Saturday, January 9, 2010

Giving Gardner His Due

Even though he’s not a Yankee and all signs point to him not being a Yankee again, all the talk in the Yankee Universe is on Johnny Damon. Bloggers such as The Yankee Scrolls write:
“I know I should just move past the idea of Johnny Damon coming back to play left field for the Yankees, but I can’t. There just seem to be so many good reasons why he should come back, and so few reasons why he shouldn’t.”

Jon Heyman of SI wrote recently:
“Yankees GM Brian Cashman, who casually threw out a figure of $14 million for two years after agent Scott Boras requested $20 million over two, is said to only want to do a one-year deal at this point and is believed to want to spend no more than $6 million. If they could stretch a bit, they might be able to resurrect the lineup top (1 through 4) that was one of the best things about the world champions.”
“Confessions of a She-Fan” wrote:
“…the team would be stronger with Johnny Damon on the roster. So what’s the big deal? Just sign the guy and get it over with, so we can see him popping out of the dugout and knocking the ball into Damon’s Deck?”
And so on. All this despite the fact that every report from every Yankee reporter says that it’s not likely he’s coming back. Heck, Andrew Marchand wrote:
“The Yankees have no plans on taking Damon back even if he comes crawling back. He would have to take a million or two and that is impossible to imagine. The Yankees feel they have already spent the money they were going to give to Damon so Damon’s days are over in the Bronx.”
Not definitive enough for you? Yesterday, Cashman said yesterday:
“We have a left fielder. We do like Brett Gardner.”
First off, let me say, sure I’d love to have Damon back. He’s still got some pop in his bat and tire left on his wheels. But that’s not my question. My question is…. why does everyone hate Brett Gardner?

OK, I’m not saying the guy is Rickey Henderson or anything like that. But with the way the blogosphere—as well as the mainstream media writes it—either the Yankees get someone, anyone, for left field, or this offseason is a giant FAIL. I mean, even New York Magazine (really?) recently wrote an article entitled “Is Brett Gardner Really Going To Be The Yankees’ Left Fielder?”

And really, last year showed that Gardner isn’t really that bad. The kid batted .270; and about .330 when he was getting regular playing time in May and June, before his injury. He batted .300 with the game “Late and Close,” and batted .295 with RISP. He is very speedy and a pest on the bases— both things the Yankees have lacked in recent years. And he plays an above-average centerfield, covering a lot of ground with the aforementioned speed and will sacrifice his body to make a play (Bobby Abreu, I’m looking at you.) In FanGraphs UZR defensive ranking of everyone that played center field last year, out of 142 players, Gardner finished 12th and most likely would have been higher had he played a full season. And his ARM stat (Outfield Arm Runs Above Average) of 3.0 ranks him 9th out of 142.

Overall…. doesn’t seem so bad to me. Yes, he has no power—but that is something the Yankees really don’t need anyway. Speed is his attribute, and is something the Yankees could sorely use. Last year, according to FanGraphs Speed Score (a stat based on an average of Stolen Base Percentage, Frequency of Stolen Base Attempts, Percentage of Triples, and Runs Scored Percentage), Gardner was the speediest person in the majors by a long shot. And batting 9th, right in front of Jeter…. not a bad place to be.

Another complaint is that Gardner is “Sure, Gardner is fast when he’s on base, but he doesn’t get on base often enough.” Well, Gardner didn’t tell the cover off the ball last year, yes, but he did bat .270—just above the American league average of .267. And his OBP of .345 was again over the league average of .336. And despite only 284 plate appearances, Gardner had a Runs Created score of 39. Projecting out, were we to double his plate appearances to 568, that would give him a score of 79, and would place him above Adam Jones, B.J. Upton, Scott Posednick, Jermaine Dye, Alex Rios and Melky Cabrera and would place him only 16 behind new Yankee, Curtis Granderson, who had 710 plate appearances last year.

Admittedly, these stats come from a small sample of playing time. And over a full year, we can’t tell how Gardner would fare. But his Yankee stats, as well as his minor league stats, show steady improvement. The more time he gets to play, Gardner responds.

The Yankee Universe seems to have this outrageous sense of unrealistic expectations—that every position needs to have a million-dollar All-Star, and if not, Cashman blew the off-season. “Sign Bay! Sign Holliday!” It’s unrealistic, and more to the point, unnecessary. To compare, the 1996 starting left fielder for the Yankees was Gerald “Ice” Williams who batted…… .270. Darrell Strawberry also played there and batted .262. In 1998, it was Chad Curtis, who batted .243 and Ricky Ledee who batted .241. It was Ricky Ledee in 1999 who batted .276.

Now I’m saying the Yankees should go out and sign the Ghost of Ricky Ledee and it’s a lock for another World Series. I’m saying a team is made up of complementary parts. It needs balance. And Gardner is exactly what the Yankees don’t have right now.

Using Bill James projections, Gardner is projected to bat .277/.368/.375 in 2010. Now, who knows if that will turn out to be true? I have no idea if Gardner is going to turn out to be a viable everyday left fielder. I do know that he seems to be a very nice fit for the 2010 Yankees. His speed and range in the outfield—should he play left field or be placed in center—are assets the Yankees can use. And his bat, while not up to the Yankees’ “A Grand Slam Every Time At Bat” standards, isn’t really as bad as everyone makes it out to be.

Now, it’s possible this is all just a Cashman bluff and he’s really trying to get Damon to accept a one-year deal. (The Yankees seem to need a one-year stopgap until Carl Crawford—a Cashman favorite—becomes a free agent in 2011.) But I for one am a Gardner fan—and I know most people would like to see him in Scranton rather than the Bronx. But I’m not sure why. He hasn’t been given too much of a chance, but when he has, he has handled himself fairly well. I think he deserves a chance.


Adam said...

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Nick Charles Whitman said...

I think that lots of people would have been fine with Gardner starting in center, but the acquisition of a superior center fielder in Curtis Granderson necessitated a move to left, where Gardner's defense isn't as important and his weak hitting is more of a liability. Left field is traditionally a power position, and Gardner's poor hitting looks much worse there than in center.

My Boston Red Sox are in much the same situation with the punchless Jacoby Ellsbury sliding over to left to accomodate a superior fielder in Mike Cameron. Ellsbury's all-speed, no-hit game compares unfavorably (to be charitable) with the production of his predecessors, Jason Bay and Manny Ramirez.

Speedy players that can't slug .400 aren't necessarily a bad thing, but left field probably isn't the ideal spot to play that kind of guy, and I think it's reasonable for Yankee (and Red Sox) fans to expect some solid production from the position.