2016 Statistics: .261/.351/.362, 97 wRC+, 3.4 rWAR
2017 Roster Status: Guaranteed $26 million through 2018, $12.5 million team option in 2020.
Brett Gardner has spent much of his career being somewhat underappreciated. He has been one of the best players to come through the Yankees’ system in recent years, but has often been overshadowed by New York’s brighter stars. His 30.3 career rWAR actually ranks in the top 40 of all active players, but he has just one All-Star appearance to show for it.
Even as he ages, Gardner has continued to quietly be one of the Yankees’ most productive players. 2016 was no different. At age 32, Gardner was the Yankees’ 2nd most valuable player according to Baseball-Reference’s metrics, while he ranked as their 4th best position player by FanGraphs WAR.
Part of what makes Gardner both valuable and underrated is the shape of his offensive game. In recent years he has offset low batting averages with quality on-base skills, as his .351 OBP led all qualified Yankees this season. He only stole 16 bases–the lowest full season total of his career–but his overall strong baserunning skills (he was four runs better than average on the bases per B-Ref) helped him profile as an above average offensive player, despite his slightly below-average 97 wRC+.
What slipped this year for him was his power. Across 2013-2015, Gardner developed a rather shocking level of power, smashing 41 homers and posting a .150 ISO across those three years. In 2016, Gardner hit just seven home runs, and his ISO fell to a paltry .101.
Gardner’s drop in power probably stems from a few factors. For one, he started hitting the ball on the ground way more, as his 52.3% groundball rate represented a career high, and his 27.0% fly ball rate was a career low. Plus, it seemed that Gardner wasn’t able to square the ball up as much in 2016. From Baseball Savant, compare his average exit velocity per week from 2015 to 2016:
Gardner spent a lot more time above the league average in 2015 than he did in 2016. Yet, Gardner’s power profile was the only thing that really seemed to slip as he progresses through his decline phase. His refined, patient approach at the plate was intact, as he still ranked in the bottom 20 in baseball in both overall swing and out of zone swing rate, but in the top 20 in contact rate.
His fielding continues to rate positively as well. He ranked third among left fielders in DRS, sixth in UZR, and first by FRAA. All the usual caveats with regard to defensive metrics apply, but Gardner’s status as a good fielder seems to remain.
Gardner is under contract for two more years at an average annual value of $13 million. He could be trade bait, or he could soldier on as one of the Yankees’ more dependable veterans. For now, if he can hang around as an average outfielder while he declines further into his thirties, his salary will be more than palatable. If he keeps playing as solidly as he did in 2016, the Yankees will be thrilled.