Long: I expect big things from Brett Gardner

Brett Gardner won’t be patrolling centerfield this season, but hitting coach Kevin Long didn’t let that stop him from comparing the Yanks’ speedster to another former Yank, Kenny Lofton. “If I seem overly excited about him, I am,” said Long “Kenny was a bigger, more physical player, or [physical] looking player. But Gardy could do what Kenny Lofton did. I wouldn’t see why he couldn’t,” Long told The Post. “That would be a good comparison.”

In case you only view the world through Yankee goggles, Lofton was an absolutely tremendous player for more than 15 years. At his peak, he was a .316-.390-.443 (.374 wOBA) hitter who averaged 52 steals and 44 extra base hits a season. Long also mentioned Juan Pierre when talking about Gardner, which seems a bit more realistic.

Brett Gardner’s spray chart before and after his thumb injury

Gardner with a pretty swing...and it came after his return from a fractured thumb. Photo credit: Bill Kostroun/AP

Small injuries can seriously impair a player. Not only does it stick him on the DL, but it can oftentimes linger and affect his play for weeks, months, or even years down the road. We often see this with wrist injuries — in fact, we’re hoping that Nick Johnson has finally fully recovered from his, allowing him to regain some of the power that was absent last year.

Any hand injury presents cause for concern. Just look at Coco Crisp. When the Red Sox traded for him before the 2006 season it looked like he was becoming a solid regular. He improved his batting average and OBP in 2004, and then added power to his game in 2005, finishing with a 117 OPS+. The next spring, however, he broke his finger and hasn’t been nearly the same since. The closest he’s come was in 2008 when he had a 93 OPS+.

Brett Gardner suffered a fractured thumb last summer, causing him to miss 43 days. This came at a bad time, as Gardner was finally heating up after starting the season in a slump. In April he hit .220/.254/.271 in 65 PA and lost his starting job to Melky Cabrera. From May 1 through his injury on July 27 he hit .298/.393/.454 in 166 PA. Upon his return he slipped back towards his April marks, .250/.308/.292 in 53 PA. We’re dealing in small samples here, but I’d still like too examine this a bit further.

Tommy Rancel at DRays Bay used the Texas Leaguers Pitch f/x tool to display B.J. Upton’s spray charts as he dealt with a shoulder injury. It’s a neat idea, seeing a player’s hit breakdown pre- and post-injury. Often we deal in small samples, but that doesn’t mean we can’t examine it. It means, instead, that it offers little predictive value. There are just so many random factors at play that can mess with a sample of this size.

Here’s Gardner’s spray chart from when he started heating up, May 1, through his injury on July 25:

To the shallow outfield he has a pretty even distribution. Clearly his power works to straightaway right and to the gap in right-center. He’ll never hit for power the opposite way, though that’s not of much concern for a player like Gardner. Other than the power hits, though, I think this is as even as you’re going to see. Even the outs are fairly even.

(See that green dot almost sitting on the left field line? Remember that one? Yeah, I do.)

Now for his spray chart after the injury:

Well, well. There seems to be an abundance of green in left field. Gardner hit the ball the other way far more frequently after his return. Again, this is in short sample. He saw only 224 pitches in that time, so it’s understandable that we might see an aberration. Maybe his thumb injury didn’t have anything to do with his lack of balls pulled to the outfield in September. Maybe he was seeing more pitches on the outside half. In fact, as you can see in the pitches he swung at and the pitches he took, that might be the case.

Even in 2008, during Gardner’s short stint in New York, he hit the ball to all fields. Here’s his spray chart for that year:

Did Gardner’s thumb injury affect his swing? As I said at the top of the post, and then again a few paragraphs above, it’s tough to say that with any certainty, given the small samples we’re dealing with. Something did change in September, though. Gardner went from spraying the ball evenly in the outfield to hitting balls up the middle and slapping them the other way. There might be a pitch bias on display, which makes me hesitant to declare the problem his thumb. There’s certainly a connection, so I wonder if Gardner, fully recovered, can return to the form he displayed from May through July.

The best value player for the Yankees

The Yankees do not cheap out when they have the opportunity to land a superstar player. Whether it’s locking up Jeter, trading for A-Rod, or signing CC Sabathia, we all know that the Yankees will spend money. They’ve spent so much, in fact, that they currently have $144 million committed to just nine players in 2011. With such a top-heavy group of players, the team still needs young, cost controlled talent to fill out its roster. Thankfully for them, there can be plenty of value in those players.

To examine how much the Yankees paid their best players for their contributions, I’ll put their Wins Above Replacement (WAR) up against their salary for the season. We can take this all the way back to 2005, just because it’s easy and the data is so readily available. I’m going to leave out players who the Yankees traded for mid-season, just to make everything a little easier. Also, I’m clearly only going with position players, at least in this post.

2005: Alex Rodriguez


Photo credit: Gregory Bull/AP

Yes, the Yankees got more value out of Alex Rodriguez than any other player in 2005. With his salary that might not have seemed possible. Remember, though, that Texas was still paying a chunk of that salary, at least until 2008. According to Cot’s, the Yanks paid $16 million for a $25 million player. That covers 2005 and 2006. In 2007 his salary escalated to $27 million, so we’ll add another $2 million to the Yankees’ contribution (even though they might have still paid him $16 million). The team also got quality values from Jorge Posada, Jason Giambi, and Hideki Matsui, for whom they paid less than $2.6 million per win above replacement.

While WAR is a big picture value tool, it can’t see the nuances throughout a season. For instance, it has the Yankees paying Tino Martinez $4.58 million per win, since he produced only 0.6 WAR. His home run streak in May, though, did help the Yankees recover from a stagnant start.

2006: Robinson Cano

The Yankees got excellent value from Robinson Cano in his second season. At a league minimum salary he produced 3.5 WAR, finishing third in the AL batting average race. His buddy, Melky Cabrera, was also effective, producing 1.6 WAR at his paltry salary (which, during a partial season, I estimated at about $300K). Gary Sheffield’s and Hideki Matsui’s injuries skewed their value numbers, though that’s to be expected. The Yankees did seemingly pay a lot for Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi that season, over $4.5 million per win.

2007: Robinson Cano


Photo credit: Frank Franklin II/AP

While Cano did lead the Yankees in win value in 2006, he was outstanding in 2007. His 5 WAR at a $490,800 salary meant under $100,000 per win, easily the best mark on this list. His overall WAR mark is also impressive, as it ranked third on the team behind Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada.

Again, we see A-Rod come in under $2 million per WAR despite his enormous salary. Jorge Posada made a bit more in 2007 than he had in the past, but still came in at $1.7 million per win. He hasn’t gotten close to there since. Then again, he hasn’t come close to his 2007 production, either.

2008: Brett Gardner

I made something of an exception to the partial season idea by including Melky in 2006 and Gardner in 2008. There was good reason, though, as both produced more than 1 WAR. Gardner, in fact, produced somewhere around $200,000 per WAR, though that comes with a roughly estimated $200K salary. Adjust that all you want, he’s still way out in front of the rest.

Johnny Damon, at 3.7 WAR, was the next highest, followed by Alex Rodriguez, his full salary finally realized. Bobby Abreu, or at least Bobby Abreu’s defense, was the goat here, as he produced just 1.3 WAR for his $16 million. While a team certainly can win while paying a lot of money for its wins, it’s unsurprising that the Yankees didn’t have any players, other than Gardner, for whom they paid less than $3.5 million per WAR. That doesn’t sound like a winning formula.

2009: Brett Gardner


Photo credit: Jim Mone/AP

Clearly, if Gardner took home the prize in 2008 he did again in 2009. He produced 2 WAR while earning just $414K, or $207K per win. Melky Cabrera, with 1.7 WAR, was also a decent value. Count Cano and Swisher as others for whom the Yankees paid less than $2 million per WAR.

Alex Rodriguez falls to the cellar on this list, not only because of his $32 million salary, but because his shortened season hurt his value. Jeter’s 7.4 WAR season also played nicely with his $20 million salary, as he cost only $2.7 million per WAR. Damon and Matsui were trailers here, too, but it wasn’t as bad as the situation in 2008. Not by a long shot.

Here’s the spreadsheet, in case you wanted to take a look at the whole list:

Report: Granderson to play CF, Gardner LF

Via Joel Sherman, the Yankees have decided that Curtis Granderson will start the season as the every day centerfielder, pushing the incumbent Brett Gardner to left. He notes that Granderson’s sometimes awkward routes have improved as camp has progressed, and the Yanks didn’t feel it was enough of an upgrade defensively to make the switch. The move will probably cost the Yankees something like five runs defensively over the course of the season, though we don’t have enough reliable data on Gardner’s defense to say with any certainty.

I guess the biggest thing is just making sure Granderson was comfortable. There’s no need to move him back and forth between center and left depending on who else was playing the outfield on a given day (Gardner, Randy Winn, Marcus Thames), the guy will have enough to get used to in his first season in New York as it is.

Yankees agree to terms with pre-arb players

Via the Winnipeg Free Press, the Yankees have agreed to terms with their pre-arbitration eligible players, meaning guys with less than three years of service time. There’s 18 players in all, but the notables include Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Al Aceves, David Robertson, and Brett Gardner. No word on the money, but they’re all close to the $400,000 league minimum I’m sure. Joba and Hughes might be over $500,000 by now, and both will be looking at seven figures in their first year of arbitration eligibility in 2011.

Link Dump: Backups, Cervelli, Media Jerks

Let’s start Friday off with a few random links from around the netweb…

Projecting the backup outfielders

Sean at Pending Pinstripes took a look at some projections for the Yankees’ reserve outfielders, which essentially includes everyone not named Curtis Granderson or Nick Swisher. Unsurprisingly, Brett Gardner projects to be the best player of the bunch in 2010 on the strength of his outstanding defense and slightly better than league average bat. What is surprising is that the second best projected performance comes from Reid Gorecki, a minor league free agent the Yanks signed back in January. Although his offense will be below average, his defense isn’t all that far off from Gardner’s.

Cervelli may go all Dark Helmet on us

After suffering a concussion last week when he took a pitch to the noggin, Frankie Cervelli might use one of those big Rawlings S100 batting helmets this year. It’s the same helmet David Wright comically wore a few times last year, when he did his best Rick Moranis in Spaceballs impression. Safety first, of course, but that doesn’t mean we can’t laugh on the inside.

Bill Conlin is a jerk

Hopefully you remember this post from a few days ago, which disputed a claim from the Philly Inquirer’s Bill Conlin that the Phillies might have the best infield of the modern era. It’s pretty obvious he’s wrong, as they don’t even have the best infield of 2010. However, when a NoMaas reader by the name of Matt respectfully disagreed with Conlin, his emails were met with inflammatory responses. How could someone in Conlin’s position possibly be this disrespectful to his readers?

We joke about how the media in New York can be overly dramatic and stuff, but I’ll say this much, I’ve never felt disrespected by any of the guys who cover the Yankees, even when we were in disagreement. I feel bad for Phillies’ fans that have to put up with that.

2010 Season Preview: Sacrificing offense for defense in left

Every so often we see an organization get stuck looking to fill one position for an extended period of time. The Red Sox have been searching for a shortstop ever since they traded away Nomar Garciaparra, and the Twins are still trying to find a solid third baseman to replace Corey Koskie. For a while the Yankees had their own positional problem, using a different Opening Day leftfielder every season from 1994 to 2003. That problem was solved when Hideki Matsui came aboard in ’03, and in recent years Johnny Damon had taken over the position, but with both of those stalwarts now playing elsewhere, the Yankees once again are left searching for a long-term leftfield solution.

Typically considered a power position, the Yanks have instead decided to focus on defense in left. The tremendous offensive production they receive from the four up-the-middle positions allows them to take a bit of a hit in one of the corner outfield spot. With the speedy Brett Gardner already in-house, the team opted to complement him with free agent signing Randy Winn, who managed to be close to a two win player in 2009 despite a .302 wOBA because of his superlative defense. Add in Rule 5 pick Jamie Hoffmann, and it’s clear the Yankees made a conscious effort to improve their defense when replacing Damon in left.

Gardner played nothing but centerfield last year, saving 7.2 runs in 628.2 defensive innings. Winn, on the other hand, saved 16.6 runs in just under 1,200 defensive innings for the Giants. Unlike Gardner, he shifted around and spent time at all three outfield spots. Looking at three-year UZR, we’re talking about 55.2 runs saved in just over 4,700 defensive innings combined between these two, so clearly the defensive ability is there. Jeff Zimmerman’s age-adjusted UZR projections peg Winn as a +2.0 UZR defender in left next year, and Brett Gardner as perfectly average at the position. Both players project to be better defenders at different positions (Winn in right, Gardner in center), but the Yankees aren’t about to shift Curtis Granderson and/or Nick Swisher around for marginal improvements with the glove. These projections seem a little light, but let’s roll with them.

Aside from defense, the other aspect of the game where these guys excel is on the bases. Gardner stole 26 bases last year (83.9% success rate), and according to EqBRR he was worth 4.9 runs in all baserunning situations, 11th best in baseball despite being a part-time player. Believe it or not, Winn is just as much of a threat on the basepaths, having stolen 16 bases with an 88.9% success rate in 2009, and his 4.8 EqBRR was a tenth of a run behind Gardner for the 12th best in the game. No matter which player the Yankees have patrolling leftfield next season, they’re guaranteed of getting solid (or better) defense with top of the line baserunning.

Offensively, we have a different story. Let’s review some projections, starting with Gardner…

After posting a .270-.345-.379 batting line with a slightly above average .337 wOBA in 2009, the five freely available projection systems see Gardner basically repeating that performance. It’s slightly above league average overall but generally below average for a corner outfielder. Combine the offense with the +0.0 UZR projection and say another +5.0 runs on the bases, and Gardner’s looking at a 1.4 WAR season. The shift from center to left decreases Gardner’s value more than anything. It wouldn’t take much to get him over the two win plateau, just a slightly better than league average UZR and another 50 or so plate appearances of similar production.

Now for the grizzled vet…

Winn’s offense doesn’t project to be as good as Gardner’s because of a 20 point difference in on-base percentage, but the good news is that they see an improvement over his .262-.318-.353 (.302 wOBA) performance from last year. Granted, the .316 wOBA projection is nothing to brag about, and when combined with a +2.0 UZR and say +5.0 runs on the bases, you get a one win player. Nothing to get excited over, but not a bad return on a minimal investment ($1.1M) at all.

Of course, figuring out the actual production the Yanks will get out of leftfield is slightly more complicated because Gardner and Winn will presumably split playing time. If Gardner gets say, two-thirds of the playing time, Joe Girardi‘s club is probably looking at two wins total for the position, which for all intents and purposes is league average. That doesn’t account for Marcus Thames and/or Jamie Hoffmann, both of whom are trying to state their case for a job this spring. Since both players are projected to perform at replacement level next year, we really don’t have to worry about them. Anything the Yanks get from either is gravy.

For the most part, whoever the Yankees send out to leftfield on a given day will be their weakest player on the field. However, given their strength up-the-middle and two .400 wOBA corner infielders, they can afford to add another to dimension to the team in the form of strong defense and elite baserunning. I don’t expect them to have nine different Opening Day leftfielders in the next nine years like they did a decade ago, but what the Yankees have right now isn’t anything more than a stopgap.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP