If you turn on a New York Yankees spring game and find yourself staring at Brett Gardner in center field and Curtis Granderson in left field, do not adjust your television set. The situation will be under control.

According to Wallace Matthews of ESPNNewYork.com, Yankees manager Joe Girardi has it in mind to carry out an experiment in which Gardner plays center field and Granderson plays left field this spring, just to see how it goes.

“We’re gonna toy with it and see if we like it,” Girardi said of the experiment. “If we do, we’ll stay with it. If we don’t, we won’t.”

Girardi has the right idea. The Yankees lost a fair amount of offensive production over the winter with Nick Swisher and Russell Martin leaving as free agents, so they won’t be able to be as much about run generation in 2013 as they have been in the past. The trade-off must be a higher emphasis on run prevention, and that will require them to tighten up their defense as much as they can.

As far as the numbers are concerned, swapping Granderson and Gardner is one of the best ways they can do that. The Yankees would be putting their best foot forward by having Gardner in center field and pushing a liability to the side with Granderson in left field.

Yes, Granderson is an experienced center fielder. And no, he didn’t commit a single error in 2012. Among center fielders, only he and Jon Jay can say they were able to do that.

But the advanced defensive metrics were not impressed by the season Granderson had in center field last year. He rated as the worst defensive center fielder in the majors in the eyes of Ultimate Zone Rating, and the Defensive Runs Saved metric disagreed only slightly (see FanGraphs). 

Granderson rated as a better fielder in 2011, but he still qualified as being below-average. He finished the year with a minus-5.1 UZR and a minus-six Defensive Runs Saved (FanGraphs). 

There’s nothing wrong with Granderson’s athleticism. He’s faster than most, and it’s not like it’s unheard of for him to run several miles across the outfield grass to make tough catches. If you’re thinking he can’t be as bad as the metrics say, it’s probably because you’re thinking of those plays.

Granderson’s issues on defense have more to do with his reads. Here’s what a scout told Mark Simon of ESPN Stats and Information about Granderson’s defense in 2011:

He does not react well off the bat, almost as if he has a depth perception problem, which really shows up on hard line drives at him, which is a difficult play for most, and hard to practice. 

So while Granderson definitely has the athleticism to play center field, he doesn’t have the same kind of keen instincts featured by the greats (Andruw Jones, Ken Griffey Jr., et al). It sounds like this isn’t something he can learn either.

Gardner, meanwhile, doesn’t have much to learn as far as fielding goes, especially not in left field. Between 2010 and 2011, he blew all other left fielders out of the water in both UZR and DRS (FanGraphs). He led all major leaguers in UZR in 2011, which helped him win his second straight Fielding Bible Award.

An elbow injury suffered early in the season limited Gardner to only 16 games in 2012, and his absence had an impact both on Granderson and the Yankees’ outfield in general. Granderson had to cover more ground, and his defensive numbers suffered as a result. Collectively, the club’s outfield saw its DRS fall to minus-18 (FanGraphs). It had been at plus-11 in 2011.

On balls hit to the outfield in 2011, Baseball-Reference.com shows that the Yankees surrendered a .550 average and a .506 BABIP. With Gardner gone in 2012, the Yankees surrendered a .569 average and a .519 BABIP on balls hit to the outfield. They ultimately gave up 11 more runs than they did in 2011, some or all of which could have been kept off the board if they’d had Gardner.

Gardner hasn’t just proven himself to be an strong fielder in left field. He’s seen relatively limited action in center field, but he got to play over 600 innings in center in 2009 and performed very well there, compiling a 9.3 UZR and a plus-seven DRS (FanGraphs).

If Gardner were to play center field every day, he’d ideally turn into a clone of Michael Bourn. Bourn led all center fielders in UZR and DRS in 2012 (FanGraphs), and he helped the Braves limit opponents to a .536 average and a .495 BABIP on balls hit to the outfield. They allowed 600 runs, or 68 fewer than the Yankees.

Granted, Bourn was flanked by a very good right fielder in Jason Heyward and a very good left fielder in Martin Prado, giving the Braves a defensive outfield that few teams in baseball were able to match.

But the Yankees could come close to matching it with Gardner as their full-time center fielder. He has the potential to be elite, and he’d be flanked by a right fielder in Ichiro Suzuki who can still get it done on defense. Suzuki finished 2012 with a 12.7 UZR and plus-11 DRS as a right fielder (FanGraphs).

Granderson, meanwhile, is not totally without experience in left field. He played over 50 innings in left field for the Detroit Tigers in 2005, and he compiled a 1.4 UZR and a plus-two DRS (FanGraphs). If he could repeat that performance as an everyday left fielder in 2013, the Granderson-Gardner-Ichiro trio would be very solid.

Another potential benefit is that the switch could end up keeping Granderson’s legs fresher for the long haul, which would be an open invitation for him to use his speed more on the basepaths.

That’s something he didn’t do as much in 2012, as he stole only 10 bases and attempted only 13 in 197 opportunities. He thus only attempted to steal about seven percent of the time, whereas he attempted to steal over 15 percent of the time in 2011, when he committed 25 thefts and led the league with 136 runs scored.

If the transition to left field were to help Granderson recapture some of his lost stolen base prowess, neither he nor the Yankees would be complaining. The Yankees would be glad to have the extra speed that they didn’t have in 2012, and more stolen bases in his walk year could only help Granderson’s free-agent prospects.

The experiment that Girardi is cooking up could thus have more than a few happy outcomes. He should stick with it, and he shouldn’t be afraid to stretch it into the season if he likes what he sees.


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