Despite being named the Bronx Bombers, the Yankees’ best player (along with Yangervis Solarte) this season is a player with 27 home runs…. in his career. Brett Gardner, 4 home runs this season, is a prime example of how there are many ways to accrue value, and help a team win baseball games. Gardner, a low-power speedster with plus defensive skills, looks like he was plucked straight out of the 1980s. This is the type of player that used to get criminally underrated prior to an advancement in understanding of how baseball games are won and lost.
After walking on and setting numerous records at the College of Charleston, the Yankees drafted Gardner in the third round (109 overall) in 2005. He broke into MLB in 2008 and played 42 games with 141 plate appearances. He was a valuable piece to the 2009 World Series team where he played 108 games, but only received 284 plate appearances, indicating a usage pattern as a late-game defensive replacement and high-leverage pinch runner. 2010 was his first full season as a starter for the Yankees. His plate appearance count from 2010-13 is as follows: 569, 588, 37 (injured), and 609. He has batted either lead-off or 9th (second leadoff) for almost all of those appearances. His 162 game average figures for batting average, home runs, and runs batted in are .269, 6, 48. This paints the picture of a very replaceable bottom-half of the roster type player. Yet, Gardner has been one of the top 5 players on the team according to fWAR since 2010 excluding the injury-filled 2012 season. The WAR figures go 6.0 (career year), 4.9, .3 (injured), 3.2, and 1.3 (this season so far). This value shows that there is more to baseball than the 3 figures that flash across the bottom of the television when a player steps to the plate.
Gardner combines slightly above league average offense with elite defense and base running, which makes for an above average player. The offense features an above average walk rate (10.1% career), with an above average BABIP (.327 career, a repeatable skill in his case), to offset an average strikeout rate (18.2% career), and low power (.114 career ISO). The career triple slash line is .269/.351/.383 which translates to a 101 wRC+ when adjusting for park and league factors. The other aspect of offense, base running, is where Gardner shines. He has stolen 175 bases at an 82% clip in his career, and taken the extra base 48% of the time, higher than the league average of around 40%. Fangraphs combines these two facts with other measurements, such as advancing to 3rd on grounders to the left side to determine Gardner has added 32.5 runs in his career based on his base running.
Finally, Gardner’s defense has been among the best in baseball for outfielders. Defensive Runs Saved calculates that he has saved 86 runs. Ultimate Zone Rating has him at 76.5. He has 43 runs saved according to Total Zone. Gardner loses positional value by not playing center field, a position he is more than capable of playing. However, he makes up for playing an easier position, left field, by being way above average when compared to other players at the position, which includes a lot of plodding sluggers that aren’t found in center field. All of the metrics come to the same conclusion: Gardner is one of the best defensive left fielders in the league.
Advancements in defense measurement and proper evaluation of how runs are created, have shown that Gardner adds a value to the Yankees. This type of player is still likely a market inefficiency. Gardner was underpaid through the arbitration process, which mostly values batting average, home runs, and runs batted in and his current deal (4 years, $52 mil plus an option for 2019) he signed prior to this season, is still probably below market value. Despite being underpaid, Gardner’s value to the Yankees cannot be understated the past 5 years.