitter.

Talent Infusion

There are an awful lot of good outfielders on the market this offseason. I mean some of the best in the game. So why would a team give up players to trade for Gardner when they could simply pay money for a free agent? Because look at some of these projected prices (via FanGraphs Crowdsourcing):

  • Jason Heyward, age 26: Eight years and $184M.
  • Yoenis Cespedes, age 30: Six years and $132M.
  • Justin Upon, age 28: Six years and $120M.
  • Alex Gordon, age 31: Five years and $90M.
  • Dexter Fowler, age 29: Four years and $56M.

Suddenly three years and $38M for Gardner doesn’t seem so bad, does it? Point is, those guys are going to make major bucks, and not every team can afford them. Among the second tier outfield targets are Denard Span, Austin Jackson, Gerardo Parra, and Nori Aoki. Span and Aoki were hurt this year, Jackson wasn’t very good, and Parra’s track record as a hitter isn’t nearly as good as Gardner’s.

Mid-market teams that can’t sink $18M+ annually into an outfielder and don’t want to give up a draft pick are left to either sign a second tier free agent or trade for someone like Gardner, who has a strong track record and has succeeded in the tough AL East battles, which teams value. Plus the Yankees could also pay down part of his contract to make him even more affordable.

That’s the long way of saying Gardner figures to have plenty suitors this offseason and could bring back a nice package of players. Nothing that’ll alter the direction of the franchise, but it wouldn’t be a straight salary dump either. One year of Fowler netted Luis Valbuena and Dan Straily. Two years of Seth Smith landed a high-end reliever (Brandon Mauer). A year and a half of Parra returned two solid prospects (last year’s trade). Heck, one year of Shin-Soo Choo fetched Didi Gregorius a few years back.

The Yankees are in the middle of this rebuilding on the fly thing and chances are they won’t seek prospects in return for Gardner. Prospects may be part of the package, sure, but I’m guessing they’ll want at least one player they can plug directly into their MLB roster. That’s the way they’ve been operating over the last year. MLB player for MLB player trades. Gardner could bring back two or even three young players who better fit the Yankees long-term.

* * *

I don’t love the idea of trading Gardner but the Yankees are not wrong to explore it. Far from it. It’s Cashman’s job to explore every possible way to improve the team, and sometimes that can be accomplished by trading one of the better players on the roster. Trading Gardner could help the Yankees avoid his decline years, shed some salary, and create more roster flexibility by clearing a spot for young players and adding more talent to the organization. It’s definitely something to consider.

The Swiss Army Outfielder

This ball was caught. (Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankee outfield was given more shape on Wednesday when the team acquired Aaron Hicks from the Twins for John Ryan Murphy. Ironically enough, that shape is a little more amorphous now than it was before the trade. The term “amorphous” generally carries a negative connotation, the implication for the Yankees going forward is one of flexibility, not shapelessness.

It’s most likely that Hicks will slot in as the team’s fourth outfielder to start the year, but that alone could carry a great deal of playing time, as Chris Young appeared in 140 games for the Yankees last season. That much playing time is easy to envision for Hicks. Given his defensive reputation, he’ll likely be replacing Carlos Beltran on a daily/nightly basis, which will give the Yankees a strong defensive outfield in the late innings, something any team would gladly sign up for.

Nominally, Hicks will be the fourth outfielder, but there’s potential for him to play an even bigger role. He’ll definitely swap out for Beltran in the late innings, but given Joe Giradi’s tendency to platoon and his desire to rest players, Hicks will get plenty of burn in the starting lineup. Brett Gardner (fairly or unfairly) already gets his fair share of platooning as he sits semi-frequently against lefties. That’s a trend that’ll probably continue, given that Hicks hit lefties very well last year–.375 wOBA; 139 wRC+; .188 ISO–and has done similarly over the course of his (short) career–.354; 125; .175. Gardner was also, apparently, playing through injury in the second half and it’s a certainty we’ll see Hicks start in place of Gardner when Brett starts to slow down a bit after playing for long stretches. The same could be said for Jacoby Ellsbury, who probably wasn’t healthy for more than a month and a half of last season; he also had his fair share of struggles against left-handed pitchers and the fact that Hicks can play center–88 games there last year–means the Yankees will still be able to run out a mostly strong defensive outfield, even if one of Gardner or Ellsbury is sitting.

One knock on Hicks, a switch hitter, is that he doesn’t hit right handed pitching well. That rang true in 2015 as he racked up just a .292 wOBA/82 wRC+ against them. His career numbers against non-southpaws are just as ugly: .269/66. In this way, he’s definitely similar to Chris Young, who also couldn’t hit right handed pitching. However, for his career, Hicks does have a 9.2% walk rate against right handed pitchers, something slightly encouraging that the team could build on. And, taking it with a shaker of salt, Hicks did hit right handed pitchers fairly well in the minor leagues, posting a .371 OBP against them. It’s not the most reliable data, but it shows that, at some point, Hicks did something well against righties.

Despite those struggles, though, it’s easy to see why Hicks could be an upgrade over Young. His ability to play center field–and play it well–means that the Yankees can feel fully confident when they match up for platoons or have to rest someone. Hicks will also play the entire 2016 as a 26 year old, which in and of itself means there’s potential for more growth and development. Trading for Hicks was certainly a surprise, but it’s something that gives the Yankees a lot of flexibility in one spot on the field. Given the way the team looks, that’s a welcome sign.