Entering Saturday’s action in San Diego, the Yankees have played 79 games on the season. Of those 79, Jacoby Ellsbury has appeared in 71 games while Brett Gardner has appeared in 73, putting both players on pace to appear in more than 145 of the team’s 162 games this season. Although at first glance the rate at which Joe Girardi inserts Ellsbury and Gardner into the lineup may appear unremarkable, the recent histories of these two veteran outfielders suggests that it would be wise to rest both more regularly during the second half of the season.
Ellsbury’s 2015 campaign got off to a torrid start. Through the middle of May Ellsbury reached base more than 40% of the time, accumulating 14 stolen bases and 29 runs scored. But Ellsbury sprained his right knee against the Washington Nationals on May 19, which necessitated a stint on the 15-day DL. Ellsbury returned to action on July 8, and appeared in 69 games in the second half of the 2015 season. Over those 69 games Ellsbury reached base just 27% of the time, had an OPS of .593, and stole just seven bases. Ultimately Ellsbury’s performance led to his controversial benching by Girardi in the Wild Card Game against the Houston Astros in favor of Gardner, with Chris Young manning left field.
Ellsbury’s durability, or lack thereof, has been the biggest knock against him throughout his career. Since the start of the 2010 season, Ellsbury has averaged 107 appearances per season, and only twice has he appeared in more than 145 games over that time span (in 2011 and 2014).
Compared to Ellsbury, Gardner has been much more reliable in terms of his ability to take the field. Since 2010, Gardner has only failed to appear in 145 games in a season once. That lone exception occurred in 2012, when Gardner suffered what was initially thought to be a bone bruise to his right elbow on April 17, and ultimately led to his missing the remainder of the season.
Despite his reliable availability and consistently excellent play in the outfield, Gardner has shown a tendency to fall off dramatically at the plate as the season progresses. Gardner’s career OPS in the first half of the season is .770. That average drops 94 points to .676 in the season’s second half. This trend stayed true to form for Gardner in 2015, when his OPS declined from .861 in the first half of 2015, to .592 in the second half.
Both Ellsbury’s durability issues, and Gardner’s struggles to maintain his performance, suggest that Girardi would be wise to rest both players more frequently in the second half of 2016. Much of the chatter surrounding the Yankees in recent weeks has focused on the team’s decision to sell (or not) as the trade deadline approaches and the Yankees continue to flounder around the .500 mark. Regardless of the direction the Yankees opt to pursue with respect to their roster over the next few weeks, the team would benefit from a more judicious approach to Ellsbury and Gardner’s playing time.
If ownership and Brian Cashman choose to stand pat at the deadline and push for a second consecutive playoff appearance, the team will likely require a healthy Ellsbury and an effective Gardner to be serious contenders. Given the track record of both players, particularly in recent years, Girardi will need to find opportunities to rest Ellsbury and Gardner in the heat of July and August if he hopes that they will be healthy and playing well in September and October.
On the other hand, if management opts to sell at the deadline (assuming that Ellsbury and Gardner are not a part of that sale), more regular rest for Ellsbury and Gardner offers the Yankees the chance to open up plate appearances for young players auditioning to be part of the team’s core moving forward.
Aaron Hicks has been underwhelming in the first half, but merits further chances to prove himself given the tools he brings to the lineup. Rob Refsnyder has provided every indication that he is capable of hitting Major League pitching, and opening up further opportunities for him in the outfield will enable the team to assess just how large a role he merits in 2017 and beyond. The Yankees’ outfield depth extends to Triple-A, where Ben Gamel and Aaron Judge will both participate in the International League All Star Game, and are in line for call-ups when the rosters expand on September 1. By season’s end the team will certainly be eager to measure their development progress against top-level pitching.
As the All Star Break approaches the Yankees find themselves at a crossroads, with any number of important decisions hinging on whether they choose to buy or sell. However, the decision to rest Ellsbury and Gardner more frequently, and in doing so open up opportunities for the development and evaluation of the team’s outfield prospects, is the rare option that makes sense no matter what the Yankees choose to do as the march towards the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline continues.