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The longevity of Brett Gardner

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Brett Gardner has been the definition of reliability for the Yankees, even as he’s declined

MLB: Seattle Mariners at New York Yankees Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

There’s been countless times, this season and in ones prior, where I’ve said to myself, “Okay, it’s time to move on from Brett.” That, of course, has yet to happen. Every time I thought Gardner was no longer needed on any iteration of recent Yankee rosters, he reappears and ends up as one of team’s leaders in games played. I think the saying goes something like, “the best ability is availability” and while that is an overused cliché, it is a great descriptor of Brett Gardner’s tenure in New York, especially in the last five seasons.

Till this point in his career, he has tallied up almost 40 fWAR. That puts him in the hall of very good. Combine longevity with solid offense and plus defense and you have yourself a nice, long career. The elite speed helps with that too. And while Brett doesn’t steal bases like he used to, he still has a knack for taking the extra base and getting good reads.

However, I want to focus on the defense for a second, because that’s the biggest reason why his tenure in the has lasted Bronx for so long. Since the lefty veteran entered the league in 2008, he ranks in the top 10 in Defensive Runs Above Average (DEF) among outfielders. While I personally prefer using Baseball Savant’s Outs Above Average, that stat only traces back to 2016. Even so, since then Gardner ranks 34th among outfielders in OAA despite those years coming in his mid-30s, past his athletic prime. Most mid-30s players can’t boogie on the basepaths and in the outfield like Gardy.

While his speed has ever so slightly declined as time has passed, he’s still good for a quick burst on his way to a fly ball. Statcast defines an outfielder jump in three different components: the reaction, the burst, and the route. They’re all self-explanatory. In the past six seasons, Gardner excels at the burst more so than any component of the jump. That’s helped him maintain above average outcomes when he’s had the opportunity to do so. This season, he ranks in the 77th percentile in OAA. At age 37, that is truly remarkable. When you add the fact that he is playing more center field than left field, it becomes even more impressive. But this is what Gardner has come to be. His athleticism has allowed him to age like fine wine.

Speaking of which, Gardner is having what some may call a historic season. While he will be 38 in just a few weeks, this is technically considered his age-37 season. After a little bit of querying on Stathead, I found an interesting tidbit. Gardner is the first outfielder since Mike Cameron in 2010 to play at least two-thirds of his games in CF in his age-37 season. Cameron only played 48 total games that year too, making Gardner the first full-time player to do it since Jim Edmonds in 2007. Including the Yankee outfielder, only nine players have done it since 2000 and four of those played over 100 games. If Gardner stays healthy and avoids the injury/COVID bug the Yankees cannot seem to avoid, he will be the fifth.

I can go on and on about his defense and how well it’s aged, but that’s my only point. Moreover, I want to reflect on Gardner’s player type, and stress how rare of a breed he is in today’s game. With owners spending less, players getting younger, and the lack of base-stealing aggression, a player like Gardner is something of a novelty. I know I spent a full section of this article applauding Gardy’s defense, but even that tool is not too loud. He’s no Kevin Kiermaier, Byron Buxton, etc. You get the point. Even with the strong defense, he’s only won a single gold glove, not that that is the best indicator of skill. But it does tell you a bit of a story. He is not noticeably elite, in any way, really. He never has been with any tool, except the speed.

His best skills lie elsewhere. He sees a ton of pitches. He manages to extend at-bats no matter who’s on the mound. He can bunt whenever you need it, if you’re into that kind of thing. As I said before, he always takes the extra base when he can. Lastly, everybody around the organization talks about his role as a leader in the clubhouse. He’s been through several waves of Yankees rosters and always manages to fill some sort of void. With this most recent club, he’s been able to stay healthy and play as outfielders like Judge, Hicks, Frazier, Stanton, and others have made reoccurring trips to the IL. On top of all that, he’s been good for lots of highlights in the form of running catches and walk-off hits. His most recent, the ninth of his career, continued the Yankees’ resurgence post-trade deadline. It was well needed for him, as he has had his worst struggles at the plate in his entire career. Here it is.

I know. We’ve all said it before. But I think this very well may be the last season that Gardner puts on the pinstripes. He’s aging and it’s become more apparent with his often listless production at the plate. That’s exactly why I’m here to send him all the appreciation he deserves. He’s no hall of famer, but his career has been extremely impressive and he has been a crucial player in the Yankees’ rosters of the last decade-plus. No, he’s not the player he once was, but that he’s made it this far is worth celebrating.