Costello: The left fielder’s name?
Abbott: Oh, he’s center field.
Who is going to play left and center in the Bronx this year? If this was an Abbott & Costello routing, the answer would be “who is on first”. However, for Joe Girardi, the solution isn’t as obvious. That’s why the Yankees are experimenting with the idea of flip flopping Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson in the outfield. Why? Because. Considering the potential benefit, such an abrupt explanation seems sufficient at first glance. If only baseball were that simple.
Because both defensive metrics and the eye test agree that Gardner is a much better outfielder, moving him to center seems like a no-brainer. However, there are no guarantees either player will transition smoothly to what would effectively be a new position. Sure, Gardner has played over 1,000 innings in center, but those have been spread out over four seasons. Meanwhile, Granderson would be a complete stranger in left field, having only played 60 innings at that corner. Learning a new position is hard enough, but when you consider Yankee Stadium’s reputation for having one of the most difficult left fields in all of baseball, the challenge could be all the more daunting.
One of the most compelling reasons to make the switch is Granderson’s poor performance in center field last season. According to fangraphs UZR/150, Granderson’s rating of -18.2 was the worst among all center fielders in 2012 and the sixth worst performance in the last five seasons. Even acknowledging the flaws inherent in UZR/150, such a damning score is hard to ignore. And yet, there are some mitigating factors.
In 2011, when Gardner played left and Granderson covered center, the Yankees had the best outfield in baseball, tallying a combined UZR/150 of 10.2. So, why try to fix what isn’t broken? Who knows, because of the big left field at Yankee Stadium, it might be better for the team to use its best outfielder at that position. That approach worked pretty well two seasons ago, and with Ichiro Suzuki taking over for Nick Swisher in right field, there’s every reason to believe the Yankees’ outfield could once again lead the pack in 2013 without making a change to the alignment.
Top 10 Defensive Outfields in 2011 Based on UZR/150
Even if the Yankee Stadium factor is exaggerated, and it still makes sense to play the best outfielder in center, it’s important to remember that defense is a zero sum game. In other words, it doesn’t matter who catches the ball as long as it lands in someone’s glove. What does that mean for the proposed switch? Basically, it is not enough for Gardner to be better than Granderson in center field. What matters is whether more balls are caught by all of the outfielders. So, if Gardner doesn’t play center as well as the corner and/or Granderson struggles mightily in left, the net impact could be negative. If these questions can’t be answered, the Yankees might be better off sticking with a formula that has worked in the past.
One final reason why the Yankees should proceed cautiously is because Gardner isn’t firmly established as an everyday player. Not only has the speedster been injury prone over his five year major league career, but his offense has not been consistent. If the Yankees need to replace Gardner, whether it’s because of an injury or for a pinch hitter, it would much easier to fill the void in left than center. So, one final question the Yankees must ask is whether Gardner is fully healthy and, if so, are they willing to play him every day, regardless of who is pitching?
Just because there is some risk to the switch doesn’t mean the Yankees shouldn’t give it a try. They’d be foolish not too. However, it would be just as fool hardy to assume the switch will be beneficial. That’s why the team should be commended for its cautious approach. Instead of mandating the change without assessing the comfort level of the players involved, the Yankees have wisely decided to test the theory in Spring Training. Although flip flopping Gardner and Granderson might seem like a simple decision, it’s not enough to make sense on paper; it has to work in the field as well. Why? Because. I guess baseball is pretty simple after all.