The Surprising Reality of Brett Gardner

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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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.



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Bill
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Bill

Did the Ellsbury overpay set the market for this deal, or is this apples and oranges?

Cool Lester Smooth
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Cool Lester Smooth

They essentially gave him the same deal Bourn got at the same age, adjusted for the fact that Gardner’s a considerably better hitter.

Jonah Pemstein
Member

Well you also have to take the compensation pick into account. I think that had a bigger effect on the relative size of the deals.

Bourn, 2012: +10.4 Off, +25.6 Def, 6.2 WAR, age 29
Gardner, 2013: +8.3 Off, +1.3 Def, 3.2 WAR, age 29 (granted in 100 fewer PA, but still)

Bourn was definitely better the year before he signed his contract than Gardner was the year before he signed his. The Indians only lost the 69th overall pick, however. Adjusted for baseball inflation (10% yearly), Bourn’s deal would be 4 years/$51.4 million (I adjusted for the inflation yearly, which is why it is not simply $52.8M as his original deal was 4/48), which is essentially the same as Gardner’s. It is really interesting to see, however, the differences in how the Yankees and Indians approached the deals – the Indians essentially got the same deal for a (at the time of the deal) better player but lost a third-round draft pick. I think, unless all teams had some knowledge of the fact that Bourn would perform at a merely average level after he signed, the Indians got a better deal than the Yankees did.

Cool Lester Smooth
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Cool Lester Smooth

On the other hand, Gardner has a better track record. He was better than Bourn in both 2010 and 2011, and he’s shown that he’s capable of being an average-ish offensive contributor even without an excellent BABIP.

Rainmaker
Member
Member
Rainmaker

I think you also need to factor in that Bourn stays in CF, while Gardner moves to LF, which is a 10 run swing in the dWar calc, right?

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth

Yeah, but Gardner has been more than 10 runs better in LF than he has in CF over his career.

Jonah Pemstein
Member

Cool Lester Smooth – to your first point… I guess that’s true. But Bourn was coming off an absolutely fantastic year and such a steep regression was mostly unexpected (last year, ZiPS had predicted 4.0 WAR for him with slightly below average wOBA).

Cool Lester Smooth
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Cool Lester Smooth

japem, Gardner is coming off of a year that was just as good offensively, and with much better secondary stats. What’s more, his 26 and 27 seasons were far better than Bourn’s.

Gardner is just as good as Bourn, and he’s recognized as such. He would have definitely gotten far more than Bourn’s contract had he gone to free agency after another year like 2013 offensively, especially when you consider his customarily elite defense in LF.

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