The Yankees took a chance on Brett Gardner in 2010, and made out well on the gambit. Heading into the season I argued that the Yankees were making the right decision if Gardner could get on base about 35% of the time, which is roughly what he’d done for the parts of the 2009 season that he played. Brett turned around and subsequently led the team in OBP, posting an impressive .383, the eight-best mark in the American League. His .358 wOBA on the season wasn’t mind-blowing, but for a cost-controlled player many years from arbitration, the Yankees could have done a lot worse than Brett the Jet.
Here’s how Gardner did in 2010:
The conventional wisdom this season was that Gardner’s performance stalled right around when he re-injured his hand. The numbers, however, don’t bear that out. Along with teammates Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson, Gardner appears to have had two spectacular months — April and June, in Brett’s case — with a series of months in which his performance was so-so. It could be that his injured thumb sent him back towards mediocrity, but it is more likely that he is a streaky hitter who relies a lot on luck and feasts on infield singles. The thumb didn’t help, but expect a comparably uneven performance from Gardner so long as he is on the team.
Gardner, however, contributes beyond his offense. In 2010 he rated as the best fielder in all of baseball, according to Fangraphs. He was worth more than 22 runs saved in the field, which translates to about two wins. His total fWAR of 5.4 was worth $21.6 million, good for second-best on the team. Baseball Reference isn’t quite as fond of the scrappy little speedster, but it still argues that Gardner was worth 4.0 bWAR, which was tied with Nick Swisher for third on the squad. No matter how you slice it, that’s incredible value for only $452,000.
Can he do it again? Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford are also base-stealing, excellent-fielding outfielders, who hit for more pop than Gardner does. The question is whether or not the Yankees want to trade on Gardner while his value is high, and try to pursue sexier options for his position?
Hopefully the answer will be no. For $15 million — what I anticipate both Crawford and Werth will roughly be paid apiece next season — Gardner has earned another shot at keeping his pinstripes. Even if he turns in a less-stellar performance and damages some of his trade value, the economic value of giving him another shot is too compelling to ignore, and worth the money the team would otherwise pay someone else.
Gardner’s game isn’t appealing to all fans. He has an ugly swing and rarely hits anything more than a single. As a result he’ll always have his detractors, but the facts are that for two consecutive seasons he has gotten on base at a solid-to-excellent rate and made pitchers pay dearly once he got there. Along the way, he saw more pitches per plate appearance than any other player in baseball, stole bases at about an 85% success rate, and may have been the best defensive player in the Majors. The combination makes for an excellent asset on the team, even if you don’t feel his defense is as valuable as the stat sites say it is.
Gardner hasn’t developed enough of a track record to allow for concrete conclusions to be drawn about his performance. The defense and speed will be there. Will the hitting? With Brett’s speed he is going to live and die by OBP. In 2009 his OBP was .345 and in 2010 it was .383. In 2011 Gardner will be only 27 years old. He could quite possibly have his best seasons in front of him. While I’m hesitant to pencil him in for another year of leading the Yankees in OBP, I do believe that he’ll easily post a .360 OBP next season. His legs will do the rest.