The Underrated Brett Gardner

Gardner vs LAA All things considered, the Yankees are humming right along this season.  They've been healthier and more productive than expected in some areas and less so in others, they've successfully dealt with their injury problems, and the overall mediocrity of their division has helped to keep them in first place.  There has been no shortage of important stories to follow as well, be it the surprising turnarounds of A-Rod and Teix, the unfortunate injuries to Tanaka and Ellsbury, the emergence of Big Mike, or the decline of CC.  All of those stories and players have helped get the Yankees to where they are in some way.

And underneath all those big stories and big names and beneath the big, bold headlines being written about them sits Brett Gardner.  Starting left fielder and #2 hitter for most of the year, starting center fielder and leadoff hitter lately, Gardner is once again putting together a very good season.  Entering tonight's game, he's hitting .278/.355/.438 with 12 doubles, 5 home runs, 39 runs scored, 26 RBI, and 14 stolen bases in 17 chances.  His run total is good for 5th best in the American League, the SB total good for 2nd, and if the defensive metrics were a little kinder to him he'd probably be a top 20-30 player in terms of fWAR.  The B-R version has him at 2.0 and just outside the top 10, which I think is a much more accurate assessment of how good he's been.

Not that we necessarily need any WAR value to tell us how valuable Gardner has been this season.  He formed a terrific 1-2 punch with Jacoby Ellsbury when Ellsbury was healthy that helped drive a lot of the Yankees' earlier 18-6 hot streak, has continued to be a consistent run-producing presence at the top since Ellsbury left, and at worst has played an average defensive outfield at 2 different positions.  His 9.5% BB rate is his highest since the double digit rates of 2010-2012, his 18.6% K rate is his lowest since 2011.  His .438 SLG would be a new career high if the season ended today, as would his .349 wOBA and 124 wRC+ values (not counting the SSS 2012 season).

Even if you aren't a stats person, the eye test conveys the same message of an improved and well-rounded Gardner.  He looks more calm and comfortable at the plate than he ever has, he can handle the bat and change up his hitting approach in any type of situation, he's being more aggressive and also picking his spots better on the basepaths, and he's one of the more energetic and vocal members of the dugout.  No longer is Gardner a speed luxury piece tacked on to the backside of a homer-heavy lineup.  He's one of the key parts of a more balanced attack and one of the leaders of a younger, evolving Yankee roster.  Not bad for a guy who was never very highly regarded coming up through the Yankee system and initially wasn't expected to be anything more than a 4th outfielder.

And yet there's not much being written about Gardner this year.  Not much being said about him online or on TV.  Gardner continues to fly under the national baseball radar just like he has since he became an every day player in 2010.  He flew under the radar putting up a 6-fWAR season then and a 5-fWAR season to follow up in 2011.  He's flown mostly under the radar since then despite having the 15th best fWAR total for outfielders during the 2010-2015 span.  His development into a better and more dangerous power hitter over the past 2+ seasons hasn't drawn a ton of attention, nor has the spike in his stolen bases this season.  It's almost as if we expect this kind of production from Gardner now.  Either that or we're numb to it as Yankee fans.

Brett Gardner has become a pretty damn good baseball player right in front of our eyes, to the point that he's severely underrated and his new contract that started this year looks even better than it did when he signed it.  This is a player who can hit for pretty good average, work counts and draw an above-average amount of walks, steal bases and create opportunities with his legs, play above-average outfield defense in multiple positions, and can be a legitimate power threat against both right and left-handed pitching.

If one were so inclined, one could make the argument that Brett Gardner is a 5-tool player.  At the very least, he's a player who knows how to get and when to use all 5 tools whenever he needs to, and that's something not many players can do.  Gardner may not be the single biggest, fastest, or best player on this Yankee team, but he's definitely the most well-rounded.  He also might be the most consistent and sneaky most valuable, and that deserves to be talked about.  One of these days Gardner is going to get some more shine, maybe when he finally makes an All-Star team, and when that day comes it's going to be well deserved.  Gardner needs to go from being underrated to properly rated as one of the best outfielders in baseball.