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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.