Yesterday, the Yankees gave Brett Gardner $52 million to not exercise his right to become a free agent next winter. Instead, he’ll now stay in New York and play left field alongside Jacoby Ellsbury, rather than testing free agency to see if he could land a bigger deal as the best center fielder on the market. And that means Gardner has just signed up for four more years of criticism from those who think a left fielder should be “a run producer”, a guy who knocks the ball out of the ballpark and hits in the middle of the line-up.
Gardner is not that guy. He has more career triples than home runs, and a large part of his value comes from running down balls in the outfield. He’s a speed-and-defense guy, and traditionally, speed-and-defense guys have not been paid the same level of wages as similarly valuable sluggers. But while these kinds of labels help us describe the ways in which a player creates value, there’s also a trap to using these kinds of generalities, and we shouldn’t be so confined by player types that we miss the fact that Brett Gardner is actually a pretty good offensive player.
Just for fun, I pulled a leaderboard of all players who have accumulated at least 1,000 plate appearances over the last three years, and then calculated the spread between their OFF and DEF ratings. As a short reminder, OFF is the sum of a player’s batting and baserunning runs above average, while DEF is the sum of their UZR and the positional adjustment. Players with a large span between their OFF rating and DEF rating are specialists, guys who provide a huge bulk of their value with either their bat or their glove.
To no surprise, the largest gap in the game goes to Miguel Cabrera, who has a span of 212 runs between his OFF and DEF from 2011 to 2013. Joey Votto, Prince Fielder, Edwin Encarnacion, and Ryan Braun are all in the range of of a 150 run span. On the flip side, Brendan Ryan (93 runs), Darwin Barney (91 runs), and Clint Barmes (87 runs) have the largest negative spans, coming out nearly 100 runs worse on OFF than on DEF. Subracting the DEF rating from the OFF rating isn’t some huge analytical breakthrough, but I think these results do show that it does a pretty decent job of grouping players by their type.
So, where does OFF-DEF put Brett Gardner? Well, from 2011 to 2013 — which is actually just two seasons in his case, since he missed almost all of 2012 — he’s at +17 runs as a hitter and +22 runs as a fielder, for a span of just five runs to the defensive side. This makes his peer group include guys like Ian Desmond, Howie Kendrick, Yadier Molina, Erick Aybar, Jason Heyward, and Michael Bourn. That doesn’t mean all those guys are equally valuable — you can have a small OFF-DEF span by posting either 0/0 ratings or +20/+20 ratings, when higher numbers are obviously better — but it should serve as a reminder that Gardner’s peers aren’t really defensive specialists; they’re solid hitters who also happen to add value on the field.
In fact, this OFF-DEF toy actually reveals a pretty interesting comparison for Gardner’s contract that you’d likely never connect based on the way they look: Jhonny Peralta. Peralta signed a four year, $53 million contract with the Cardinals as a free agent this winter, so he got basically the same deal Gardner just signed, even though his performance has actually been more skewed towards defensive value than Gardner’s has.
From 2011 to 2013, Peralta’s offense has graded out at +8 runs relative to the league average hitter, while his DEF ratings have graded him out as +43 runs relative to an average defender. Peralta actually has an OFF-DEF span of 35 runs towards the defensive side of the ledger, even though no one really thinks of him as a glove first player. The reality, though, is that Peralta isn’t actually that all different from Gardner in how he creates his value.
Both are roughly average hitters. From 2011 to 2013, Peralta posted a 109 wRC+ compared to Gardner’s 103, so Peralta’s been a little bit better at the plate, but the gap is not particularly large, grading out to 13 runs by wRAA. Gardner then makes it all up and more once he reaches bases, as his baserunning advantage is +20 runs thanks to his ability to steal bases and turn his times on base into a higher percentage of runs scored. So, even with 400 fewer plate appearances, Gardner has actually been a better offensive player than Peralta since the start of the 2011 season.
Going forward, the forecasts expect this to continue. Both ZIPS and Steamer see Peralta continuing to be a slightly better hitter than Gardner (105 wRC+ to 100 wRC+), with Gardner making up the gap on the bases. While Peralta’s frame and ability to hit the ball over the wall more frequently suggest that he’s an offense-first player, the reality is that Peralta is an average hitter whose value comes from being able to provide real defensive value by playing shortstop. Gardner, meanwhile, is also roughly an average offensive player who creates value through his defense, only instead of being a solid defender at an up-the-middle position, he’s going to go back to being an excellent defender at a corner spot. At the end of the day, the value between those two things is simply not that different.
Peralta might not seem like a comparison for Gardner, but he is an example of the market price for average hitters with defensive value. Both Peralta and Gardner have their warts — the former a PED suspension, the latter a history of injuries — but Peralta’s deal makes a pretty good case that Gardner was probably in line for more than what the Yankees gave him if he got to free agency. While this kind of player is still generally underrated, it is clear that the Yankees see that Gardner is a quality contributor, even as a left fielder, and were willing to pay for the right to keep him and Ellsbury together for the next five years.
The contrast between the contracts signed this weekend — $8 million for Nelson Cruz, $52 million for Brett Gardner — are a great example of the changes that are taking place in MLB front offices. Gardner’s a good player, even if he doesn’t look like a traditional good left fielder. The days of average hitters with defensive skills being overlooked and drastically underpaid seem to be coming to an end.
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