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The Yankees are staving off Brett Gardner’s decline for now

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It may be obscured by his lacking power numbers, but Brett Gardner is still contributing in a variety of ways.

Miami Marlins  v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

When Brett Gardner debuted back in 2008, it seemed unlikely he would ever be referred to as the longest-tenured Yankee. Gardner batted lead off in his first game on June 30th against the Rangers, and the lineup behind him featured living legends like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. Robinson Cano batted seventh and looked to be towards the beginning of a long career. Young players like Melky Cabrera, Phil Hughes, and Joba Chamberlain dotted the roster.

Gardner debuted that year with little fanfare, and after hitting just .228/.283/.299, there was little reason to suspect he would go on for a long and decorated career in New York. A decade later, here Gardner is, the Yankees’ elder-statesmen, having outlasted all the stars from the previous era.

And even at the age of 34, even with his power numbers falling, Gardner still looks like he is staving off the inevitable decline. As a player who relies heavily on his wheels and who brought next-to-zero pop at the plate early in his career, Gardner never profiled as someone who would age particularly gracefully. Yet he has done just that, and if you can look past his paltry home run total thus far, it looks like Gardner still has some juice left.

Let’s start with those power numbers, though. Gardner shockingly totaled 61 home runs across the previous four seasons, including a career-high 21 last year. Surely some of Gardner’s newfound power was due to the increased home run levels across baseball, but Gardner undeniably had achieved a higher level of long-ball ability.

Gardner has just one home run this year. His slugging percentage is a sickly .296. That looks bad, and it is. Gardner’s average exit velocity per Statcast is actually up slightly, but his groundball rate is over 50%, well above the 44% rate he posted last year. For the most part, it looks like Gardner is just pounding the ball into the ground in a way he hasn’t in recent years.

Whether Gardner’s failing to lift the ball like he did in 2017 because of age, or because pitchers are hip to his power and pitching him differently, it’s not shocking to see Gardner lose some power at this point. If this drop was coupled with a requisite erosion of his other skills, it’d be fair to start to write Gardner off to age-related decline. Fortunately, Gardner looks to be as good as ever in nearly every other department.

Gardner will really be in trouble when his legs start to fall off. Speed is generally one of the first things to go, and that Gardner has maintained near-elite speed so long is a minor miracle. That hasn’t changed this year. According to Statcast, Gardner’s average top speed in 2017 was 28.9 ft/s, putting him in the 89th percentile of big leaguers. In 2018? He hasn’t budged, right at 28.9 ft/s yet again.

That figure is tremendous news. Gardner’s raw speed is still fully intact, and you can see it when he legs out infield hits, or when he races around the bases for a triple:

Not coincidentally, Gardner’s excellent defensive reputation remains unchanged as well. Gardner won a gold glove for his work in left field in 2016, and he has long been known, by scouts and by defensive metrics, as a stalwart defender. Defensive Runs Saved and UZR both still rate him as well above average on defense in a small sample in 2018, just as they did in 2017 and 2016.

Gardner’s athleticism, long so vital to his game, is still there. That’s probably the most important piece of information to consider when gauging Gardner’s potential for decline. The day Gardner stops bringing ample value on defense and on the bases is probably the day he ceases to be a first-division starter. Even so, Gardner has managed to hold off decline in other areas on offense.

At this point, Gardner is renowned for his plate discipline. Gardner’s discipline borders on passivity at times, but his selective eye has helped him post impressive walk rates and on base percentages as he’s aged. So, here’s a rolling average of his rate of swings on pitches out of the zone, courtesy of FanGraphs:

He is spitting on pitches out of the zone as much as ever, demonstrating his eye hasn’t declined. Moreover, his overall contact rate is approaching 90%, far above the league average and better than his career norms. Gardner never expands the zone, works counts, and hardly swings and misses. This allows him to reach base via walk, or by simply legging hits after putting the ball in play.

It’s unlikely Gardner will ever be a star again, not with his power seemingly eroding. But nearly every other part of his game is continuing to age with grace. He runs and fields with the best of them, doesn’t give in at the plate, and simply makes life harder for the opposition, even as he progresses through his 30’s. He is still refusing to show major signs of decline, and for that, the Yankees should be thrilled to call Gardner their longest-tenured player.