New York Yankees: A love letter to Brett Gardner

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 03: Brett Gardner
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 03: Brett Gardner /

The New York Yankees are surprise contenders this year. The team’s young stars have blossomed far faster than anyone predicted, and they have their eyes set on a return to October baseball. So does the Bronx Bombers’ longest-tenured member: the always-underrated Brett Gardner.

I remember my first game ever at Yankee Stadium. Growing up outside of the United States, I never got to watch my favorite team play in the original Cathedral of Baseball, but I had a chance to visit the new ballpark during its inaugural season. So on June 18, 2009, I eagerly waited to see those legendary pinstripes in person for the first time.

Then there was a rain delay. It lasted nearly six hours. Then the Yankees got shut out in a 3-0 loss to the Washington Nationals (and this was back when the Nats had a stranglehold on the NL East basement). There wasn’t a single home run hit during the game, in a season that would yield a major-league record 237 home runs at the new Yankee Stadium. And to top it all off, Gardner—who was one of my favorite players—nearly split his skull open making an ultimately meaningless catch.

Gardner has been this kind of all-out team player from the moment he debuted in New York in 2008. In fact, his habit of barreling through the outfield and aggressively diving into bases landed Gardner on the disabled list often in his earlier years, giving him a reputation for being injury-prone. His lack of statistical consistency has also made him chronically overlooked. But as the veteran plays his ninth season in New York, his legacy is beginning to take shape: There is a reason that Gardner is the only hitter remaining from the Yankees’ most recent championship-winning squad.

Let’s go back to Gardner’s debut campaign. Almost exactly nine years ago, the 23-year-old rookie filled in for an injured Johnny Damon against the Red Sox, and he endeared himself to the Bronx faithful by hitting a walk-off single.

Gardner has been a legitimate power threat at the dish this season, but he was a speed demon when he first came up to the big leagues. Gardner tied for the AL lead in stolen bases in 2011, and his career tally ranks 12th among active players. He has played a wide variety of roles with the Yankees over the years, but his first was as a bottom-of-the-order spark plug, at a time when the club seriously lacked speed in the field and on the base paths.

From the start, Gardner’s base-running efficiency and savvy made his wheels extra deadly. In addition to the stolen bases, he owns a career Extra Bases Taken mark of 51 percent. This means Gardner goes first-to-third on a single and scores from first base on a double the majority of the time. The league average is around 40 percent.

As the outfielder developed (and overcame his injury issues), he began to diversify his skill set and take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch. Gardner has flirted with the 20-homer mark in recent campaigns after failing to reach double digits in his first six seasons. This year, he’s on pace for 30 dingers. He may not steal as much as he used to (10 swipes in 2017), but he has made up for it by becoming one of the best hitters in a stacked Yankee lineup. Excluding Aaron Judge, the 33-year-old leads the team in extra-base hits, and he ranks third in knocks behind Judge and Starlin Castro.

He even led New York to a win over the league-best Houston Astros last week, cranking a grand slam among three hits and six RBI.

And that’s only half of it. We still haven’t dug into what is probably Gardner’s most valuable asset: his defense. Catches like the one I witnessed on that rainy July night seven years ago are a common sight for Yankee Stadium attendees whenever Gardner roams the grass. He boasts a career .992 fielding percentage, which ranks above esteemed outfielders such as Mookie Betts and Andrew McCutchen.

Gardner’s glove-work shines even brighter when you look at the advanced metrics. Since debuting in the Bronx, he has saved 106 runs more than the average outfielder on defense. His career Defensive Runs Saved is mind bogglingly higher than Ichiro Suzuki’s, and it is third best among qualified active players, behind only Alex Gordon and Jason Heyward. Gardner’s 81.2 career Ultimate Zone Rating is fourth highest among the same group—once again behind Gordon and Heyward, plus Ichiro.

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There were too many great plays to include them all. Highlights like these are scattered all across YouTube.

But once again, Gardner doesn’t enjoy the plaudits that other fielders of his quality receive. Gordon and Heyward have each won four Gold Gloves, and Ichiro has 10. Not to say that those players don’t deserve their awards, but surely Gardner should have more than one, which he won last year. I mean, c’mon: Adam Jones owns five Gold Gloves, and he is far inferior to Gardner in fielding percentage, DRS and UZR.

Despite the fact that he wears pinstripes and plays in New York, Gardner has compiled an excellent career in remarkably quiet fashion. You won’t see him in Miami next week—he’s only been an All-Star once—and you won’t hear him complaining about it. Some may not even recognize his name. They might assume he’s an overpaid player upon seeing his four-year, $52 million contract. But by the time that that deal is up, Gardner will likely own the third-most stolen bases in franchise history—and more hits in pinstripes than Tino Martinez, Bobby Murcer and Dave Winfield.

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It’s a surefire recipe to be welcomed back for Old Timers’ Day, once Gardner (hopefully) retires as a career-long Yankee. He may not get a plaque in Monument Park and he certainly won’t sniff Cooperstown, but it’s time to start acknowledging Brett Gardner for what he is: a pinstriped great.