Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Offensive success begins with Yankees’ Brett Gardner

The New York Yankees produced the third worst offense in the American League last season, but Brett Gardner was not a part of the problem, at least not until August. Gardner enjoyed one of his better overall statistical seasons in the Bronx and solidified his place atop the Yankees batting order with an amazing first four months.

For 2015 to be an offensive success for the Yankees, Gardner will have to replicate his production from the first two-thirds of 2014, not fall apart and hope that the middle of the lineup turns things around so he can score some runs.

Gardner had an extremely productive four months in 2014, but faltered down the stretch. He hammered a career-high 17 home runs, and racked up 50 extra-base hits (25 doubles, eight triples). His overall slash line (.257/.327/.422) would have been better but for a lengthy 40-game slump (.176/.226/.301) at the end of the season. Gardner had an .831 OPS before the slump began.

We found out last November that Gardner’s slide might have been attributed to a sports hernia that finally caught up to him. Gardner had offseason surgery to repair the issue and expects to be fine as Spring Training begins for position players in a couple of days.

Gardner stole just 21 bases in 2014 (caught five times), so for the second straight season he failed to reach 25 SB. For a leadoff man with his speed it’s critical that Gardner becomes more aggressive on the bases much like he was from 2010-11 when he swiped 47 and 49 bases in successive seasons. That is especially true if the middle of the Yankees lineup performs similarly to last season.

In the field, Gardner was more or less his typical self, covering his ground in left field with Jacoby Ellsbury manning center field. Gardner recorded a 2.9 UZR/150 (3.3 in LF where he played most of his innings) which is well below his career numbers. Some of this has to do with Ellsbury in center as Gardner is not required to cover as much ground as he did in other seasons when he played left field. The rest of it has to do with Gardner’s weak arm.

Assuming that Gardner is fully healed and suffers no ill effects from his surgery, the Yankees expect him to be atop the batting order on a regular basis. The Yankees need to have some constants in place and it seems that having Gardner bat first makes the most sense. While Ellsbury is an option, Gardner thrives in the leadoff role and Ellsbury is easier to move around the batting order.

For projections, Gardner is seen to be set for a slight downturn in performance.

There is a surprisingly large spread in the number of plate appearances between the two. It’s possible ZiPS feels the injury will affect Gardner, while Steamer does not. He’s just 31, so expecting a 100+ plate appearance drop off seems dramatic if simply using age as a barometer.

The rate stats are more or less in line with 2014, but each model sees a drop in homers and unfortunately does not project Gardner to run anymore than last season. Of course, the models are simply calculations based on his previous performance and comparable players from the past, and Gardner has complete control of his running game which again is essential to this offense.

It’s not especially reasonable to expect Gardner to generate a full season OPS of .831 which he held as late as Aug. 4 last season (his full season high is .762), and there is also little reason to believe that the slump was anymore than injury related. With that in mind, Gardner has the ability to continue to do some damage at the top of the lineup this season.

A .265/.340/.415 line with 50+ extra-base hits is not out of the range of possibilities given a full season of plate appearances. This is a drop better than the models project and well below the great run he was having through the beginning of last August. There is still plenty of upside in Gardner’s abilities at the plate.

Gardner’s importance to the lineup cannot be understated. The Yankees offensive success starts at the top with Gardner leading the way. Further, much like Ellsbury, Gardner might need to be at the top of his game for an entire season to make up for the possibility that the aging middle of the lineup cannot turn things around as hoped. If Gardner was to take a significant downturn of this own, the Yankees would be in serious trouble.

Projections courtesy of FanGraphs.

Photo courtesy of Keith Allison via Flickr.

Christopher Carelli is a freelance baseball writer and sports media strategist. Besides his work here, Christopher is a correspondent for FantasyPros, where he writes a weekly Closer Report column. His baseball commentary has also been published on Yahoo Sports, the FanSided network, Sportsideo and linked multiple times on MLB Trade Rumors’ Baseball Blogs Weigh In. He is a member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, the Baseball Bloggers Alliance and the BYB Hub.