Brett Gardner versus Nelson Cruz

I heard a couple of radio guys -- one of them a former major league pitcher -- on Sunday discussing the Brett Gardner contract, and they were a little incredulous that Gardner could get a four-year, $52 million contract from the Yankees while Nelson Cruz signed for one year and $8 million with the Orioles. They couldn't get past the idea that Cruz hits a lot more home runs and drives in a lot more runs.

Indeed, over the past three seasons, Cruz has averaged 34 home runs and 105 RBIs per 162 games played, while Gardner has averaged eight and 47 per 162 games.

Now, there are other issues involved in those signings:

  • Because Cruz had been extended a qualifying offer from the Rangers, the team signing him would lose a draft pick. In the Orioles' case, this means losing a second-round pick because they already had lost their first-round pick for signing Ubaldo Jimenez.

  • In looking ahead to free-agent outfielders next offseason, it's very slim pickings: Gardner, Colby Rasmus, Michael Cuddyer and Cruz would have been the biggest names, not including those with club options. The Yankees now know they won't be scrambling to fill left field.

  • Age. Gardner's extension takes him from 2015 through 2018 (with a club option for 2019), his age-31 through age-34 seasons. Cruz's 2014 season is his age-33 season. In general, fast players age better than slow players.

  • Cruz is coming off a PED suspension, which can't be ignored.

But even aside from those factors, there's this: Gardner is the better player. Comparing Cruz and Gardner is a classic sabermetric argument: The RBI guy versus the guy who does a little bit of everything.

A few points:

1. First off, while Cruz has averaged 34 home runs and 105 RBIs per 162 games, he's never actually achieved either figure. He has hit 30 home runs once, back in 2009. His career high in RBIs is 90. Some of that is because he has played more than 128 games only once. Gardner did miss nearly all of 2012 with an elbow injury but played 150, 159 and 145 games in his other three seasons as a regular.

2. Despite Cruz's power advantage, they're closer offensively than you might realize. Cruz had a .353 wOBA in 2013; Gardner .331. In terms of Runs Created, Cruz created 5.5 runs per 27 outs; Gardner 5.2. Sure, Cruz outhomered Gardner 27 to 8, but Gardner had more doubles (33 to 18), more triples (10 to 0), more walks (52 to 35) and more stolen bases (27 to 5). Now, Gardner played more games. Here are their totals prorated to 145 games:

Gardner: 33 2B, 10 3B, 8 HR, 52 BB, 24 SB, .273/.344/.416

Cruz: 24 2B, 0 3B, 36 HR, 47 BB, 7 SB, .266/.327/.506

Cruz hit more home runs; Gardner got on base more and made up for most of the difference in home runs with doubles, triples and running the bases. (I didn't mention runs scored, which also can be lineup-dependent like RBIs, but Gardner scored 81 and Cruz 49.)

3. Then there's defense. Cruz graded at minus-3 Defensive Runs Saved, his best showing since 2010. Gardner, playing center field, graded out at plus-6 Defensive Runs Saved. Gardner will move to left field, where his defensive numbers in 2010 and 2011 were terrific (plus-34 and plus-22 DRS). Even if he has lost a step since then, he projects above-average defensively in left field. But the numbers align with the general consensus: Gardner is a plus defender while Cruz is not.

Add it all up, and Baseball-Reference crunches the numbers like this:


2011: 1.3 WAR

2012: 0.4 WAR

2013: 2.0 WAR


2011: 3.9 WAR

2012: 0.2 WAR

2013: 4.2 WAR

Look, for one year and $8 million, Cruz should be a good deal for the Orioles. He moves from one good home run park to another, and there's no such thing as a bad one-year contract (other than the risk of losing that draft pick). But Gardner got $52 million because he's the better all-around player.