Melky Cabrera left last night’s game with a hamstring injury in the 6th inning, leaving Joe Girardi without his starting CF. Sitting on the Yankee bench was one Brett Gardner, who entered the game in his place. An injury to a starting CF can be devastating for a team, but the Yankees carry an excellent replacement in Gardner.
Gardner is a fan favorite in New York, and is especially noted for his speed. His speed score of 9.1 ranks as the best in the major leagues this year. We’ve also seen his speed on the bases translate to range in the field, as Gardner has posted a spectacular UZR of +17.1 in 114 DG in CF. According to Tom Tango’s Fan Scouting Report, he ranks as a well above average fielder as well.
Gardner is likely not a +23 UZR/150 fielder, but with positive marks from the fans, we can be reasonably certain that he is a solid amount above average. As a htiter, Gardner’s main value comes from his baserunning. His 83.8% stolen base rate in 31 attempts made him a viable threat every time he reached base, which he did in over 34% of plate appearances. His rise in walk rate was the main contributor to his .337 wOBA in 2009. Given his terrible 2008 and the small sample we are given, we have to assume right now that Gardner’s true talent lies near his career wOBA of .319.
Melky Cabrera in 2009 showed sustainable improvement off of his rookie campaign, as his BB% and ISO rose to career highs and his BABIP rose from his 2008 low of .273 to .291. His true talent probably falls somewhere between his wOBA from this year (.331) and 2007 (.316). Cabrera’s defense has also improved each year since 2007, but he’s still a far cry from a defensive wizard. Cabrera’s career has him as a -5 UZR/150 player, but giving weight to recent seasons suggests he’s closer to a -2 or -3 UZR/150 fielder.
What we see here is two similar hitters and one excellent fielder. Cabrera’s switch hitting makes him the better option against left-handed starting pitchers, but against righties, Gardner’s combination of fielding skill, on-base skill, and ability to wreak havoc as a runner makes him an excellent play. If Melky Cabrera is unable to go in the remainder of the series, expect to see Gardner take over in center field and the Yankees to not miss a beat.