CF in 2020: Debating Gardner vs. Tauchman
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In yesterday’s Mailbag, I answered a question regarding replacing Hicks in CF for as long as Hicks is shelved to begin the 2020 season. Most people, myself included, have just penciled Gardner into CF without another thought on the subject. The question specifically referenced Mike Tauchman vs. Brett Gardner, and my first reaction was to defer to my analysis from last season, in which I said that despite the stellar ratings from various defensive metrics over a small sample-size, the Yankees did not seem to trust Tauchman over Gardner in CF, so I didn’t trust Tauchman over Gardner in CF. But is that the right way to think about the question?
Over the last week, I’ve dug further into the full picture, and I think that my initial thoughts were far too cursory to answer the question well. When thinking about value at a position, I firmly believe that we need to look at the combination of every facet of a player’s game in the context of a position, not just their offensive or defensive profile. Previously, I weighted defense pretty heavily in looking at the question of CF. I still do, but I want to make sure that I don’t overlook the question of offense either.
Both Brett Gardner and Mike Tauchman had excellent years in 2019, and there is little question but that both players’ presence on the roster is important in order to have enough depth to get through the 2020 season. I re-opened my research into the question of which player is best suited to CF, and the information I found was interesting. Below are my findings:
Both Brett Gardner and Mike Tauchman were excellent at the plate in 2019. We have a lot of data from which we can draw when looking at Gardner, but much less when it comes to trying to project Tauchman in 2020 from an offensive perspective. For the purposes of the numbers used, we’ll look specifically at 2019, and speak more generally about whether certain statistics represent consistency or a departure from previous seasons.
Brett Gardner transformed his batted ball profile in 2019. While his exit velocity and barrel rates remained middling, his average launch angle jumped to 13.6 degrees from single-digit launch angles since 2015. Combined with the gopher ball in 2019, Gardner exhibited unprecedented power numbers, swatting 28 HR, with a .254 ISO, and 115 wRC+ meaning that Fangraphs graded him as producing 15% more value at the plate than the average MLB hitter in 2019. While Gardner’s bottom-line numbers were excellent, Baseball Savant’s XWOBA, or Expected Weighted On Base Average, says that Gardner outperformed relative to his quality of contact and average launch conditions. Despite this, even with regression to expected levels based on contact, Gardner would still be a positive asset offensively.
Most importantly, Gardner did all of this while keeping his plate discipline numbers in-line with previous values, walking in 9.5% while striking out in just 19.6% of plate appearances last season. Additionally, Gardner maintained an elite Chase Rate (22.4% vs. 28.3% MLB average) while also maintaining elite in-zone contact rates (88.7% vs. 82.9% MLB average). Gardner’s offensive floor going forward should be buoyed by his continually elite plate discipline.
Tauchman also has undergone a significant change in his batted ball profile. Tauchman suddenly started hitting for power a couple of years ago in the minor leagues, though it hadn’t translated in limited opportunities at the Major League level until 2019. Tauchman also went from hitting the ball on the ground to hitting it in the air more frequently in the year of the gopher ball, increasing his average launch angle to 11.5 degrees. While this change helped Tauchman to hit more doubles and home runs, his exit velocity and barrel numbers are average, and much like Gardner, Tauchman’s XWOBA of .323 indicates that he over-performed relative to his quality of contact.
Tauchman displayed terrible plate discipline in minuscule samples prior to 2019, but his plate discipline numbers were greatly improved last year. Tauchman walked at an elite 11.5% rate in 2019, and though his K% dropped dramatically, it was still below-average at 24.0%. Tauchman’s chase rates are similar to Gardner’s, though his zone contact rates are significantly lower (but still average), so I think that Tauchman is still in danger of seeing his strikeout rate rise with greater exposure until proven otherwise.
Overall, both guys are pretty similar at the plate, with Tauchman showing a bit more power with harder contact rates, while Gardner shows better plate discipline with higher contact rates. The elephant in the room is the gopher ball. No one knows what the ball will play like in 2020, so it is nearly impossible to know if the power numbers will translate the same way for either Gardner or Tauchman. Given that fact, I personally prefer Gardner’s contact and plate discipline profile to Tauchman’s, but they’re pretty close no matter how you project them. Both guys are likely to be solid offensive contributors in 2020, particularly in light of the offensive bar in CF, so the question of overall value comes down to defense.
The eye test in 2019 told me that Gardner was the superior CF option in 2019. Not only did the Yankees choose to play Gardner in CF over Tauchman the majority of the time (which means that they obviously preferred Gardy in CF), but Tauchman looked far more comfortable in a corner than he did in CF. I have been very hesitant to use the traditional defensive metrics that we have available to us over small sample sizes smaller than full seasons or more in the past. However, I am warming to the idea of using Baseball Savant’s Outs Above Average (OAA), given the visual features this statistic affords. We can now actually see why players grade highly or poorly relative to their positioning in the field.
The visuals I am about to show you are in no way definitive, but they are fascinating. These visuals will show how Gardner and Tauchman did on balls hit to them in CF and LF that had a hang time of less than 6.5 seconds and a catch probability of greater than 5%, but less than 75%. Here it is for Gardy:
Chart Courtesy of Baseball Savant (Click to Enlarge)
And now for Tauchman:
Chart Courtesy of Baseball Savant (Click to Enlarge)
Pretty interesting stuff. Both guys cover a ton of ground, which makes sense. Statcast credits Tauchman with well above-average sprint speed and elite outfielder jump ratings, while it credits Gardner with elite sprint speed and well above-average outfielder jump ratings. Here’s what you can’t see from the charts above unless you go to Baseball Savant: the catch probability of all the hits and outs made in those zones. Before I get into it, I want to note that Gardner plays a touch shallower in CF than Tauchman does, but it does not seem to make an impact on the balls either gets to.
Brett Gardner makes all of the routine plays in CF and LF. While he made multiple plays on balls hit with catch probabilities below 60% in LF, he made just 2 in CF in 2019. He also allowed multiple hits with catch probabilities between 40%-60% in CF, and none in LF.
Tauchman was elite at making catches with catch probabilities below 60% in LF, and even made one in limited playing time in CF. Tauchman did not allow a single hit in the 40%-60% catch probability range in either CF or LF.
We are working with tiny sample sizes for Tauchman, but I think it is possible that he is the superior defender when compared to Gardner. We don’t have a lot of data for Tauchman in CF, but we know Gardner is likely well above-average in LF, and is only average to slightly above in CF. Tauchman is elite defensively in LF, and preliminary findings suggest that he would at least be a good defensive center fielder.
The projection systems are all over the place for both Gardner and Tauchman offensively in 2020. One thing that is constant though is that Tauchman is credited by all projection systems as being an elite defender. I was skeptical that Tauchman could be a plus defender in CF prior to my research, but I was surprised to find that Tauchman is certainly a superior defender to Gardner not only in LF, but likely in CF as well. To project both players in 2019, assuming perfect health, I think that given the weight that defense has at a premium position when calculating WAR, I think that it is likely that Tauchman would be more valuable than Gardner in CF this upcoming season with a similar number of plate appearances.
However, I would caution that we are still working with a small sample size with Tauchman. I see potential for his offensive numbers to slide significantly, while Gardner likely has a solid floor due to his elite plate discipline. Overall though, the Yankees should be happy to have both guys in the fold. I think that it is likely that both guys will see a significant amount of time in CF in rotation in 2020, and provide good value there until Hicks returns.