On April 27th, during the 19th game of the season, Melky Cabrera wrested the starting centerfield job away from Brett Gardner. Despite the early juncture in the season, it was a justifiable and needed change. At that point in time, Gardner was hitting just .220/.254/.271 through 65 PA compared to .303/.378/.667 for Melky in 37 PA. The sample sizes were small, but the difference was stark enough to warrant the move.
Melky would go on to start 20 of the next 27 games in center, his run ended by the shoulder injury suffered in Texas on May 26th. Of the seven starts Brett Gardner made during that time, six of them saw Cabrera in either right or left, subbing for Swisher or Damon.
I think the perception of the centerfield situation right now is that Melky is head and shoulders above Gardner, the thought buoyed by the slew of big hits Melky has had already this year. And we can't be anything but happy with the season Melky has compiled thus far.
But, a look at the numbers may surprise you. Melky has swooned a bit of late, though not nearly as badly as he did after his hot start in 2008. Meanwhile, Gardner seems to have figured things out somewhat. Since his famed visit to Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital on May 15th, Gardner has hit .346/.424/.462.
As it stands now for 2009:
Gardner: 149 PA - .276/.354/.386 - 96 OPS+ - 26 R - 15 BB - 19 K - 11 of 13 SB
Cabrera: 198 PA - .294/.344/.444 - 107 OPS+ - 26 R - 14 BB - 27 K - 4 of 6 SB
That's much closer than I thought it would be. Melky holds a large edge in SLG as you would expect. But, Gardner's recent hot streak and Melky's four walks in the last month have swung the OBP pendulum in Gardner's favor. Also surprising (to me at least) is the edge Melky has in UZR/150, 10.0 to 7.0.
I'm not suggesting that any change be made, but I was surprised in looking at the numbers. Seeing as the CF will be batting ninth in the usual Yankee line-up, you could argue that Gardner's OBP and speed combination offers a more compelling option.
Regardless, both are outplaying the average AL centerfielder, which currently has a collective line of .259/.327/.399. Gardner's recent play may warrant more frequent starts. If he could sustain his performance at something close to his current levels, it could be a good way to keep an aging and banged-up Johnny Damon fresh as the season progresses.
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