Brett Gardner: 2011′s Nyjer Morgan?

Prior to the beginning of the 2010 season, I asked whether Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner could become 2010′s’ Nyjer Morgan. In 2009, Morgan seemingly came out of nowhere and produced a five-win season with very impressive defense and surprisingly useful offense. While my earlier post did not claim that Gardner was likely to be a five-win player in 2010 (neither was Morgan, given regression to the mean), I did point to his similarities to Morgan: excellent outfield defense and enough on-base ability and speed to overcome a lack of power. Gardner’s 2010 exceeded my optimistic expectations, as he accumulated over five wins according to FanGraphs’ WAR. In the meantime, however, Morgan followed up his outstanding 2009 with a miserable 2010, particularly at the plate. If Brett Gardner was to 2010 what Nyjer Morgan was to 2009, can he avoid being to 2011 what his counterpart was to 2010?

The question is not whether Gardner is likely to repeat his overall 2010 performance (he’s not because, well, you know), but whether he can avoid the offensive collapse that torpedoed Morgan’s 2010 season. One obvious answer is that Gardner needs to keep playing good defense, and although the metrics weren’t as impressed with Morgan in 2010 (he had some memorable gaffes), given the general volatility of defensive metrics and the obviousness of the point, I won’t spend time on it in this relatively short post. Their offensive similarities and differences are more interesting to me.

Both Morgan and Gardner rely on their speed and ability to make contact to hit plenty of singles. Neither has any real power. Both Morgan’s 2009 (.355) and Gardner’s 2010 (.340) featured high batting averages on balls in play (BABIP). So if one is looking for a big BABIP differential to set Gardner apart, it is there, but it isn’t big enough on its own to set him apart. The specter of the speedy Morgan falling back to a slightly above-average .304 BABIP in 2010 while going from a .340 wOBA to a .287 wOBA is not so easily exorcised.

Having said that, other areas of Gardner’s offensive game differ enough from Morgan’s and make him less susceptible to collapse. First, while both hitters rely heavily on singles falling in, Gardner has shown slightly more power than Morgan (.100 career ISO versus .077), despite also getting infield hits more frequently (12.9 percent versus 6.6 percent career). In addition, while they are in the same general ballpark as far as number of steals go, Morgan gets caught so frequently that he virtually cancels out the value of his steals (in 2010 he stole 34 but was caught 17 times, and was only slightly better in 2009), whereas Gardner has about an 85 percent success rate in his major league career.

But while the slightly better rate of extra-base hits and much greater base-stealing efficiency lower Gardner’s dependence for value on his singles, they are relatively small issues compared to just getting on base. And while Gardner is very fast, Morgan is no turtle, and even having Gardner’s “power” and stealing efficiency would only have made Morgan’s 2010 offensively less terrible. Can Gardner survive a regression on balls in play?

Probably. It comes back to one of the oldest friends of the sabermetric set: the base on balls. Morgan’s 7.5 percent walk rate in 2009 wasn’t much better than his 6.9 percent in 2010. That’s why he depends so heavily on balls in play — he doesn’t really get on base that often without them. On the other hand, Gardner got on base at an above-average rate of 9.2 percent in 2009 and 13.9 percent in 2010 — impressive for a hitter who doesn’t exactly scare pitchers away from the middle of the plate. This reflects the two players’ very different plate approaches, with Morgan swinging at about a league-average number of pitches (44 percent career), and Gardner taking a much more patient approach (31 percent). It really does come back to on-base percentage being more telling of a hitter’s value than batting average: in Morgan’s big 2009 season, he hit .307 and a .340 wOBA (.369 OBP); in Gardner’s big 2010 he hit only .277, but had a .358 wOBA (.383 OBP). The extra-base hits and steals played their part, too, but the walk rate was the key. It all makes Gardner less dependent on ball in play.

Another instructive contrast (not so much for true talent, but for understanding how each hitter produces value) is that between Morgan’s bad 2010 season and Gardner’s decent-but-injury-shortened 2009. In 2010, Morgan had a .304 BABIP that was one of the main reasons he only managed a .287 wOBA. In 2009, Gardner wasn’t what he would be in 2010, but despite only having a slightly better BABIP than Morgan would have in 2011 at .311, he still managed a good .337 wOBA on the basis of his secondary skills (he only had a .270 batting average).

Two somewhat safe statements prior to the 2011 season: Nyjer Morgan’s offense will probably rebound due to the dead cat bounce (also known as “regression”), and Brett Gardner’s will probably fall a bit closer to the earth. But while Gardner is unlikely to repeat his .358 wOBA again (although it isn’t impossible, of course), his base-stealing, occasional extra-base hit, and above all his patient approach at the plate make is less likely that he’ll experience a Morgan-esque plunge.




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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.


48 Responses to “Brett Gardner: 2011′s Nyjer Morgan?”

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  1. Lewis says:

    Good article. Though a mention of Morgan’s propensity for bat shit insanity was probably warranted.

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  2. phoenix2042 says:

    as long as gardner can maintain his 2010 patience instead of career rate (which was still above average, just not crazy high), he will be fine. ISO closer to .08 and a BABIP closer to .310 with close to his 2010 walk rate would still give him an above average wOBA to go with his awesome defense.

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  3. B N says:

    I can’t believe I had to wait all the way to the end for walks to be mentioned. It’s the one clear factor that differentiates those players by a mile. We have in one corner, a guy who’s averaging 7.5% walks optimistically, with another guy who is averaging around 11.5%. A 0.04 sure increase in OBP is pretty darn significant. I know the article is built to tell a story, but for anybody who knows both players- the article may as well be called “Brett Gardner – Walks Way More And Hence Less Prone to Sharp Decline Compared to Nyjer Morgan? Yes.”

    I mean, this comparison breaks down to the difference between Juan Pierre when he was good and Juan Pierre now. The early Juan could draw a walk, the current one can’t. Admittedly, some of that has to do with how you’re pitched (which in turn depends on your power). But most of that has to do with eye and plate approach. Coincidentally, this is also the difference between Ellsbury and Gardner- meaning that Morgan and Ellsbury are probably better comps for each other, at least offensively. (Which is sad for me to say, as a Red Sox fan, but I think it seems unlikely that Jacoby is going to learn how to take a walk any better than he has been, at this point).

    Considering the old adage “You can’t steal first base,” I think every discussion of speedsters has to start with their OBP, especially their walk rate. That’s typically the factor that determines the difference between a mediocre and a great speedster.

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    • Sorry it wasn’t structured the way you would have preferred, it simply reflects my thought process as I compared their performances in their “good” and “bad” seasons — starting with balls in play, comparing power, etc. And, yes, it did come down to boring old walks, maybe it’s not that interesting to some people. But for me, it was interesting in that it was the case, that’s all.

      Thanks for reading.

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      • B N says:

        Wasn’t trying to offend, and I appreciate the work that comes into doing any analysis and presenting it as a nice story. With that said, I would hope that much of the readership could see where this story was going to go- so I felt it was worth noting.

        Though as a follow up, if you really want to wow us, it might be interesting to look into the relationship between a speedster’s power (e.g. ISO) vs. the plate approach of pitchers against them. I recall some earlier pieces that looked into if Juan Pierre could draw more walks or if he was being pitched so aggressively it was pointless to do so (it turns out, he might be able to draw a couple more, but it’s mainly the pitching approach, in my recollection).

        I would imagine there may be some sort of relationship where with 3 balls, pitchers will shrink their zone (increasing strike %) as a function of the ISO of a hitter. Depending on the nature of the relationship (linear, sigmoid, threshold, etc), going from something like a 0.077 ISO to a 0.1 ISO might actually be a significant difference that underlies Gardner’s ability to maintain a higher walk rate. Or not. Either way, could be interesting.

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    • exxrox says:

      it’s not really unusual for the most convincing point to come at the end of an argument, is it?

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    • by jiminy says:

      If the main difference between Gardner and Morgan is walk rate, and if Gardner does not have enough power to scare pitchers away from the center of the plate, is his walk rate really sustainable? Or will his OBP decline like Pierre’s?

      The point of this article was to see whether Gardner’s numbers will project into the future. If the conclusion is his advantage rests on walks, the key question might become whether pitchers will challenge him more and cut down on free passes.

      Thanks for the analysis–I will now be watching Gardner’s walk rate with increased interest.

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  4. Ari Collins says:

    I think the real question is how much Gardner’s defense will regress. Is he an above-average defender long-term, a superb defender, or an otherworldly? I’d bet against him performing as well as he did last year, but I see no particular reason he can’t be a +10-15 run LF.

    With some defensive and BABIP regression, as well as perhaps the league throwing him more pitches down the middle (given that the worst thing he’s gonna do is single, there’s no point in pitching around him), I’d guess he’s somewhere between a 3 and 4 win player next year. Still quite valuable.

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    • I have him at about the same range, 3.5-4.

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    • delv says:

      “With some defensive and BABIP regression, as well as perhaps the league throwing him more pitches down the middle (given that the worst thing he’s gonna do is single, there’s no point in pitching around him),”

      This is what people said about Gardner going into 2010, also. I think people give pitchers’s command/control too much credit. Gardner in 2010 had a great ability to make contact when he did swing, so he would often foul off pitches and walk ultimately, against the pitcher’s intentions.

      Also, it’s not clear why Gardner would supposedly regress defensively when he was LEARNING how to play LF for the first time in 2010 (having been a career CFer). If anything, he is a candidate to improve.

      There are reasons Gardner may decline (his wrist injury and offseason surgery being primary), but they haven’t been mentioned in the article above or the comments that followed.

      But, hey, why use facts and background knowledge when we can just say “ohh… regression is inevitable and inescapable!” It’s like the omnipresent god of a polytheistic statistics-pantheon. :)

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      • Ari Collins says:

        Very very much agree that the wrist injury will be interesting to watch. He wasn’t the same in the second half last year.

        But the reason people think he will do worse next year defensively is that he was at the high end of what we see in defensive numbers, and defensive numbers tend to vary year to year due to one season being a particularly small sample for defense. Sure, he could be just learning LF, and do better next year, but that narrative is counteracted by the fact that basically no one’s that good year after year, let alone better than that, and so it’s likely that he’s just a very very good defender who had a great year, rather than an all-time great defender who will have great years every year.

        For comparison’s sake, Crawford, who’s generally regarded as the best LF in the game, has only had one year out of his eight full seasons that was better by UZR than Gardner’s 2010. And that was when he was four years younger than Gardner is now.

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      • RSK says:

        “There are reasons Gardner may decline (his wrist injury and offseason surgery being primary)”

        The question is whether his surgically repaired wrist will hold him back for the entire year as much as injured unrepaired wrist held him back for half of last year. My bet is on the surgery increasing his entire-year performance.

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      • New York Necks says:

        Gardner is a proven CF playing LF only because Curtis Granderson is there. His range is not going to play down toward the average MLB left fielder’s range.

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  5. DavidCEisen says:

    Nyjer Morgan: 2011′s Brett Gardner?

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  6. Ari Collins says:

    He’s like a strange sort of reverse mistake hitter, waiting for pitchers to walk him. So I’d think pitchers would start throwing him better pitchers to hit. Do players who excel by taking lots of walks despite not having a lot of power tend to continue that pattern in following seasons? I can think of a couple who’ve had success like that, but how often are such seasons one-time flukes? Do pitchers adjust? That’s the important question, I think.

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    • Ari Collins says:

      Ignoring what I said earlier about what “the real question” was. I’m serious this time. This is the real real question. Real question is real.

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      • Joe says:

        There are some pretty convincing cases made by very talented, even legendary, players. My immediate first thought was Wade Boggs…Career BB% of 13.1% with an ISO of .115…but here are some others:

        Pete Rose – 9.9%, .106
        Mike Hargrove – 14.4%, .101
        Willie Randolph – 13.1%, .076
        Ozzie Smith – 9.9%, .066

        It seems this is a very rare player, if for no other reason than there are just very few regulars with ISO less than .100 (which makes sense, logically).

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      • don says:

        Luis Castillo – 10.7% BB, .061 ISO

        Far less legendary obviously, but more contemporary.

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  7. Chad says:

    One low power, high walk guy I can think of is John Cangelosi. He always managed a solid walk rate despite little power.

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  8. BillHiggs says:

    He averages almost 5 pitches per plate appearance – highest in the majors.
    He is able to foul off pitches and extend at-bats. Here’s hoping Girardi is able to remove his head from his … andc put Gardner at lead-off.

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    • Tyler says:

      Agreed. He also has a 90% contact rate in the zone so when pitchers do throw him strikes he’s pretty good at putting the ball in play which is usually seen later in counts (at least when I watch him) In many ways he reminds me of Bobby Abreu from 4-5 years ago in terms of his approach (rarely swinging early in the count) I’m sure somebody will show the numbers not bearing out on that but he is unique and fun to watch just because it always seems like pitchers have no reason to walk him yet he consistently gets deep into counts and takes BB’s…hope he gets a shot to lead off as well this year (although I doubt it)

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  9. dbake005 says:

    For the record, if we’re discussing BSI here, John Rocker has to be in the conversation.

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  10. Jimmajamma says:

    You can’t say Nyjer on the internet!

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  11. Davor says:

    Looking at metrics, Gardner is at least above-average CF defensively. Scouting reports also always said he should be at least above-average CF. Putting above-average CF in LF should result in best defensive LF in the majors.

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  12. BavarianYankee says:

    a fact that hasn’t been mentioned yet: Gardner had a thumb injury half of last season that clearly decreased his numbers in the 2nd half and his overall numbers were still awesome. I wouldn’t be surprised if his slash in ’11 will be something like 285/390/380 and +45 SBs. He’s basically Carl Crawford without power, worse AVG (but still pretty good) but better OBP.

    I’d love to see him hitting in the leadoff spot, then he could be a +60 SB, 120 R guy.

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  13. Ace says:

    Gardner is Morgan.

    Morgan is Gardner.

    Finkel is Einhorn.

    Einhorn is Finkel.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Awesomely Awesome.

      Your gun is digging into my hip.

      Hey, is your number still 9-1-1? Maybe I’ll call ya sometime Aaaaaaaalllllrighty then!

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  14. Tony says:

    How does Gardner compare to Span’s semi-collapse?

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    • Now _there_ is a good comp. Good call. Span has a much closer offensive profile to Gardner than Morgan: decent plate discipline (not as many walks as Gardner and takes more swings, but still better than average), effective basestealer. So that’s another possibility. Despite the BABIP “collapse” for Span in 2011, as you noted, that it is only a “semi-collpase” to a .312 wOBA as opposed to Morgan’s .287, and given Span’s good outfield defense, he was still an above average player in 2010.

      Great comment. Thanks.

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      • Will Hatheway says:

        Matt -

        One other thing when comparing their baserunning that actually makes in impactful (is that a word): Morgan was PKed 12 times, leading the majors for the second straight year (I think). He is just an awful combination of amazing speed and amazingly small baseball intelligence.

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    • by jiminy says:

      I agree, I think Span is an incredibly pertinent comp.

      Span’s OBP dropped from .392 in 2009 to .331 in 2010, and by all accounts, including Span’s, the main difference was that pitchers started challenging him with strikes on the first pitch. Bloggers pointed this out at the time
      http://overthebaggy.blogspot.com/2010/08/look-at-denard-spans-walk-drought.html
      And Span later admitted that he would have to change his habit of taking the first pitch because he was getting behind in every count. If he starts jumping on first pitch strikes, they’ll have to adjust back, but first he’ll have to prove he can hit them.

      I would expect to see pitchers challenging Gardner more, too. There’s not much risk of a homer, and with his speed, a walk can turn into a double anyway. If I were a manager, I’d tell my pitchers, anything but a walk, make him hit it.

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  15. Ryan says:

    Gardner discovered last year that if he slapped the ball the other way – to the left side – he found success one way or another. Fantasy GMs should hope he rediscovers his marked ability to bunt for a single to bridge him through slumps, his slumps being defined by lots of reverse K’s, 4-3′s, and 3-3′s in the box scores. He should be attempting to bunt his way on every fourth at bat as a rule.

    With 97 runs scored in 569 PAs – 17% rate that topped all Yankees last year – he has the profile of the best scorer on a high-scoring team. He’ll be challenged by pitchers more this year to earn his base. Bunting is the key. B U N T

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    • BavarianYankee says:

      yeah he should bunt more. But he really isn’t a good bunter tbh. Have you seen his bunts last season? omg is all I can say about his bunts.

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      • Ryan says:

        I hear that B.Y., I did watch him try to bunt last season and spit beer at the TV more than a few times (it wasn’t Bavarian beer, sorry, it was likely a NY state brew, a Belgian, or a Yuengling). One of two parts of his game that didn’t improve last year. If memory serves, he was a more effective bunter in ’09. Not saying that he should just stop trying to make solid contact, just saying that he has shown effectiveness in laying the ball down the line and he should keep that tool handy.

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  16. Mike R. says:

    I seem to recall how Gardner was putting the ball in play much less often in the 2nd half than in hthe first half. I believe he had some nagging injury to his hand.

    That being said, I remember reading how even if we take Gardner’s second half and cut his WAR in half, he is still between 3-4 WAR.

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  17. Dennismenis321 says:

    With the lineup that Gardner is in and with the fact that he doesn’t lead off, bunting is not usually a good option. He hits at the bottom of the lineup and always seems to have slow men on base in front of him. Unless they move him up to lead-off, I don’t see him attempting to bunt other than the occasional sacrifice.

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