Today, the series on xBABIP and the 2010 Yankees continues with an examination of Brett Gardner. The introduction to xBABIP, how it’s formulated and why it’s useful, can be found in the first piece discussing Mark Teixeira. Unlike Teixeira, Brett Gardner has a sky-high BABIP of .360 so far in 2010. This mark is 11th highest in the major leagues, and represents an almost fifty point increase over his .311 mark in 2009. Taking a look at his most basic batted ball data, nothing jumps out at first glance:
His line-drive and ground-ball percentages are both up a tick, at the expense of his fly-ball percentage. This is in theory a positive trend in all respects, as line-drives and ground balls both fall in for hits more frequently than fly balls. Additionally, Gardner has reduced his infield fly-ball percentage, cutting it by more than half. By examining the components of his batted ball data, it becomes obvious which types of hits are driving the increased BABIP.
While his line drive BABIP is right in line with league average (and note how high it was in 2009), his ground ball and fly ball percentage stand out quite a bit, albeit in different ways. His BABIP on grounders is .306. He’s outperforming the league average, .230, by 75 points and his 2009 mark by 40 points. Yet on fly balls, the reverse is occurring. His BABIP is .105, 35 points shy of the league average and 20 points south of his 2009 mark.
While Gardner’s data sample in 2010, and over his career, is quite small, one would be tempted to reason that Gardner’s tremendous speed is enabling him to achieve a higher BABIP on grounders than most other players. Fortunately, xBABIP considers speed as a factor, alongside home runs, batted ball data and strikeouts. Here are the results of the xBABIP calculations:
Well, that’s nice. xBABIP doesn’t see the high fluctuation in BABIP to be completely anomalous, and gives him a score of 0.336. All things considered, it’s quite the high mark. If all things stayed the same and his BABIP regressed 20 or 30 points, Brett Gardner would still be a tremendously valuable player for the Yankees. Of course, it’s entirely possible that his BABIP could stay in the .350-.360 range for the entirety of the season. The margin of difference isn’t that wide.
It’s tempting to make an Ichiro comparison. Ichiro is a similarly built and similarly quick outfielder. Over the course of his illustrious career, he’s averaged LD, GB and FB percentages of 20.5%, 55.6% and 24%, respectively. This is close to Gardner’s batted ball profile, except that Ichiro hits slightly more grounders and less fly balls. Ichiro also has a career BABIP of .358. In 2010, his BABIP is .365, outperforming his xBABIP by over 30 points. In fact, Ichiro has outperformed his xBABIP quite consistently for years. He’s a unique and singular talent, with such an exceptional eye and approach to hitting. Could Gardner be like a mini-Ichiro for the Yankees?
Since Ichiro is so unique, comparisons of Gardner to Ichiro should be avoided. For now. Sure, it’s a good sign that Gardner’s on-base percentage skills aren’t some fluke without precedent (.383 OBP in the minor leagues), and that his results in 2008 at AAA are almost exactly what we see now in the major leagues. It’s also a good sign that he’s improved his walk rate to nearly 11% and has cut down on his infield fly-balls in 2010. But ultimately we don’t know what to expect from Brett Gardner going forward. Name me another player in the major leagues who has built a career off .390 OBPs, high BABIPs, little power and tons of speed, who refuses to swing at pitches outside or inside the zone and who doesn’t play RF for the Mariners. They’re certainly out there, but they’re few and far between. Drawing conclusions about what to expect from Gardner’s second half, and his career, is a fool’s errand. But we do know a few things for now: that his supernova-hot start is a bit overheated but appears to be legitimate; that his speed is a weapon; that his plate discipline is very good; and that he may save the Yankees tens of millions of dollars over the next few years by eliminating the need for Carl Crawford.