Brett Gardner is, believe it or not, the longest-tenured New York Yankee. While he has been a reliable foot soldier and occasional All-Star over his 11 years as a Yankee, Gardner’s time as a full-time starter is ending soon. Clint Frazier is fully healthy and has his sights set on the left field job, and the Yankees have no shortage of other outfield options on the roster.
Still, Gardner is far from toast. He can still help the Yankees in more ways than fans realize. He may not be the player he once was, but suggesting that Gardner should ride the bench from the get-go in 2019 is not the wisest idea.
For one, several of Gardner’s best skills are still intact, and thriving. Last year, his walk and strikeout rates were better than his career averages. Even though his batting average dipped (more on that later), his on-base percentage was almost 100 points higher than his average (.236 vs .322). This guy still gets on base! Maybe Gardner shouldn’t be leading off games anymore, but he brings a unique batted-ball profile (high contact, low strikeout, patience) that stands out on the homer-happy and strikeout-heavy Yankees.
Gardner remains sturdy in the field and on the bases, too. In 2018, Gardner graded out positive in DRS and UZR in both left field and center field. He also led the Yankees in BsR, which measures baserunning efficiency, and ranked second in the league overall per FanGraphs. These skills are highly dependent on instincts and foot speed. No one is questioning Gardner’s instincts, and his foot speed (per MLB.com’s sprint speed) has not declined.
As for Gardner at the plate, he has clearly declined. He only slashed .209/.288/.316 after the All-Star break, which is hardly MLB-level. However, Gardner’s batted ball profile says that he may have been the victim of some bad luck, in addition to age-related decline.
Gardner’s exit velocity rose in 2018 to his highest mark since MLB started tracking it in 2015. His hard/soft contact rates stayed mostly the same as they were in 2017, which was a much better offensive year for Gardner, but his BABIP still fell drastically in 2018. In fact, Gardner’s .272 BABIP was in the bottom 20 percent leaguewide.
That doesn’t seem to match the rest of his profile. Sure, Gardner is declining a bit, but the other metrics seem to say that he hasn’t completely fallen off the cliff like his BABIP indicates. Instead, it might point to some bad batted-ball luck.
When you add up everything that Gardner does in everyone’s favorite analytical formula, WAR, you end up with a 2.5-2.8 win player, depending on the site you use. Strictly by WAR, that’s a player comparable to Nick Markakis, Mike Moustakas, Andrew McCutchen and Marcell Ozuna. This isn’t to say that Gardner is as talented as those players, but has recently brought a total value similar to those names. These players aren’t in danger of finding themselves on the bench!
Gardner’s role on the Yankees in 2019 will be reduced, and that’s probably a good idea at age 35. He’ll start versus righties, will be the primary backup in center field, and will take a seat against many lefties. Frazier is an exciting player, but he hasn’t yet proven himself as consistent MLB option. Gardner is far from the most exciting option on the table, but he’s far from the worst. Don’t be surprised if Brett Gardner still has a few big moments left in him in the 2019 season.