The 2013 season was a good year for Brett Gardner. He had a 109 wRC+, played average defense (-0.3 UZR/150), and was worth around 3.4 fWAR. The Yankees, who had just signed Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year $153 million contract in December, might have considered trading Gardner, their homegrown outfielder. Instead, they signed him to a four-year extension of $52 million that started in 2015.
One and a half years into the extension, Gardner has earned his pay, especially when compared to some of the massive contracts given out to outfielders since 2013 (the Boston Red Sox gave Hanley Ramirez $88 million over four years without having played a single inning in the outfield at the major league level.)
The key to Gardner’s value over the rest of this season, and the next two, will be his ability to get on base, run the bases well, and to regain some of his power that he displayed over the past two seasons. Gardner is 32 years old and will be 34 by the end of his contract. Aging affects different players in different ways, but they generally slow down and lose their defensive range. Below is a list of keys for Gardner to stay productive over the rest of his contract.
For most of Gardner’s career, he has walked in more than 10% of his plate appearances. Since 2015, Gardner has walked at a rate of 11.4% which ranks at 22nd in the majors. This season, he is walking at a rate of 13.8% which is just shy of his career best. This is a great sign because walk rate really isn’t affected by age. In June, he has cut down on his strikeouts too, giving him an excellent BB/K rate of 1.25 for the month.
FanGraphs uses a base running statistic called BsR to calculate the value that a player adds on the base path. Gardner has not defied the affects of aging here, having peaked in 2010 with a 10.9 BsR and has dropped every year since. He is still an elite base runner though, having a 4.4 BsR this season, which is the sixth best in the majors.
This is the hardest part of Gardner’s game for Yankees fans to accept. In the beginning of his career, Gardner was an elite defender. His arm and his reduced range have really lowered his value though. In 2010, he had an incredible 45.8 UZR/150 in left field and had a strong arm. In 2016, he has a career low -4.0 UZR/150 and a weak arm. If his range keeps trending downwards, he really might be a defensive liability by the end of his contract. If he can stay at around this level though, it won’t affect his value much.
Over the next two seasons, Gardner is owed $24 million dollars. It’s far from the amount of money that the Yankees owe Ellsbury and Gardner would probably get more than that if he were a free agent right now. For that reason, and Gardner’s ability to walk at a high rate and run the bases well, the Yankees will probably look back and be happy that they signed Gardner instead of trading him or letting him walk.