There has been a lot of back and forth about just what Brett Gardner brings to the table.
Yankee fans seem to either love or hate the idea of him as a starting outfielder. But many of the debates on the subject seem to based on rumors and hearsay, rather than looking at the evidence.
Let's take a look at some of the points of contention with an analytical eye and see if we can determine the truth.
Can He Hit Lefties?
The problem here is that we are working with a very small sample size. Last year, Gardner had only 55 at bats against lefties and he hit a respectable .291. In 2008, he had 24 at bats against lefties and hit a measly .125. But looking at his minor league record, he hit .292 in 397 minor league at bats against lefties, and .288 in 1,099 at bats against righties. Though we can ignore the actual average, since minor league performance does not necessarily correlate with major league performance, the fact that the averages are almost identical suggests that he does not have a weakness against one or the other.
Can Ge Get on Base?
His OBP last year was .345—not great, but not bad either. In fact, it was a little above league average. In the minors, he had a .388 OBP in 1,496 at bats, but that was the minors. The evidence suggests that he can, but the small major league sample size means that his ability to get on base is still up in the air. It is a safe bet that he at least will not be worse than average.
Just How Good Is His Defense?
While defensive metrics are useful, they are more accurate over time. Unfortunately, Gardner has not racked up all that many innings in the outfield, so we have to take these statistics with a big grain of salt. Full-time starters typically rack up around 1,200-1,300 innings a year in the field, so Gardner has approximately half a season's worth of fielding experience. Here is a comparison of career UZR/150 ratings for Gardner and a few other center fielders:
Even if we expect his defensive numbers to drop with a larger sample size, it is still pretty impressive. Scouting reports grade his arm at about average, but say that his speed gives him exceptional range. These reports, combined with his excellent fielding statistics, suggest that he is a very good fielder.
Is He a Corner Outfielder?
One of the big unanswered questions is whether he will play center field or left field. Those who assume he will play left have argued that he does not have the power required for the position. But what does that mean? Corner outfielders tend to be stronger players who hit lots of home runs. These positions are not prime defensive ones, which means that you can put slower sluggers out there and their offensive production will cancel out their defensive liabilities. Other positions, such as shortstop, center field, and catcher, are prime defensive positions because poor fielding here will have a much more negative affect on run prevention that no amount of offensive production can cancel out.
Many teams therefore need players with power numbers in left and right because their catcher, shortstop, and center fielder do not provide much offense. But the Yankees are a different animal—Granderson, Jeter and Posada provide great offense. Teixeira, ARod, and Cano also provide superior offense for their positions. Since the Yankees do not fit the mold, this argument has no merit. After all, if Gardner plays center and Grandson plays left, the lineup is unchanged.
So while the evidence seems to favor the Gardner fans, there is definitely a big question mark that comes with any player that has such limited major league experience. If he does start in the outfield this year, it will be interesting to see how he does. One thing in his favor is that he is not being thrown in the deep end (unlike Austin Jackson in Detroit). He has had a chance to build up innings and at bats on one of the biggest stages in the game, and he has demonstrated some good progress along the way. Even if you are not keen on Gardner as a starter, I am sure all Yankee fans will be rooting for him to succeed.