Have you ever wondered who was the better defensive outfielder between Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury? Pretty soon we may be able to definitively tell, just as soon as we collect more data.
If you weren’t aware, the website Baseball Savant now has Statcast data that maps out an outfielder’s fielding range. It gives us a look at what balls they were able to catch, and which landed for a hit, but most importantly it also tells us which balls they should or shouldn’t have been able to get to. Using these maps we can get a sense of which Yankees outfielder is better with the glove.
Unfortunately, we only have data for 2016, since this whole thing is so new, but we can still look at how Gardner and Ellsbury did this year. It’s not a deep dive into their careers, but it shows us what we’re seeing right now. Normally I imagine you would want to compare players who play the same position, since different positions take different routes and depth of play is not always the same, but this is mostly just for fun.
Looking at the raw numbers, the two outfielders saw almost the exact same time at their respective positions, giving us a pretty even sample size to work with. Where they start to separate is when you get into the advanced stats that show Gardner saved far more runs and got to more balls than Ellsbury was able to do. What does Statcast have to say, though?
Yes, of course they play two different positions, but already there are a few things that jump out. Gardner appears to be very good and going to his right up against the left field foul line based on more reddish and whitish dots appearing there. He can also make catches in deep left-center, taking some territory away from Ellsbury. As you’ll remember from over the course of the season, Gardner can even make a few catches up against the wall in left field.
Ellsbury, on the other hand, was asked to cover far more ground in right-center to fill in for the defensive ineptitude of Carlos Beltran in the first half. By this map, he showed that he could at least hold up with the additional workload. Each had their share of difficult and unlikely catches, but Gardner’s range and ability to make harder catches looks superior here.
When we talk about hits allowed, that’s when things start to become tricky with the different positions. Gardner looks like he allowed far more hits in front of him than Ellsbury did, but you have to keep in mind that a lot of those hits were likely scorched to the pull side and no one has much of a chance against those. Hits that dunk in against the center fielder aren’t as common, but given the coloration there in front of Ellsbury, it’s possible that he wasn’t able to get to balls that others have been able to.
Both seem to have had a rough time tracking down baseballs that were hit behind them, as evidenced by the blue dots, which should have been caught. Ellsbury, despite his best efforts, was also not able to haul in every ball to right-center, though maybe he should have.
Right now it seems like Gardner had a slightly better year than Ellsbury, even though the two were very similar. However, we’re not done yet.
Aside from the catch and hit mapping that they do, Baseball Savant also has charts that give us a better idea about who misplayed what balls and how impressive they generally were out in the field. These charts use hang time on the y-axis to show how long a ball was in the air, and the player’s distance from where the ball ultimately landed at the x-axis. This visualization should give us a clearer picture on what is going on.
Base Hits Allowed
From here it is easy to tell that Gardner, on the left, allowed more easy base hits than Ellsbury, on the right, based on the amount of data points in the blue. However, beyond those four Gardner made more routine plays than Ellsbury did.
Total Catches for Outs
When it comes to catching the ball, though, Gardner makes far more highlight plays than Ellsbury does, which can be seen from the amount of data points in the red areas of the chart. Meanwhile, the team’s center fielder makes more routine plays, which could ultimately be due to his position. Remember, this is only raw data, not rate stats.
Since this is just a small cross section of data, it’s hard to come to a definitive conclusion about these two players in terms of their overall careers. Based on 2016 data alone, Ellsbury seems to be better at making the easy plays, while Gardner has more range and can get to more balls. Maybe once we can sample their data over a longer sample size we can come up with a better answer about who is the better fielder. As it stands right now, they seem to be about equal.