Bobby Abreu versus… Brett Gardner?
Bobby Abreu has played 1799 games in his career, is a two-time all-star, and recipient of both the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards. In the past, he has led the league in doubles and triples, and has a better than 3 to 1 ratio of stolen bases to times caught stealing. Abreu ranks 24th all-time in on-base percentage, and 9th among active players.
Brett Gardner has played 42 major league games, amassing 141 plate appearances. He stole 13 bases while getting caught only once. Gardner played solid defense, but slugged a paltry .299 in limited playing time. After being recalled from the minor leagues for the second time, Gardner hit a respectable .294/.333/.412 (AVG/OBP/SLG) in 25 games.
Obviously, Bobby Abreu is by far the more accomplished player through the age of 34 than Brett Gardner is at age 24. So why am I bothering with this comparison? The Yankees recently declined to offer arbitration to any of their free agents, which includes Abreu. The Yankees did not want Abreu to see the depressing market for corner outfielders and simply decide to accept their $16+ million. With Abreu on the team, the outfield would feature him at his usual right field, Johnny Damon in center, and Xavier Nady in left. With Abreu now seemingly out of the picture, the outfield projects to be Nady in right, Damon in left, and either Gardner or Melky Cabrera in center. The Yankees are hoping that Gardner can take hold of the center field position, since we’ve seen what Melky is capable (or incapable) of doing the last two years.
We have a good idea of how well each player will perform in every aspect of the game, except for Gardner’s hitting, and we know the defensive value of playing Damon in left field instead of center. So that brings up this question: If we account for every aspect of player value–hitting, defense, and baserunning–then how well would Brett Gardner have to hit in order to justify the Yankees decision to let Abreu walk away?
There is no way around it, Bobby Abreu was a horrible defender in right field last season. He rated minus-24 plays according to the Fielding Bible, good for second worst in the game, and minus-14 in each of the previous two seasons. Revised Zone Rating had him rated as 4th worst in the major leagues in 2008. A conservative expectation for the aging Abreu next season would be around minus-20 plays versus the average right fielder. That would put him at 16 runs below average, since each play is worth .8 runs (see explanation here).
Gardner, however, is essentially the opposite of Abreu. As one of the fastest players in all of professional baseball, Gardner has always been known as a superb defensive center fielder. If you didn’t notice, there’s an added wrinkle here: Gardner and Abreu don’t play the same position. So we must figure out the value, in runs, of moving Damon to left field, and inserting Gardner into center (Nady’s value is equal at either corner outfield spot). Chone‘s 2009 outfield projections seem pretty conservative, but we’ll use them here anyway, just to be safe. Damon is projected to be 2 runs below average in center, and 6 runs above average in left. For those not keeping score at home, that’s a swing of 8 runs in the Yankees favor by putting Damon in left instead of center. Gardner is projected to be 5 runs above average in center field. That seems low, given his scouting reports and raw speed, but we’ll go with it.
So, to recap this section, by having an outfield with Gardner in center field, and Damon/Nady at the corners instead of Damon in center field with Abreu/Nady at the corners, the Yankees save a total of 29 runs. Wow.
As I alluded to earlier, Brett Gardner can fly. But Abreu is no slouch on the base paths either, stealing 22 bases or more every year since 1999. While important, base stealing is not the greatest measure of overall baserunning ability. For instance, it doesn’t measure how often you go from first to third on a single. To fix this problem, we’ll use the baserunning stats from Baseball Prospectus, which I believe were created by Dan Fox, who is now an employee of the Pirates.
If we go to the PECOTA card for each player in question, we see stats through only 2007. These are because the new PECOTA cards won’t come out for a few weeks. We can create a rough estimate of what each players baserunning ability is based off these numbers, though (and the great thing is that they’re already adjusted for league, so we don’t need to translate Gardner’s numbers from AAA or AA).
Gardner’s 2006-2007 average is 6 runs above average, despite missing time in 2007 to injury. He is not a candidate to lose a step in the next year. Abreu, however, must have a small amount of regression applied since he’ll be 35 by opening day. His ’06-’07 average is 1.9 runs above average. It’s two years later, so that number is probably between one and zero by now, maybe even lower considering his defensive collapse in the past year. I’ll put it at one run above average to be a little more conservative. The difference in baserunning ability between Abreu and Gardner is 5 runs, in favor of Gardner.
This area is where Abreu will probably make up a lot of ground. According to the extremely accurate and relatively simple wOBA, Abreu has been worth (on average) 27 runs above average the last three seasons. He should be projected to hit about the same, if not slight worse, so let’s say he’ll be worth 25 runs above average in 2009.
So now, the difference in fielding, baserunning, and hitting has been closed to 9 runs (+29 total fielding, +5 baserunning, -25 hitting). What that means is that Gardner must hit at a level equal to 9 runs below average, in 650+ plate appearances, in order to justify the Yankees not bringing back Abreu (regardless of the money owed). Looking at the leaderboards might shed some light on what 9 runs below average in a full season really means. Here are some guys who were worth 9 runs below average in 2008:
- Nick Swisher (-10), .219/.332/.410
- Chone Figgins (-10), .276/.367/.318
- Miguel Tejada (-9), .283/.314/.415
- Jacoby Ellsbury (-8), .280/.336/.394
- Kevin Millar (-8) .234/.323/.394
Listed next to their names are the runs below average, as figured by wOBA, and their triple-slash lines (AVG/OBP/SLG) There are others in that range, but these guys all had at least 520 plate appearances.
What do we see when we look at this? The first thing I’d do is cross off the least realistic batting lines here, which I’d say belong to Nick Swisher and Miguel Tejada. Gardner doesn’t have that kind of power as of right now. Gardner walked a lot more than Ellsbury did over each of their respective minor league careers, so he might not be the best fit either. Considering Gardner’s relative lack of power, the most realistic line here for him seems to be somewhere between Chone Figgins and Kevin Millar. Averaging those two lines brings us to around .255/.345/.356.
What does that mean? It means that in order for the Yankees to come out even in the Abreu for Gardner trade-off, all Garnder would have to do is hit .255/.345/.356 over a full season. If he can do that, the Yankees made the right decision in letting Abreu leave, even before you consider the money.