New York Yankees: Brett Gardner’s indisputable value

New York Yankees, Brett Gardner

The New York Yankees‘ estimated payroll for the 2020 season is expected to be upwards of $240,000,000+, which will likely be the highest in baseball. With new and exciting names joining the club, like Gerrit Cole, one of the more underrated signings has to be retaining Brett Gardner. When NYY resigned Gardner, for $12,500,000 this next season, some fans were livid and disappointed in how management decided to spend some of the money. People were upset over the loyalty toward Gardner and lack-thereof toward Betances. In this article, I plan to discuss how Gardner was a “must-have” and how his contract is an excellent value.

Brett Gardner’s value and importance to the team

According to Fangraphs’ WAR value, the average role player in an every day starting LU has an average fWAR of roughly 1.0 – 2.0. With that, bench players and backups are expected to accumulate 0.0 – 1.0 WAR across the entire season. In terms of ‘value per 1 WAR’, there has been a consensus opinion that 1 WAR is worth roughly $7-$8 million. While that’s not always honored or the case, with a vast majority of over-the-top signings in FA, specifically.

Many teams overpay to try to cover the potential or ceiling of that player either, or teams underpay in an attempt to get someone for a better deal or to save face assuming the said player doesn’t pan out. With that, Gardner in 2019 posted nearly 4 WAR, and bringing him back for 2020 is an incredibly smart and cost-effective decision. Brett is very consistent, despite his atrocious 2018 season.

Now, looking at Gardner’s 2019 season — specifically — it should be practically impossible to try and make a case for why Gardner didn’t deserve to be brought back.

For starters, Gardner’s 2019 was the best year he’s had in terms of his power production. In today’s era of MLB, to have a power stroke and even a little bit of pop in one’s bat is critical to long-term success and individual playing time.

Unfortunately, a massive amount of slap-hitters, similar to Gardy’s style of play, are starting to be done away with. There is a far smaller emphasis on stolen bases and players who are that “2-3 tool makeup,” with those tools being a hit tool, speed, and defense, are slowly starting to be exiled. Very few teams want to waste spots in the LU on guys with sub 15 HR power because ultimately, the league is ever-changing. Gardner brings value back because of his plus speed and plus power as well, but what Gardner does so well is see pitches and make the most of his AB’s.

In 2019, Gardner OPS’d .829 in his age 35 season — the highest across his entire career. However, he also brings a few intangibles to the table as well. Brett is the only Yankee left on the roster from that 2009 World Series team, and his role has been defined and brought to the light over the last few seasons. Gardner is a leader on and off the field and does whatever it takes to help his team win. After the 2018 season, there were rumors that that was it for him in a Yankees uniform. Gardner was coming off the worst year of his major league career, in which he OPS’d .690, and paired it with a wRC+ of 91, to go with a measly 12 HR and 16 SB’s. He was brought back in for 2019 after signing a $7,500,000 base deal with NYY, in what many people had expected to be the final year of Gardner — or at least the end of the line for a longtime competent baseball player.

The 2019 season, however, Gardner went on and shattered everyone’s expectations of what he could still produce. Mentioned previously, he would go on to OPS .829 and smash a career-high 28 HR’s last year, to pair with a wRC+ of 115. His 3.6 fWAR — despite high K% (19.6%, highest since ’15) and low-ish for him BB% (9.5%, lowest since ’14) — ended up being tied with Gleyber Torres for third-highest on the team. I believe Gleyber Torres is the game’s next Nolan Arenado, but for Gardner — a guy who was 35 years old for the majority of the year, and saw 54 less PA’s than Torres, that is amazing.

Gardner’s defensive metrics

I think it’s crazy just how good and consistent he is, especially defensively. Defense has been undermined the last few seasons, specifically out of that corner outfielder spot. Below is a table looking at a few of Gardner’s defensive stats from the last three seasons (info via Fangraphs):

YEAR (POS) DRS UZR/150 Innings Played  Plays Made
2019 (CF) -2 3.1 820.0 157
2019 (LF) 7 6.8 348.1 29
2018 (LF) 8 9.9 901.0 116
2017 (LF) 17 11.3 1024.0 128

For the sake of the article, I figured I’d include both positions Gardner dappled in in 2019, as it is a critical contributing factor to how good he was. Gardner hasn’t posted many negative defensive metrics throughout his entire 11-year career, and over the last three years, he hasn’t slowed down.

The one thing I am a bit worried about is that Gardy will likely be starting in CF for the injured Aaron Hicks. While I think having Gardner in any of the outfield spots would bode well for NYY, there’s no denying that he is far better suited in left. Gardner, in 2019 posted a DRS of 7 and a UZR/150 (one of the best indicative individual defensive stats) of 6.8 out of leftfield. Both of those are only across 348.1 innings, which, when extrapolated out to roughly the same amount of innings from the years prior (say 950.0), Gardy would have been on another level in 2019.

With that, the one thing that isn’t boding well for Gardner’s playtime and role in 2020 is the emergence of Mike Tauchman. Tauchman also posted excellent defensive metrics in limited PA’s last season. Add to that his OPS of .865 and his solid plate approach and peripherals, and he could very well be the new Gardner of this team. Not to mention the fact that Gardner struggles mightily versus lefties, so there could be a platoon situation between the two. Along with Tauchman’s emergence, the returns of Stanton, Andujar — who is being worked out in LF — and Judge for an entire season will likely eat into his playtime as well. I think Gardy will still see 450-500 PA’s this upcoming season. His veteran leadership, overall defensive abilities and qualities, and ability to make contact at a high rate contribute to him being one of the most well-balanced outfielders in the league.

I don’t expect Gardner’s power numbers to maintain; however, I do expect him to showcase a bit of that pop this upcoming year. While it won’t be the same near-thirty HR capabilities that he showed last season, there’s definite reason to think that Gardner can hit 20 across the full season. Even so, a player with his defense and speed, as well as his know-how and baseball expertise, is precious.

A career made on consistency

Gardner seems to be the one Yankee that’s warranting more disrespect than respect and is coming into this season with more question marks than I feel are deserved. Across Gardner’s 11 year career, he’s accumulated 37.0 fWAR (suitable for 3.4 per season). In those 11 years, he’s played 1499 Games, seen 5,995 PA’s, and posted an average wRC+ of 104 per season. For comparison, Troy Tulowitzki — who is heralded as one of the best shortstops of the 2010s, only accumulated 38.2 fWAR throughout his entire career. Yes, Tulo played fewer games (ended at 1291) and had numerous better seasons than Gardner did, but Tulowitzki’s career was massively derailed and thrown off year after year because of injuries. Gardner is the epitome of consistency and helping out regardless of what’s needed.

Interestingly enough, Gardner’s peak season — in terms of fWAR — was higher than that of Tulo’s season-high of 5.5. In Gardner’s 2010 season, he posted an fWAR of 6.2, to pair with a wRC+ of 112. Simply put, the fact that Gardner is likely going to pass Tulowitzki in terms of an exceptionally valuable and used metric (though not the only one that matters), WAR, is mind-boggling.

I think us Yankees fans have had an embarrassment of riches over the last few seasons, specifically. Looking at Gardner, it’s easy for one to say that he’s not an incredible baseball player by using the ever-so-highly touted “eye test.” He makes a good amount of soft contact and grounds out fairly often, and may not be the most exciting player to watch — with that. In an era that is headlined by the massive sluggers and their power-prowess, players like Gardner continue to fly under the radar. For further reference just to realize how underappreciated Brett is, the White Sox team as a whole posted 11.0 fWAR last year, with their best player — from a WAR perspective at least — Yoan Moncada, accumulating 5.7 of it. Gardner would’ve been the second-best player on that team, ahead of Eloy Jimenez (1.9 fWAR), Tim Anderson (3.5), and James McCann (1.9 — had the best season of his career last year). I view CWS as one of the best offenses in baseball for 2020, and I think they have tons of talent and excitement on their Homefront. I find it interesting that Gardner would objectively be one of their best players on both offense and defense, despite all the talent and hype around that team.

It goes to show how lucky Yankees fans are, in that the team has no apparent weaknesses, and numerous guys can be more productive and impactful than Gardy. Brett was never THE guy, and he never will be. However, what he brings to the table is consistency and a wide array of skills to go with it. Gardner will likely see another 3 WAR season this next year, and if he is to retire within the next year or two, the Yankees must get him another ring to see him off correctly. A legend on and off the field, and a name that is undoubtedly going to make a splash next season, keep your eyes on the longest-tenured Yankee — Brett Gardner.