Friday Night Linkage: Gardner, Draft, Ohlendorf

Here’s some link to check out if you’re stumbling in at 3am…

Could Gardner be the next Nyjer Morgan?

Over at FanGraphs, Matt Klaassen wonders if gritty, gutty Brett Gardner could develop into this year’s version of Nyjer Morgan. Morgan, who posted a measly .320 wOBA and 0.9 WAR in 2008, broke out last season by putting up a respectable .340 wOBA to go with spectacular defense that made him just about a five win player. It was until the Morgan was traded to the Nats at midseason (and moved to centerfield) that he really took off, so maybe the Yanks should just stick Gardner in center right from the get-go.

I’m not bullish on Brett’s offensive ability, but if his defense is as good as the small sample sized metric says it is, he could legitimately be a four win player out of the 9-hole next season. That would be some helluva boost.

KLaw’s Top 50 Draft Prospects

It’s still super early, but that didn’t stop Keith Law from posting a list of his top 50 prospects for the 2010 Draft (sub. req’d). Bryce Harper predictably tops the list, and is followed by righties Anthony Ranaudo and Jameson Taillon of LSU and The Woodlands High School (Texas), respectively. KLaw ranked Lakeland High (Florida) third baseman Yordy Cabrera as the 32rd best draft prospect, which is where the Yanks are picking. At this stage of the game, these are nothing more than a very preliminary rankings, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun with it.

Ross Ohlendorf is a nerd

As you probably know, one time great Yankee Ross Ohlendorf interned with the Agriculture Department this winter, and talked about his experience with Tyler Kepner. “If there are things that interest me, and I am interested in a lot of things, I try to make an effort to learn more about them,” Ohlendorf said Wednesday. “If I’m going to do something, I want to put in the time to do a good job with it.” Next winter, Rock ‘N Rohlendorf wants to work in the legislative branch, perhaps in a the congressional agricultural committee. If that doesn’t work out, he wants to go home to Texas to work for a private equity firm. I’m serious.

Well, excuse me if being a big leaguer isn’t intellectually stimulating enough for you, Ross. Some guys…

(I kid, I kid)

T-Dubs holds the World Series trophy

Longtime RAB reader T-Dubs got to chill with the 2009 World Series trophy at the State Capitol in Connecticut on Friday. The first link takes you to some photos of his little adventure, and I have to say I’m pretty jealous.

Sticking the new guy in left field

Spring Training doesn’t officially start until later this week — tomorrow to be exact — but already, most players have descended upon Tampa. The core of the Yankee team is already working out at the team’s minor league complex, and the reporters are starting to settle into their Spring Training routines. Some semblance of order is returning to this crazy time we call the Hot Stove League.

In Tampa, all eyes are on the new guys, and that obsession thrusts Curtis Granderson, who just wants to fit in, into the spotlight. Other than the return of Javier Vazquez to serve as the team’s fourth starter, Granderson is the biggest acquisition, and he’s being asked to replace Johnny Damon in the lineup. Considering Damon’s departure involved stealing two bases on one play and being lauded as a key offensive piece to the Yanks, that’s no small feat.

So after an off-season during which we obsessed over left field and searched for ways the Yanks could fill a left field gap, the reporters asked Curtis Granderson about his take on the corner slot. Maybe he’ll be the one to take it, he said to MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch. “People forget that I came up as a left fielder,” Granderson said yesterday. “In the Minor Leagues all the way up to Double-A, I didn’t start playing center field consistently until my second year in the Minors. Even when I came to the big leagues, I played a few games in left. I have no problem going back over there if that happens to be.”

It seems so simple, but does it make sense for the Yanks? In essence, the team would be shifting Brett Gardner to center field while deploying Curtis Granderson as the left fielder. On days in which the Yanks are facing a lefty and want to rest Gardner, they can slide Granderson to center and use Randy Winn, Marcus Thames or someone else in left. Granderson is versatile enough and comfortable enough to make the move.

The numbers too bear out this alignment. Playing his home games in spacious Comerica Park, Granderson has generally been an above-average center fielder. He put up double-digit UZR totals in 2006 and 2007 before slipping below 0 in 2008. He rebounded last year with a 1.6 mark, and we can assume that he would be as good if not better covering ground in left. Brett Gardner meanwhile has shined as a center fielder. In limited duty, he put up a 9.5 mark in 2008 and a 7.2 mark in 2009.

As for the guys they would be replacing, a duo of Granderson in left and Gardner in center would far outshine Johnny Damon and Melky Cabrera. Damon, after two disastrous years in center with the Yanks, had an above-average full-season showing in 2008 as a left fielder but saw his UZR slip to -9.2 in 2009. Melky, meanwhile, put up a 0.6 mark in center in 2008 and a 1.4 mark in 2009. Even assuming just a duplication of their 2010 numbers, the Gardnerson/Gardner duo would be nearly 9 defensive runs above average while the Cabrera/Damon duo would be just under -8 defensive runs below average.

The wild card in these moves remains Brett Gardner’s offense. The Yankees won’t ask Curtis Granderson to move to left if they don’t believe Gardner can hold down a starting job for long enough, and the team might not ask Granderson to move if their plan includes pursuing Carl Crawford after he hits free agency next winter. After all, they might not want Granderson to be bouncing back and forth between the outfield slots for one year with a more certain solution just around the corner.

With run prevention the next frontier in baseball analysis and team-building, the Yankees are bound to give many outfield permutations a good hard look in Spring Training. When Opening Day rolls around, no one should be surprised if the solution to the Johnny Damon hole had been around since early December after all.

What a novel idea! Gardner’s learning to bunt

File this one under the “what took so long” category: Brett Gardner, the likely left fielder going into 2010, has spent this offseason developing his bunting skills. I mean, what’s the point of having a speed guy with little power work on his bunting game as he climbed the ladder in the minors? “Now it’s just a matter of being comfortable enough with it,” said Gardner, “not to be scared to do it in a game and have confidence that I’m going to put it where I want it. Not only can it be a tool to get on base, but it keeps defenses honest and can bring the corners in and maybe I can shoot some balls by them.”

Better late than never, I guess.

Gardner taking aim at key improvements

At every minor league level, Brett Gardner has shown improvements in his approach to the game, and now that the left field job is his to lose, he’ll have to again adapt his style. After a good, but not great, 2009 that saw Gardner hit .270/.345/.379 as a part-time player, Yankee fans know what to expect. He’s fast, but so far, he hasn’t gotten on base quite often enough to capitalize on his speed. He’s a contact hitter, but he has shown a tendency to be a bit too selective at the plate. Over the weekend, Chad Jennings talked with Gardner about his off-season approach, and what Brett said should be encouraging. He’s already working on improving his bunting, and he wants to be more aggressive by putting more balls in play this year. It might just be the words of a baseball player gearing up for Spring Training, but those areas are exactly the ones upon which Gardner should be focusing.

Is Brett Gardner disciplined, or does he just not swing at pitches?

Over the weekend, Ben commented on an article by Chris at iYankees about Brett Gardner‘s swinging habits. Chris emphasizes how Gardner lays off pitches out of the zone and how his contact rate is high when he swings at either type of pitch. I think Ben was leading up to a good point about what this means for Gardner in 2010, but never quite reached it.

So here we begin to see the problem. Gardner has a very good eye for pitches outside of the strike zone but he seems to be a bit too discerning with pitches inside the zone. He took a lot of strikes — nearly half of them in fact — and seems to have earned a reputation as a player who will take too many pitches.

When I look at the numbers I don’t quite see the same thing. Gardner’s low swing rate on all pitches makes me wonder if he’s disciplined at all. Rather than flashing a discerning eye, he could simply be taking pitches without much regard to location. That could make for rough times in 2010, when he could see playing time as a regular. It would seem that if Gardner continues to lay off pitches indiscriminately, pitchers could easily take advantage.

What happens if pitchers start throwing Gardner more strikes? Will he start swinging at more of them, or will he continue his approach and find himself constantly down in the count? Not that we can draw conclusions based on one similarity, but this is exactly what happened to Scott Podsednik in his sophomore year, as I explained last month.

It happened for Podsednik. In 2003 pitchers threw 49.8 percent of their pitches in the strike zone. In 2004 they threw him 56.2 percent in the zone. Podsednik maintained his contact rate, but predictably saw a dip in his walk percentage. He also hit far fewer line drives in 2004, dropping to 17.7 percent from 23.6 percent. That means more ground balls, which can be good, and more fly balls, detrimental for a low-power player like Podsednik. His fly ball rate rose by 3.5 percent and certainly factored in to his lower 2004 BABIP.

Gardner could help offset this potential adjustment by swinging at more pitches in the zone while continuing to lay off pitches out of the zone. If that sounds a bit simplistic, it is. The idea of a player simply laying off pitches outside the zone while swinging at pitches in the zone reminds me of an exchange in Moneyball.

“If it’s not a strike, how hard is it to lay off?” asks Feiny. He’s still staring into his own screen, watching Alex Rodriguez at bat.

“Oh, it’s hard,” says Mabry. …

“Just lay off the bad pitches, John,” says Feiny, teasingly.

“Feiny,” says Mabry testily. “You ever been in a major league batter’s box?”

Feiny doesn’t answer.

“I’m telling you,” says Mabry, turning back. He points to the screen, on which Moyer tosses another cream puff. “You see that coming at you and it looks like you can hit it three miles.”

“So just don’t swing, John,” says Feiny.

“Yeah,” says Mabryu, turning around again to glare at Feiny. “Well, the time you don’t swing is the time he throws you three strikes.”

“Feiny, have you ever faced a major league pitcher?”

“No, John,” says Feiny, wearily. “I’ve never faced a major league pitcher.”

At this point it’s impossible to predict how Gardner will react if pitchers start getting more aggressive. Will he become more aggressive in turn, swinging at more pitches both inside and out of the zone? What kind of result will that cause? Will he continue to take pitches? Won’t that cause his strikeout rate to skyrocket? So many questions, so few answers. Again, this illustrates the trouble with projecting young players. We just don’t know how the league will adjust to them, and how they’ll adjust in turn.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

The free-swingin’ Brett Gardner

Brett Gardner follows through on an RBI triple during the ninth inning of a game against the Mets. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

As the Yankees gear up to enter the 2010 season with Brett Gardner as one of their left field options, a divergent opinion on Gardner’s ability has emerged among Yankee fans. As I wrote on Friday morning, Gardner is not, as many proclaim, the next Bubba Crosby. Yet, some see his approach to the plate as a sign that the slap-hitting lefty, despite a .388 minor league on-base percentage, won’t excel at the Major League level.

One comment, in particular, is representative of what many believe to be Gardner’s shortcomings. Said Dalelama, “Let me end the suspense—Gardner sucks. But takes the prettiest third strike down the middle of the plate. Nobody leaves the bat on the shoulder like Brett.”

So we ask a question about Brett Gardner: Does he strike out too often and does he look at too many pitchers? First, some numbers: In his first 425 plate appearances, Gardner has struck out 70 times and 28 of those are of the looking variety. In 2009, his first full year in the Majors, he struck out 40 times in 284 plate appearances and 12 — or 30 percent — of those were looking. For his career, Gardner has struck out in 16.5 percent of his plate appearances but just 14.1 percent in 2009.

Overall, Major Leaguers struck out in 17.5 percent their plate appearances in 2009 and in 16.9 percent of the time in 2008. For now, it seems, Brett Gardner is around average when it comes to strike outs. For comparison’s sake, Mark Teixeira struck out in 16.1 percent of his plate appearances but 43 of his 114 strike outs — or 37.7 percent — were looking. Teixeira is a different type of hitter than Gardner is, but the point is that we shouldn’t put too much emphasis on those strike outs, looking or swinging.

Of greater concern is Gardner’s approach at the plate. We want Brett Gardner to be swinging at strikes and taking pitches out of the strike zone. As simple and obvious as that sounds, that is one of the more challenging tasks a hitter faces. Chris Harihar at iYankees ran the numbers and found that Gardner seems to have a good batting eye:

According to FanGraphs’ plate discipline data, Gardner swung at only 17.2% of the pitches that he saw off the plate. Believe it or not, when compared to eagle-eyed sluggers like Nick Swisher, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and Hideki Matsui, Gardner actually swung at fewer pitches outside of the zone than any other player on the Yankees. Interestingly though, while Gardner did not swing at balls, he also did not swing at many strikes. Last season, the speedy outfielder swung at 50.7% of the pitches thrown to him that were in the strike zone (the team average was 64.6%). The percentage stands as the lowest in-the-zone swing mark of any Yankee last season. All in all, Gardner swung at 34% of the pitches he saw, which was, again, the lowest percentage of all the club’s hitters…

In addition, when actually swinging at pitches that were either in or out of the strike zone, in 2009, Gardner was actually very good at making contact. When swinging at a ball, the left/center fielder was rather Cano-esque, making contact 75.5% of the time. Furthermore, when swinging at a strike, Gardner made contact 91.9% of the time.

So here we begin to see the problem. Gardner has a very good eye for pitches outside of the strike zone but he seems to be a bit too discerning with pitches inside the zone. He took a lot of strikes — nearly half of them in fact — and seems to have earned a reputation as a player who will take too many pitches.

In the end, we see that Gardner’s reputation as a looker isn’t undeserved, but he’s not quite a strike out machine. For him to succeed in 2010, he’ll have to keep that K rate where it was last year or at least where it averages out for his career. If he’s striking out 21.3 percent of the time as we he was in 2008, he will have to be walking a lot more, but if he can strike out around 16 percent of the time and swing at a few more pitches within the zone while maintaining his contact rate, he could be an effective nine hitter and a speed threat on the bases.

Not your father’s Bubba Crosby

Brett Gardner tries to race Joe Mauer to the plate. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Following the 2005 season, the Yankees knew they had a center field problem. Bernie Williams, due to the destructive nature of age, could no longer man his long-term position, and having passed on Carlos Beltran a year before, the Yankees were facing a season without a set center fielder. Sure, Johnny Damon was a free agent, but the Yanks weren’t going to proclaim they’re desire for Damon less they give up some leverage.

Enter Bubba Crosby. In 2003, the Yanks acquired Crosby along with Scott Proctor from the Dodgers for Robin Ventura, and for parts of 2004 and 2005, he served as the Yanks’ fourth outfielder. Following the end of the 2005 season — an end brought about in part because of an outfield collision — Crosby had a career line in New York of .232/.266/.318 with an OPS+ of 55, but Brian Cashman said the Yankees were willing to start the season with Crosby in center field.

It was, of course, a bluff and an obvious one at that. Crosby couldn’t hit a lick, and he certainly wouldn’t be starting in center field for the Yanks. A few weeks later, right before Christmas, the Yanks signed Damon, and Crosby would suffer through just 96 more Big League plate appearances before calling it a career. Cashman’s threat never came to be.

Fast forward to today, and many commentators are calling the Yanks’ commitment to Brett Gardner a version of Cashman’s Bubba Crosby threat. This time around, Johnny Damon has priced himself out of the suddenly stingy Bronx, and although it seems as though he could return on a one-year deal worth approximately $5-$6 million, Boras and Damon would have to concede a big defeat to do that. So with Melky Cabrera now in Atlanta, the Yankees are looking at Brett Gardner as either their starting left or center fielder with Curtis Granderson filling the other position. The Yanks will try to find a right handed platoon partner — probably a Reed Johnson type if not Johnson himself, as Joe said earlier — and after that, the roster will be set.

So up in arms are those who want an All Star at every position. Up in arms are those who see Bubba Crosby in Brett Gardner. Reality looks quite different. Crosby was a 29 year old with no value. He had put up a combined -0.7 WAR in his first two seasons in the Bronx and had shown some average defense. He had no real Minor League pedigree and wasn’t a prospect.

Brett Gardner is a different story. Throughout the Minors, he’s shown the ability to get on base, and while he hasn’t flashed much power, we can’t just ignore a .389 Minor League OBP. Last season, he hit a respectable .270/.345/.379 with 26 stolen bases in 31 attempts. He has a career WAR of 3.2 and has been an above-average defender in center and left in his young playing career. On the cusp of his age 26 season, he should improve and be at least adequate in 2010.

In the end, we won’t know until after the fact if Gardner will amount to much. He may just be a more valuable fourth outfielder/pinch runner extraordinaire. For now, he’s the Yankee left fielder, and there’s nothing wrong with that. He’ll give the team some value, and if we know what to expect, he just might exceed our expectations. With a power threat in center, the Yanks don’t need a traditional left fielder. They need an average bat and a good glove. Gardner as we know him now fits that bill to a tee.