It goes without saying that the Yankees will need to at least somewhat lean on their outfield depth in 2020 as Aaron Hicks will be out with Tommy John surgery.
The Yankees made their first related move on December 12th, bringing back veteran Brett Gardner on a one year, $12.5 million deal with a club option for $10M in 2021. While the 36-year-old veteran is certainly capable of manning center field in 2020, he simply cannot play at his best for a full 162 games. In 2019, Gardner played in 141 games, following his 140 in 2018.
Gardner did put up decent numbers last year, posting a career-high wRC+ of 115, while nearly matching his career-high wOBA of .346 with a mark of .344 (per Fangraphs). Gardner also hit 28 home runs, another career-high. However, stats like wOBA (weighted on-base average) and wRC+ (weighted runs created plus), which both adjust for ballpark, league and time period, don’t show a ridiculous uptick in overall production for Gardner despite his newfound power.
Put simply, with the record number of home runs in the MLB in 2019, the statistical adjustments for era could potentially downplay the effect that Gardner’s 28 homers had on his overall value as a hitter. Did Gardner actually improve that much in 2019? Let’s take a look.
I calculated Gardner’s average wRC+ and average wOBA over the course of his career, excluding his “breakout” 2019 for comparison. This will allow us to really see if he significantly improved his offensive production in 2019 compared to the first eleven seasons of his career.
His average mark of about 102 wRC+ for his first eleven seasons is significantly below his 2019 mark of 115. Does wOBA tell a similar story? Gardner averaged a wOBA of about .329 through his first eleven seasons. In 2019, his wOBA was .344–again, significantly above his career average to that point. Only Gardner’s 2017 season ranks higher in wins above replacement (WAR), and even then, he played ten more games while seeing 132 more plate appearances than he did in 2019.
So, does this mean that Gardner will be able to keep up those higher numbers in 2020? I actually think so. The Yankees think so too after re-signing him this offseason. Excluding his horrible 2018, the worst season (91 wRC+ and .305 wOBA) of Gardner’s career where he played in at least 140 games, he seems to only get better with age.
What will Gardy need to do in order to replicate last year’s performance in 2020? One might expect that his success in 2019 came from a higher walk rate or lower strikeout rate. However, he actually chased more and struck out more in 2019. This signals that Gardy was simply swinging for the fences more often.
His batted ball percentage went down, and his average exit velocity remained static at around 87 miles per hour. His hard-hit ball percentage also was relatively unchanged since Statcast started tracking these statistics in 2015. However, one adjustment stands out as the reason for Gardner’s uptick in power in 2019: launch angle.
From 2015 through 2018, Gardner averaged a launch angle of about 8.2 degrees. League average sits around 12 degrees. Players above that mark are usually decent home run hitters. Of course, if a player is too high above that mark, they’ll just be hitting fly balls all the time.
So, how much did Gardner improve his launch angle in 2019? Gardner’s launch angle went up by about 5.4 degrees to a mark of 13.6. If he didn’t improve his exit velocity or his barrel percentage in a significant way, and chased more balls in 2019, striking out more, than the significant increase in launch angle likely explains Gardner’s success in 2019.
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Heading into 2020, Gardy will need to maintain this approach to keep up his production. Of course, if the veteran plays every day, he may lose some of that productivity, especially playing a demanding defensive position like centerfield until Aaron Hicks returns from injury.
Mike Tauchman is a perfectly good option in center and even outperformed Gardner at the dish in 2019 with a wOBA of .354 and a wRC+ of 128. Of course, if you prefer more traditional statistics, those demonstrate a similar narrative by comparison for Tauchman (.277/.361/.504) and Gardner (.251/.325/.503) last season.
In 2020, then, despite Garder’s vast improvements last season, he should not be the everyday centerfielder to start the year. Tauchman and Gardner have comparable fielding statistics in center, no matter if you prefer more traditional or more advanced statistics. Tauchman hits lefties better than Gardner as well which should be taken into consideration when Aaron Boone makes his lineup card for the Yankees in 2020.
Both Gardner and Tauchman present good options for the Yankees in centerfield for 2020, and so a platoon is most likely in order as the franchise seeks their 28th World Series championship.