At almost 37-years-old, Brett Gardner is defying expectations. At an age in which most ballplayers find themselves on a major league bench or out of the league entirely, Gardner is reinventing himself as a power hitter, and continuing to demonstrate his usual defensive and baserunning prowess.
While the extent of his success as a power hitter remains debatable, he is making a concerted effort to lift the ball. He is currently sporting career-highs in launch angle (13.2 degrees, per Statcast, beating his high of 8.9 degrees from 2015 by a considerable margin) and fly-ball percentage (36.9 percent). Not to mention that, with a full month left in the calendar, he is just two home runs shy from his maximum output of 21, set in 2017.
He still has more grounders than fly balls, but his 1.23 GB/FB mark is actually his best since 2014, when he posted a 1.14 ratio. 15.8 percent of his fly balls leave the park, which is also a career high.
Quite a bit has changed from the batter who hit just five round-trippers in 569 plate appearances back in 2010. Gardner is also sporting a career-high isolated power of .229: his previous personal record was .166. He is trying, and you can tell.
Gardner’s home run output isn’t necessarily the product of Yankee Stadium’s short porch in right field. While it is true that he has hit 17 of his 19 homers to right field, nine of them have come at home and ten on the road. Yes, he is a pull hitter, but as the data shows, he has been taking advantage of the whole league’s right field fences, not just those at home.
In fact, if anything, Gardner has somewhat slowed down his home run pace from the first half, a period in which he hit 11 doubles and 15 taters. From the All-Star game on, he has four homers and 12 doubles. However, he remains a threat to hit it out of the park, as he did over the weekend.
A little lucky, perhaps?
As good as he has been for the Yankees this year, especially given the prolonged absences of some of the team’s star players in the outfield, Gardner has also benefited from a little bit of good luck on the hitting side.
He has a healthy wOBA of .341, but using xwOBA to remove defense and ballpark from the conversation and instead focusing on plate discipline and quailty of contact, the number goes down to .302.
However, while his exit velocity (87.4 MPH) and hard contact rate (31.4 percent) aren’t particularly impressive, he is getting the most out of elevating his batted balls and pulling them: he is has a pull rate of 45.1 percent, per FanGraphs data, which would be a career-high and comfortably over the 36.1 he had last season.
With that approach, Gardner has managed to be successful despite not-so-encouraging metrics from Statcast: he has an expected batting average (xBA) of .244 and an expected slugging percentage (xSLG) of .356.
A complete ballplayer
Would you believe that Brett Gardner is eighth in the WAR rankings for American League outfielders? That is, indeed, the case. He is once again approaching 3 WAR, and his current 2.8 mark only trails Mike Trout, George Springer, Mookie Betts, Michael Brantley, Max Kepler, J.D. Martínez, and Tommy Pham.
While it is true that some of his numbers show the approach of a power hitter, the truth is that his offensive contributions (108 wRC+) pale are entirely matched by his superlative defensive and baserunning abilities.
Gardner is in MLB’s top 20 in BsR, the primary metric to measure baserunning and a component of WAR. His 4.0 mark is 18th among 143 qualifiers, per FanGraphs. He is always among the best fielders at his position and has a Gold Glove in his resume.
He is certainly not the 6 WAR player he was in 2010, but he seems to be, right now, a true-talent 3-3.5 WAR player with a different approach. He no longer has the legs to steal nearly 50 bases, but he has understood that he needed to adjust to a more power-centric game, and he has. He is among the most underrated players of his generation, at least for neutral observers: Yankee fans know what they have in Gardner.
Gardner is currently playing on a one-year deal, but the Yankees might need to seriously consider bringing him back for next year, even if the team’s outfield situation is crowded. Talent should always win out, and while not every metric or stat agrees with the fact that number 11 has had a successful season and still has something left in the tank, his overall body of work begs to differ.