Going into the All-Star break the Yankees sit atop the standings with the best record in baseball. They have done so despite enduring their fair share of key injuries. They have lost arguably the best closer of all-time in Mariano Rivera but were able to replace him with a proven closer in Rafael Soriano. The other major injury the team has endured is losing Brett Gardner for virtually the entire first-half. The Yankees have been able to replace a lot of Gardner’s productivity with Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones but there is no way to replace all that Gardner does.
When Brett Gardner went down with an elbow injury the Yankees lost more than just their starting left fielder. What they lost is the best defensive left fielder, a premier “table-setter”, and the heart of their running game. Ibanez has been able to soften the blow with his solid play but Ibanez is not Gardner and with Ibanez forced to play more left field (he was originally slated to DH), the trickledown effect has caused the Yankees to primarily use Jones in the DH spot. One benefit to this, is it has given Yankee manager Joe Girardi the ability to rest older players with half-days off. Let’s now take a closer look at the void left by Gardner.
Ibanez, Jones, and Dewayne Wise have all spent extended time in left field with Gardner out. Wise and Jones have been well above average defensive left fielders according to their UZR/150 ratings and rank 2nd and 5th respectively among the 67 players with 100+ innings in left field this year. However, Jones and Wise combined for only 268.1 innings, while Ibanez logged 309 innings himself. That being said, Ibanez’s defense in left field has been average; an upgrade from his numbers the past two seasons. So, while I would not say Ibanez’s defense has had a negative impact on the team defense, I would definitely say that the Yankee defense could be a lot better with Gardner eating up 400+ innings in left field. Gardner, over the past two years, has been the top left fielder according to his UZR/150 (2010:45.7 and 2011: 31.0). Despite Wise and Jones filling in nicely and Ibanez’s serviceable defense the Yankees are missing a premium defender in Gardner.
Aside from Gardner’s defense the Yankees are also missing his table-setting abilities. My definition of a table-setter is someone who gets on base and can run the bases with both speed and smarts. This is an important role for any team and even more important to the Yankees; base hits which don’t leave the yard do a lot more damage with a speedy guy on base. In 2011, Gardner spent the majority of his 588 plate appearances batting either 1st (264) or 9th (182); both of the premier table-setting spots in the lineup. In 2011, Gardner had the 5th highest walk rate (10.2) out of the 26 left fielders with 400+ plate appearances and ranked 2nd in base running according to FanGraphs.com’s “Base Running” statistic. This year in Gardner’s absence, Jeter has done a great job as the leadoff hitter by hitting .394/.410/.617 leading off games and .336/.350/.474 leading off innings. Still, Gardner batting 9th in the lineup, where he started the year, would be a huge benefit to the team leading the league in home runs.
Gardner’s greatest asset to the team has always been his base-stealing ability. Over the past two seasons, Gardner has recorded the second most stolen bases (96) in the majors. The player with the most is Michael Bourn (113), but both he and Gardner have the same stolen base percentage (81%). In 2011, with Gardner in the lineup, the Yankees finished 4th in stolen bases and without him in 2012, they rank 25th. Despite a drastic drop in stolen base production the Yankees have still been able to pick their spots in the running game, and it shows as they are tied for the 2nd highest stolen base percentage in the league (81%). While the team has been efficient on the base paths, they are still missing the production and presence of Gardner. The added pressure he puts on the pitcher, catcher, manager, and the entire infield defense is immeasurable and shouldn’t be underestimated when discussing Gardner’s contribution to the team.
One more note about Gardner is that in 2011 he saw 4.19 pitchers/per plate appearance; 10th in the league. A recent Yankee staple has been their ability to work the count and force the opposing starting pitchers out of the game and beat up on their middle-relief pitchers. This is something Gardner clearly does well.
Despite the assets mentioned, Gardner still has work to do in his game; mainly figure out a way to raise is batting average. However, if/when he returns to the Yankee lineup he will undoubtedly make them a much more versatile offensive team. It’s hard to win in the postseason via the home run and Gardner can be the offensive catalyst that gives the Yankee offense another dimension for scoring runs.
*Statistics via FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com.