Gary Sánchez’s clutch, pinch-hit two-run homer against the Blue Jays on Wednesday night did more than just give the Yankees a late lead. The monster shot was his 10th dinger of the season and brought his OPS and wRC+ up to .789 and 117, respectively. I would like to say that he is “quietly” having a very good first half (especially in comparison to many of our other bats). I am not sure, though, that it is possible for Gary, polarized as opinions of him are in the fanbase, to do anything “quietly.” So instead, I will call it “sneaky good,” “underappreciated,” or perhaps “underrated.”
With All-Star Game voting underway, I thought about other sneaky good first-halves by Yankees position players in the last 10 years. I stuck to one main criterion – the player in question cannot have gone to that season’s Midsummer Classic.
This could have been 800 words on Brett Gardner’s first-half performances. Instead, while on the list, he does not solely comprise the five half-seasons in question.
2011: Brett Gardner – 23 SB, 104 wRC+, 2.7 fWAR
I really wanted to highlight Russell Martin here. I had honestly forgotten how good he was in the first half of 2011. Alas, my “No All-Star Game” rule sunk me. Instead, we get our first look at Gardy. At the break, he led the Yankees in stolen bases while flexing his defensive prowess:
Accordingly, FanGraphs loved him. His 2.7 fWAR placed him fifth on the Yankees, behind Martin and sluggers Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez, and Mark Teixeira.
2013: Brett Gardner – 13 SB, 109 wRC+, 2.0 fWAR
Hello Gardy, my old friend. 2013… yikes on bikes. The Yanks limped into the All-Star break at 51-44, and things never really got better. When the dust settled, the club was 85-77, only good enough for third in the American League East.
Robinson Canó was undoubtedly the offensive star for the club, but Gardner provided another of his solid-to-stellar first halves. At the break, he led the team in stolen bases, and trailed only Canó in runs scored and wRC+. And he was still playing some defense:
2014: Jacoby Ellsbury – 397 PA, 24 SB, 111 wRC+, 2.2 fWAR
*Changes name, moves to another country, and enters witness protection* So… I don’t think I remember anyone thinking, even in real-time, that the Jacoby Ellsbury deal was going to end well. I also don’t know that anyone expected it to be so bad that it immediately comes to mind when having “worst contract ever” conversations over a cold beer or two with friends.
Back when there was still hope that the Ellsbury contract would not be a total abomination, he quietly put together a solid first half of 2014. He led the team in plate appearances and stolen bases, was second in runs and runs batted in, was third in wRC+, and trailed only outfield partner Brett Gardner in fWAR. Sigh. Talking about Ellsbury has made me sad.
2017: Aaron Hicks - .913 OPS, 145 wRC+, 2.7 fWAR
2017 was a particularly easy season for a Yankee bat to fly under the radar, considering that Aaron Judge went full supernova and captivated baseball in the first half of his rookie season. Hicks, though, also pulled his weight. After a dismal first showing in the Bronx in 2016, he trailed only Judge in fWAR, wOBA, and wRC+ on the Yankees at the 2017 All-Star break. In no small part due to Hicks’ performance, the Bombers’ starting outfield combined for 10.7 fWAR in the first half of 2017. That’ll do. Also… I might be crying a little bit right now.
Hicks’ first half in 2017 provided a tantalizing example of his high ceiling when healthy.
As an aside, this was yet another season that could have been part of An Ode to Brett Gardner. Our old friend was up to his usual tricks, leading the club in stolen bases, while providing a solid bat – to the tune of an .800 OPS and 114 wRC+.
2018: Didi Gregorius – 17 HR, 10 SB, .800 OPS, 114 wRC+, 2.8 fWAR
Finally. A non-outfielder. Amid a second straight monster first-half from Judge, Didi put together a heck of a first half himself. He was top-three on the club in plate appearances, home runs, runs scored, and runs batted in. Meanwhile, he led the club in stolen bases and provided a high-contact bat (12.9 K%) in an order full of guys who had a lot of swing-and-miss in their games. And, as always, he was a ton of fun to watch.
Honorable Mention: 2015 Alex Rodriguez - 18 home runs, .384 wOBA, 145 wRC+, 2.2 fWAR
Similar to the Yankees’ current starting catcher (but much... much... much more so), I am not sure it is possible for Alex Rodriguez to do anything “quietly.” If it is possible, though, his 2015 renaissance classifies. At the break, A-Rod was second on the Yankees in home runs, runs scored, and slugging percentage, and among AL designated hitters, only Nelson Cruz and Prince Fielder boasted a higher wRC+. The preternatural skills he displayed in his 2005 and 2007 MVP seasons had eroded, but in the twilight of his career, Alex showed he could still play.
There’s no way to sugarcoat it. The 2010s were kind of a bittersweet decade for the Yankees. Icons and superstars retired, and a new generation of Bombers debuted and captivated fans. But team success — at least on the scale that fans had grown accustomed to since the mid-’90s — eluded the club enough that they failed to win a single pennant within a decade for the first time in a century. I wonder if that lack will obscure the fact that many Yankees played some darn good baseball.
Brett Gardner, a linchpin for the entire decade, was rarely if ever better than he was in first halves. He is joined by other Yankees bats who, in the shadows cast by the club’s legends and stars, excelled and kept the team competitive even in disappointing years. At the beginning of a new decade, here’s hoping for more team accolades, and fingers crossed that Sánchez gets to the 2021 All-Star Game so he’s ineligible for this list in 10 years.