2014 Statistics: .256/.327/.422, 17 HR, 21 SB, 110 wRC+, 3.2 fWAR
2015 Contract Status: Signed for four years and $52 million with a 2019 club option.
Brett Gardner is the Yankees' best hitter.
The above is probably not a phrase you ever thought you'd read about Gardner, who's known more for the gritty, gutty label that's been attached to him throughout his career than as an offensive force. It's true, though. At 31, the Yankees' new longest tenured player, now that Derek Jeter has traded in his bat for a shuffleboard cue, led the 2014 regulars in wRC+, wOBA (.331), OPS (.749) and slugging percentage. I'll repeat that last one. Slugging percentage. Those numbers might say more about the rest of the team than they do about Gardner, but it's hard to argue that in most situations this season he was the guy fans wanted at the plate.
Last February, Gardner signed a four-year, $52 million extension that starts next year and will takes him through 2018, his age-34 season, and puts him in a tie with Brian McCann as the Yankee with the third-most guaranteed years remaining on his current contract. The new deal came as something of a surprise after the Yankees spent considerably more to bring in a similarly skilled player in Jacoby Ellsbury after Gardner spent the bulk of the offseason with his name embroiled in trade rumors that wouldn't go away. But Brian Cashman, always a Brett-backer, convinced the Steinbrenners to stand by his guy, holding that in an evolving game, two fast outfielders side-by-side aren't redundant, but instead represent a great asset.
For the first four months of the season, Gardner more than justified his GM's faith in him, dashing out of the gate toward what looked like a breakout campaign. At the All-Star break, he was batting .279/.353/.424 and had already set a personal high in home runs. After a fantastic July culminated in a four-homer in three-days outburst in Texas, though, Gardner hit a late summer swoon. Through August and September, he hit just .193/.249/.331 with a walk rate of just 7.4%. His newfound power was mostly gone–he hit only three home runs in the final two months–and his base running became a non-factor too as he swiped just four bags down the stretch.
Despite his limp to the finish line, Gardner's season left mostly positive impressions. In a Yankee lineup that desperately lacked power, he provided a lot more than what was expected of him, setting career bests in home runs, slugging and ISO (.169). His noted ability to work pitchers was in full bloom as he finished second in baseball with 4.4 pitches seen per plate appearance, and he did a typically solid job of hitting to all fields, making him one of the few Yankee left-handed hitters who weren't harried by regular infield shifts. Oh, and his Gatorade-dumping abilities? Off the charts.
On the downside, as Gardner reached new heights as an all-around hitter, he saw some serious decline in the areas of the game at which he's historically excelled. For the second straight season, his walk rate hovered below ten percent, which forced his OBP beneath .330 for the first time ever. He set a personal high in strikeout rate at 21.1% and his 4.9% swinging strike rate was noticeably higher than his career mark of 4.0. In 2010 and 2011, Gardner stole 47 and 49 bases respectively, but he set a full-season low this year, swiping only 21 on 26 attempts. Once a phenomenal defender, his range crept closer to league average in 2014, when his UZR/150 was 2.9, a steep drop from a career average of 18.7 overall and 25.8 as a left fielder.
Compared with how his classmates performed, Gardner probably deserves an "A", but we don't grade on a curve here. There was a lot to like about his season and the clear effort he's made over the past two years to add more pop to his game is a smart choice. The Yankees need someone who can hit balls in the gaps and over the fences more than they need a scrappy speedster right now, and slugging in the fours instead of the threes will keep his value aloft as pure physical skills like speed and range erode. Still, Gardner's never going to make a full transition from leadoff guy to true slugger the way Curtis Granderson did several years ago, so there needs to be a balance. Hitting at or near the top of the order, as he will for years to come, Gardner needs to find a way to be on base more than 32.7% of the time. He needs to turn more of his long at-bats into walks like he did earlier in his career, and he needs to put his legs to work while they're still an asset by taking more chances on the bases earlier in counts.