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Brett Gardner: 2010’s Nyjer Morgan?

(…or maybe Michael Bourn, but let’s not complicate things.)

I remember the first time I seriously paid attention to Nyjer Morgan. I was doing a batting order post on the Pirates. Given the subject matter, I didn’t really deal with defense, but I did notice his (2009) Oliver projection for .308 wOBA — for a left fielder? Ugh. Morgan was soon traded to the Nationals, installed in center field, and not only continued to be a monster defender, but was above average offensively, as well, at +5.2 batting runs, .340 wOBA (.307/.369/.388). Altogether, he was worth almost five wins above replacement… in only 120 games.

That’s a very impressive season from a guy who looked like another “Juan Pierre.” Of course, back in the day, Pierre was a pretty good player, too. 2009 Nyjer Morgan and 2003-04 Juan Pierre both come from the larger class of players that were undervalued prior to the widespread public availability of fielding metrics like Ultimate Zone Rating. No one would have pegged Morgan for a near-five win season going into 2009. But, without saying it is my prediction or projection, I do think that one player who has it within his (non-totally delusional) grasp to have a Nyjer-esque 2010: Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner.

Gardner is currently slated to play left rather than center due to the presence of Curtis Granderson in New York, but, like Dave, I don’t think it makes that big of a difference. In any case, my crude fielding projections for outfielders are expressed in “position neutral” form — so when I say that a player is a +5 outfielder, we apply the positional adjustments (+2.5 for CF, -7.5 for the corners) so say the player would be about +2 CF, +12 on the corners over a full season.

Prior to 2009, I would have projected Morgan as a +7 outfielder, although that would have had a low reliability score because of his relatively low amount of defensive games pre-2009. Gardner so far has more playing time in the outfield than Morgan did pre-2009, and I have him at about +10. Once we take their relative ages into account, Gardner 2010 has more defensive “upside” than Morgan 2009 (the Fans Scouting Report also currently ranks Gardner higher).

The offensive comparison is more interesting. Despite Morgan’s good 2009, CHONE still sees him as a below average hitter (.321 wOBA). Gardner’s CHONE projection is surprisingly good — .335 wOBA. Part of this is Gardner’s relative youth, of course, but their peripherals reveal generally superior skills on Gardner’s part. For example, Gardner has the higher walk rate. This is likely a reflection of Gardner’s superior plate approach. While Morgan swings at bad pitches slightly more often than average, Gardner has been better than average, while still having a slightly higher overall contact rate than Morgan.

While Morgan’s good 2009 relies, as you’d expect, on a high BABIP (.355), Gardner has never really been a high BABIP guy (only .311 during his .337 wOBA 2009). Looking at their batted ball profiles, Morgan again looks like your typical speed merchant, hitting balls on the ground more than 50% of the time, whereas Gardner hits more flyballs. Although, unlike for pitchers, BABIP does reflect a skill for hitters, it varies quite a bit year-to-year, so is regressed fairly heavily. Having said that, given his speed, it might behoove Gardner to hit more balls on the ground (although he is probably best off ignoring me and doing what works for him). The point is that Gardner hasn’t been getting “lucky” with balls in play.

Originally, I wanted to post on just how badly Gardner need to hit to deserve benching in favor of a Randy Winn/Marcus Thames platoon. Given Winn’s offensive decline, Thames non-awesome bat and terrible fielding, and Gardner’s great defense (not to mention his acceptable bat and, contrary to what some might think, non-horrible platoon splits), that seemed pointless. Assuming average offense from Gardner, over ~150 games, he looks like a 2.5-3.0 WAR player in 2009. You can see why the Yanks felt comfortable not going nuts for Johnny Damon, who probably isn’t any better than that.

But Morgan (whom, incidentally, I also see as about 2.5-3 WAR in 2010) is still the more interesting comparison. I wouldn’t have had him as even a 2.5 WAR player before last season, and I doubt many would have. Yet he put up a 4.9 WAR once he got to show what he could do in the field. Should we expect ~5 WAR from Brett Gardner in 2010? No — that would be insane. But if Nyjer Morgan could do it in 2009, Gardner can in 2010. I suppose the Yankees would even settle for Michael Bourn’s “mere” four win 2009.