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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #42 Brett Gardner

The diminutive Gardner carved out an excellent career in the Bronx, one highlighted by a 2009 World Series title.

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MLB: SEP 10 Yankees at Twins

Full Name: Brett Michael Gardner
Position: Outfield (LF/CF)
Born: August 24, 1983 (Holly Hill, SC)
Yankee Years: 2008-21
Primary number: 11
Yankee statistics: 1,688 G, 139 HR, 943 R, 578 RBI, 274 SB, .256/.342/.398, 103 wRC+, 44.3 rWAR, 38.6 fWAR

Biography

A third-round pick by the Yankees in the 2005 Amateur Draft, Brett Gardner possessed elite speed and defensive acumen. As his career progressed, he showed a surprising amount of pop considering his small frame, culminating in a career-high 28 home runs in 2019 as a 35-year-old.

Gardy played his entire professional career in pinstripes, earning an All-Star Game nod and a Gold Glove as personal accolades, to go along with his lone championship as part of the 2009 roster.

Early Life

Brett Michael Gardner was born in Holly Hill, SC, on August 24, 1983. Baseball was in his veins. His father Jerry had toiled in the Phillies’ minor league system for several years in the 1970s, playing outfield and making it as far as Double-A.

Gardner’s athleticism was apparent from a young age. He played golf and tennis and then when he hit high school, began playing baseball and football. But there was nothing to that point to suggest Gardner would someday join Holly Hill alum Willie Randolph as a Yankee stalwart.

The Old College Try

Andrew detailed Gardy’s path to college ball in his write-up a decade ago: Although some college scouts liked his speed, no one felt comfortable offering him a Division I scholarship. Undeterred and unwilling to immediately accept a Division II scholarship, Gardner attended the nearby College of Charleston and decided he would try out for the baseball team. His audition was a disaster; not a single hit reached the outfield and his throws from the outfield were unimpressive. Gardner recalled, “If I was a coach, I’d be like, ‘This kid’s not going to cut it.’” The college’s coaches agreed, and he did not make the team.

At that point, Brett thought his baseball days were over. His father, however, begged to differ. Jerry called up John Pawlowski, Charleston’s coach and appealed for a second chance for his son. Pawlowski, seeing no evident downside, agreed, and gave Gardner a shot in some scrimmage games.

It didn’t take long for Brett to vindicate his father’s faith. He started for Charleston as a sophomore, highlighted by a .370 OBP and 28 stolen bases in 33 attempts. The next year, he took his game to a new level, with a .397/.475/.574 slash line and 12 doubles, nine triples, and four homers in 60 games. Finally, he authored a spectacular senior season. His .447/.506/.571 line along with 122 hits and 38 steals in 63 games earned him an All-American nod. Gardner was named to their Hall of Fame in 2023.

The Yankees Roll the Dice

When the third round of the 2005 Amateur Draft rolled around, New York was sitting on the 109th pick. When they were on the clock, the powers-that-be decided to take a chance on the speedy Gardner. The club loved his plate discipline and his agility but doubted his bat had any pop in it at the next levels. Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees’ Vice President of Scouting, commented on Gardner, “He’s an absolute flyer. He’s a fast runner who can really patrol center field. He can steal bases, has instincts to run and has performed with the bat.” Minor League Ball’s John Sickels thought Gardner was a slight overdraft and gave the Yankees a C+ grade for their choice.

Gardy began his minor league career in Staten Island in ‘05. There, he hit .284/.377/.376 with 19 stolen bases in 73 games. Our own Andrew Mearns recounts that “while he was there, he took his girlfriend on a tour of Yankee Stadium, telling her that the next time he came back, he wanted to be playing. In just three years, he would get his wish.”

When 2006 rolled around, Gardner found himself in High-A Tampa, where he demolished Florida State League pitching, ending his season with a .323/.433/.418 line with 30 steals in just 63 games. Double-A Trenton was his home for the second half of ’06 and the first half of ’07, and by the stretch run of ’07 he’d earned a promotion to Triple-A Stanton. As midseason ‘08 approached, the Yankees needed outfield depth on the MLB roster. Accordingly, Gardner finally got the call, and he debuted in The Show on June 30, 2008.

A Long Gardy Party in the Bronx

You could be forgiven for looking at the back of Gardner’s 2008 baseball card and thinking that he was not destined for a long career. In his first taste of big-league pitching, he mustered a feeble .223/.283/.299 slash line, “good” for a 54 wRC+. But on the bases and in the field, Gardy proved that despite his light bat, he still provided value. 13 steals in 14 attempts and 1.3 defensive WAR in only 42 games showed off the elite speed and defensive ability that came to define his career.

And it wasn’t all bad at the dish. On July 6, 2008, in the rubber match against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium, Gardy walked off Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon in the 10th inning, giving the Yankees the series win. The following month, he notched his second walk-off hit of the season, driving in the winning run against the Royals.

Gardner found himself in a time-share with Melky Cabrera during the 2009 season. Gardy appeared in 108 games, swiping 26 bags and showing marked improvement at the plate in his sophomore season. A 91 wRC+ might be nothing to write home about, but it’s considerably better than 54.

The fleet-of-foot young outfielder also flashed his ability as a sparkplug. On May 15th, the Yankees were lagging with a 17-17 start to the season and facing the Twins in the Bronx. They were trailing 4-1 with two down in the seventh and Gardner up. He flared an 0-2 pitch down the left-field line, and when Denard Span couldn’t handle the bounce, he kicked it into high gear.

The inside-the-parker was just Gardner’s third career homer. Two innings later, the Yankees rallied to walk off the Twins. From that point on, they were an MLB-best 86-42.

Meanwhile, the throwing arm that was so unimpressive in his initial college tryout now seemed like it might be one of the best in the big leagues. By July 2009, Dave Cameron at FanGraphs noted that Gardner ranked fifth among outfielders in ARM rating, at +8.4. For reference, Hunter Pence led the pack at +11.1 Incredibly, Gardner had played 1,336 fewer innings in the outfield than Pence.

Cameron hypothesized that “If Gardner really does have one of the best throwing arms in baseball, then there’s really no way that New York can justify keeping him out of the starting line-up on a regular basis. He’s already one of the best base stealers in the game (30 for 33), and his +10.6 range runs 600 innings as a major league center fielder suggest he might be an elite defensive player even without the crazy throwing.” Prophetic words, in light of the glove work Gardy would put on display over the next decade-plus.

When the playoffs came around, Gardner was mostly a defensive replacement until fan favorite Melky hurt his hamstring in the World Series. Gardy started the final two contests of the Fall Classic and the Yanks finished off Philly to win its first title since 2000, and their last championship as of this writing.

From 2010 onward, Gardner was a fixture in the Yankee lineup. And the 2010 season was his finest, at least as measured by rWAR. Gardy stole 47 bags, scored 97 runs, put up a 112 wRC+, and thanks in no small part to his 3.4 dWAR, ended the season with an outstanding 7.4 rWAR. In October, he put his disruptive skills on the bases on full display, stealing five bags in a doubleheader against Boston.

Gardy unfortunately went ice-cold at the worst possible time, going 5-for-27 in the 2010 playoffs as the Yanks lost to the Rangers in the ALCS. His season did not go overlooked, however, as he won his first Fielding Bible Award, a feat he matched the following season, and again in 2017.

Although Gardner was not the same force at the dish in 2011, he still led the junior circuit with a career-high 49 stolen bases and put up 4.1 rWAR. That was the second of nine consecutive full seasons Gardy played (he missed almost all of the 2012 campaign due to injury) when he was worth at least 3.2 rWAR, with five of those campaigns eclipsing 4 rWAR.

With much of the lineup injured or unproductive in 2013, Gardner was one of the few bright spots alongside Robinson Canó. He paced the AL with 10 triples while hitting .273/.344/.416 with a 110 OPS+ and 4.2 rWAR. It was enough to convince the Yankees to issue a rare extension at that time, good for four years and $52 million beginning in 2014. He posted similar numbers in another quiet season in the Bronx, and in 2015, Gardy finally made his first All-Star Game on the the strength of a superb first half. The Yankees returned to postseason play, only to lose the one-game Wild Card showdown with Houston.

The following season saw a dip from New York as a whole, but Gardner won his first and only Gold Glove to go along with his three Fielding Bibles. 2016 also saw Gardy recognized with the Wilson Defensive Player of the Year Award in left field.

A Grizzled Vet

33 years old in 2017, Gardner set a new career-high with 21 dingers amid a thrilling Yankees season. One of those walked off the Rays on July 27th, giving the Yanks a 6-5 win. That was par for the course for Gardy during his career. He was at his best in extra innings — in 91 career at-bats during bonus cantos, Gardy hit .308 with an OPS 21 percent better than his career mark. Moreover, 2017 marked his second straight seasons as the Yankees’ nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award.

In the first two rounds of that postseason, Gardy exorcised some demons at the plate. Entering the playoffs, Gardy was 12 for his last 66 in postseason action. During the Wild Card game against Minnesota, Gardy gave the Yanks a second inning lead after they fell behind 3-0 in the opening frame with a full-count, two-out solo jack to right field. It was his first playoff home run and it could not have come at a better time.

In the ALDS, he again came through at an opportune time. Facing Cleveland closer Cody Allen in Game 5 with men on first and second and the Yankees clinging to a one-run lead, Gardy went to work. Just 12 pitches later, he emerged victorious over Allen with an RBI single to right. Aaron Hicks crossed the plate, extending the Yankees lead to 4-2. New York tacked on one more run, completing a comeback from down 2-0 to win the series.

Gardy was now an elder statesman as the Baby Bomber era was in full effect. He’d been around for a decade and knew what it was like to win a title. Unfortunately, we all know how that era ended, with playoff heartbreak after playoff disappointment in the final years of Gardner’s long Yankee career.

After a subpar 2018 at the dish, he exploded again in the juiced ball year of 2019. Now 35, Gardner walloped 28 round trippers and set career highs in SLG (.503), OPS (.829), and wRC+ (115). He was again a valuable offensive weapon at the plate in the COVID-abbreviated 2020 season, thanks to his walk rate spiking to a career-best 16.5 percent. Unfortunately, his final season in 2021 saw the 37-year-old regress at the dish, with his batting average cratering to a career-low.

Even in the twilight of his career, Gardner could still fly, however. In 2015, his sprint speed came in at 28.8 feet/second. Six years later in his final campaign, he was still flying around the bags at 28.6 ft/sec.

Post-Playing Days

After the 2021 season, neither Gardner nor the Yankees picked up their mutual options that would have seen the venerable outfielder return for another year. Despite his down year at the dish in 2021, there was interest from other MLB clubs.

The Braves and Blue Jays both inquired about Gardy’s availability. But Gardner made it plain that the only place he wanted to play was in the Bronx. Ultimately, he remained unsigned through the 2022 season. Any remaining chance he’d be back in pinstripes likely disappeared in February 2023, when the Yankees re-assigned Gardner’s locker to Hicks.

To crib from the great Reggie Jackson, Brett Gardner was the “straw that stirs the drink” for the Yankee offense for over a decade. When Gardy was hitting, the Yankees were winning. In the 981 games the Yanks won during his career, he smashed 100 of his 139 home runs, hit .284 compared to .218 in 707 losses, and posted an OPS more than 200 points higher in victory (.825 to .621).

Gardner’s career rWAR sits 17th all-time among Yankee position players. Baseball-Reference considers him the greatest defensive outfielder in the Yankees’ storied history. He’s third all-time on the club’s stolen bases leaderboard and sits in the top-15 in both games played and runs scored.

The Yankees did not achieve consistent lofty team success during Gardner’s time, with his only championship coming early in his career. Nonetheless, he was a valuable fixture on a team that was an almost perennial contender and he left his mark all over the club’s record book, along with a couple of dugout roofs.

Staff rank: 42
Community rank: 57
Stats rank: 27
2013 rank: 96

References

Adler, Lindsey. “Yankees and Brett Gardner declined 2022 options, but New York still needs a bit more outfield insurance.The Athletic. November 5, 2021.

Araton, Harvey. “Face of the New Yankees Leads Off.” The New York Times. 31 Mar 2011.

“The Babe, Joltin’ Joe and ... Brett.” College of Charleston Sports. 11 Nov 2009.

Bans, Willie. “Yanks bring up speedy Gardner.” MLB.com. 30 Jun 2008.

Baseball-Reference.

Baseball Savant

“Brett Gardner.” Baseball Cube. (College statistics)

Cameron, Dave. “A Gardner Worth His Weight.” FanGraphs. July 8, 2009.

Curry, Jack. “For College Walk-Ons, a Road Less Traveled Makes All the Difference.” The New York Times. 11 Apr 2009.

FanGraphs.

Feinsand, Mark. “Yankees go to school in Draft.” MLB.com. 8 Jun 2005.

Goodman, Max. “Brett Gardner Turned Down This Contract Offer From the Blue Jays.Sports Illustrated. May 13, 2022.

Mearns, Andrew. “Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #96 Brett Gardner.” Pinstripe Alley. July 18, 2013.

MLB.

Rosenstein, Mike. “Yankees say goodbye to Brett Gardner, give his locker to underperforming veteran.” NJ.com. February 16, 2023.

Sickels, John. “Prospect Report Redux: Brett Gardner.” Minor League Ball. 1 Sep 2010.

Previously on the Top 100

43. David Cone
Full list to date