When he broke into baseball, Brett Gardner was an immediate threat to run around the bases every time he reached first, and his fielding was stellar no matter where the Yankees played him. Always considered a light hitter, having amassed only nine home runs in more than 1,700 minor league at-bats, Gardner’s value was in his speed, both in the field and on the basepaths. These strengths helped him to a 7.3 WAR campaign in 2010, during which he stole 47 bases and earned praise for his defense despite a Gold Glove snub. He was so, so good.
Gardner's several seasons since his incredible 2010 have offered a strange case of consistency meeting inconsistency. He tied for the AL lead by stealing 49 bases in 2011, but following an injury-plagued 2012, Gardner tweaked his plate approach to increase his power at the plate. Now, he can seemingly be expected to hit double digit home runs over a full season. Frustratingly, with his increase in power has come a dip in value on the basepaths.
Over his last three seasons, Gardner's stolen bases have dipped, averaging only 22 per year despite his status among the fastest players in the league. Yankees fans have taken solace in his relatively excellent contract and his defensive skills providing value. After all, his Ultimate Zone Rating in 2010 was an incredible 24.8, and through the end of the 2013 season, he had career marks of 36.5 UZR/150 in left field and 10.7 UZR/150 in center.
Unfortunately, Gardner's value in the field and on the basepaths have diminished enough to make him dangerously close to becoming a net negative in those categories. Last season, thanks at least in part to injury, Gardner provided negative value in UZR (-2.7), he was considered neutral in Defensive Runs Saved Above Average, and he was only marginally valuable Range Runs Above Average (+0.7). Gardner's UZR in 2014 was +2.4 and in 2013 was -0.5, so this drop-off has not been without warning, but it is marginally alarming to consider that an increasing total of his value is now tied in his ability to hit above average.
Gardner has done exactly that in each year since 2011, maintaining an OPS+ around 110 thanks to his added power and ability to consistently get on base. Beyond his age, there is little reason to believe he will suddenly forget how to hit for power in 2016 and on through the end of his contract in 2019. While 2015 marked his worst offensive season in years, he was still an above average hitter for his position.
Still, with obviously declining speed, as evidenced through his lack of stolen bases and decreasing value in the field, Gardner's career is in a strange place. Worth between 3-4 WAR each of the past several seasons, he would be worth his salary even with a slight decline in skills. But as a speed demon outfielder who seems to have maximized his power at the plate amidst the crawl into his mid-30s, Gardner is likely to close the gap between his on-field value and the money the Yankees owe to him before too long.