Brett Gardner is one of the best players on the New York Yankees. In fact, I would argue that he is the second best position player on the Yanks, behind only Robinson Cano. He is better than Alex Rodriguez. He is better than Derek Jeter. He is better than Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson. Before the year started, if I could pick one batter whose absence would hurt the Yankees the most if injured – other than Cano – I would pick Gardner. Surprised? Think I’m crazy? I’m not. Brett Gardner’s absence from the Yankees this season has hurt the team more than most people know, and is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, reasons for their struggles right now.
Between 2010 and 2011, Brett Gardner was worth about 11.3 wins more than a replacement level player (according to FanGraphs). That’s 13th among all major league batters.
13th. As in, there were only 12 position players that were more valuable than Brett Gardner during that time. He was more valuable than Dustin Pedroia, Carlos Gonzalez, Granderson, Ryan Zimmerman, Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, and the list goes on.
How has he been so valuable yet flown so under the radar? Well, two of the things he does best are not exactly the most appreciated skills among mainstream fans and writers; he gets on base and he plays excellent defense.
The first of those skills is especially under-appreciated in Gardner’s case because he gets on base via the walk rather than the hit. While he only had a .267 batting average between 2011 and 2012, he had a .364 on-base percentage. This isn’t elite by any means, but it’s enough that his truly elite speed can be put to good use. Gardner stole an average of 48 bases during that time frame, which essentially turned 48 singles into doubles. For a guy with Gardner’s speed, getting on base is everything, and though he doesn’t get a lot of hits, he has the patience to get on base through other means.
Of course, what separates Gardner from the field is his absolutely spectacular defense. Between ’10 and ’11, Gardner had an unbelievable 50.7 UZR. This means that Gardner saved just over 25 runs per season more than the average left fielder, which translates to about 2.5 wins. Yes, in each of the 2010 and 2011 seasons, the Yankees won about two and a half games more than they would have with an average fielding left fielder. That’s pretty remarkable.
Unfortunately, Brett Gardner was not able to bring this electric speed and defense to the Yankees this year after what seemed at the time like a minor elbow injury that just never went away. While this was disappointing to many fans, Gardner’s absence has probably not received as much attention as an injury to someone like Teixeira, A-Rod, or Jeter would. But it should have. If Gardner had been playing this whole time, the Yankees would probably be a solid 5 or 6 games ahead.
If you don’t believe me, consider the value that the Yankees have gotten from their left fielders this year, and how much more value they would have gotten from Gardner. Unfortunately, the former information isn’t easy to get, but I can estimate. The main left-fielders for the Yankees have been Raul Ibanez, Andruw Jones, and Ichiro Suzuki. Ibanez has played about half of his time in left field, meaning he has added, generously, about 0.3 wins as a left fielder. Jones has also played about half his time in left field, so let’s add, again generously, about 0.4 wins. Ichiro again has played half in left field, but has added basically no value to the team regardless of position. However, let’s add 0.1 WAR for him, and 0.2 WAR for the various other pieces that have manned the position for the Yankees this season.
Overall, that takes us to 1 WAR for Yankees left fielders this season, and again I’m being generous. Really, these guys are all pretty close to replacement level players already, and are being paid as such. But what about Gardner? How much more would he have been worth?
Well, using that same time frame between 2011 and 2012, Gardner was worth an average of 5.6 WAR. Of course, his UZR during that time was so ridiculous that we have to regress it a little bit towards the mean. His offensive capability is also probably closer to 2011 than 2012. All in all, I think it would be fair to project a minimum of 4.0 WAR for Gardner if he had played this year, but probably more than that.
That means that if Gardner had played this year instead of Ibanez/Jones/Ichiro, the Yankees probably would have won a minimum of three more games, which would give them a solid four-game lead over the Baltimore Orioles instead of a meager one-game lead. And that’s taking the most conservative stance possible. More likely is that Gardner would have added closer to five wins, and possibly six, putting the Yankees ahead of the Orioles by a large 6 or 7 game margin.
That isn’t all. With Gardner in left, the Yankees would have had much more flexibility in the field. They probably could have rested the regulars more often, possibly prevented injuries in the home stretch, like those to A-Rod and Teixeira. Similarly, if they had a big lead in September, they would have more freedom to rest the team for the playoffs without the Orioles and Rays breathing down their backs.
Brett Gardner is one of the most underrated players in the game, especially considering the fact that he plays in the spotlight of New York. His injury this year has been absolutely devastating, and could cost the Yankees the season if the last few weeks don’t turn out well. He’s one of the few players on the Yanks that is young, cost-controlled, and extremely valuable. The Yankees need him back.
Stats courtesy of Fangraphs.com.