What Went Right: Brett Gardner

Prospect Profile: Ian Clarkin
Yankees re-sign Joe Girardi through 2017

The 2013 season is over and we’ve had a week to catch our breath. It’s time to review all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with the Yankees leadoff hitter.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

The Yankees were pretty inactive last offseason, at least in the sense that they didn’t import any actually good players from other teams, so the biggest upgrade they made was getting one of their own back from injury. Brett Gardner missed just about the entire 2012 season with an elbow injury that, three setbacks later, eventually required surgery. All told, he appeared in just 16 of the team’s 162 games last year.

Gardner was essentially replacing Raul Ibanez in the lineup and in the outfield. Ibanez did an admirable job for the Yankees last year, though his contributions are greatly overstated because he became a clutch homer machine in the final two or three weeks of the year. For the first five and a half months, he was pretty bad at the plate and downright terrible in the field. The two-way upgrade was obvious.

Oddly enough, Gardner’s season started with a position change. The Yankees dubbed it an experiment at first, but their plan was to move Gardner to center and Curtis Granderson over to left to best use their defensive skills. Brett has way more range and is the all-around superior defender, so he should play the tougher position. The team didn’t commit to anything and only said they were trying it out in camp, but J.A. Happ made it official when he broke Granderson’s forearm with a pitch in his first Grapefruit League at-bat. Took the decision right out of the team’s hands.

Just like that, Gardner was the full-time center fielder. The full-time center fielder and full-time leadoff man thanks to Derek Jeter‘s ankle injury and Ichiro Suzuki‘s noodle bat. The Yankees had tried Gardner in the leadoff spot in the past and the results were pretty bad, bad enough that he never stuck atop the lineup. This year was different. This year he had no choice but to be the leadoff man because the team had no other alternatives. Maybe that lack of competition helped Brett feel more comfortable, who knows?

Anyway, with the understanding that every everyday player will have ups and downs throughout the 162-game season, Gardner remained remarkably consistent at the plate over the course of the year. I give you two graphs:

Gardner 2013 BB & wOBA

The left graphs shows Gardner’s day-by-day OBP (the most important thing for a leadoff man) while the right shows his day-by-day wOBA (overall offensive production). There’s not a whole lot of deviation there, especially with the OBP. Pretty much the same guy from start to finish. There was a never point where taking him out of the leadoff was considered because he wasn’t hitting.

Gardner did have two notable hot streaks over the course of the summer. He hit three homeruns in a 13-game span from May 24th through June 5th, which is notable because he isn’t a power hitter. Not even close. The last of the three homer was his sixth of the year, one short of his career-high after only 59 games. As Jeff Sullivan noted, Gardner was doing it by being more aggressive at the plate — three of those six homers came on the first pitch while another came on the second pitch. He was ambushing fastballs early in the count instead of taking them for the sake of working the count. The power surge didn’t last — he hit only two homers in the team’s final 103 games of the season — but it happened.

The second hot streak, weirdly, started when the power surge ended. Starting on June 5th, Gardner went on a 24-game tear in which he went 35-for-100 (.350) with six walks (.387 OBP) and eleven doubles (.540 SLG). He had multiple hits in half of those 24 games. Near the very end of that insane hot streak, Gardner’s batting line topped out at .290/.348/.456 and had him in the conversation as a bubble player for the All-Star Game. He didn’t get elected obviously, but it was still cool just to hear him be considered. Hooray arbitrary endpoints.

Unfortunately, Gardner’s season ended prematurely when he strained an oblique muscle on a swing in his first at-bat of the September 12th game against the Orioles in Camden Yards. The injury ended his year — there was talk he could be available as a pinch-hitter late in the season, but that never happened — and left the team with a gigantic hole atop the lineup. Granderson had returned to take over center field by then, that wasn’t an issue, but the Yankees didn’t have anyone to properly set the table from the leadoff spot. The offense really sputtered down the stretch.

(Andy Marlin/Getty)
(Andy Marlin/Getty)

Overall, Gardner hit .273/.344/.416 (108 wRC+) while setting new career-highs in doubles (33), triples (ten), homers (eight) and plate appearances (609). He held his own against lefties (.247/.317/.427, 100 wRC+) and was a monster with men on base (.311/.379/.467, 130 wRC+). Pretty much the only complaint about Gardner’s offensive game was his relative lack of steals. After swiping 47 and 49 bases in his previous two full seasons, he only went 24-for-32 (75%) in stolen base chances in 2013.

Defensively … I’m not really sure what you can say. Gardner was very good overall but not truly elite like he was in left field, at least in my opinion. The defensive stats — +6 DRS, -0.5 UZR, -7.3 FRAA, -20 TotalZone (?!?) — aren’t too kind but a one-year sample doesn’t tell us much of anything. You’d expect the numbers to come down because Gardner was being compared to other center fielders and not other left fielders like he was the last few years, but geez, they shouldn’t come down that much. The FRAA and TotalZone numbers definitely do not pass my sniff test. You’re welcome to feel differently.

From start to finish, Gardner was the team’s second best position player behind Robinson Cano this season. By far too. It was Cano (big gap) Gardner (big gap) everyone else. That’s as much a statement about Gardner’s strong season as it is the rest of the roster. He didn’t show any lingering effects from the elbow injury and, even with the (lack of) stolen base weirdness, he was an above-average player on both sides of the ball. Again, that’s based on my opinion of his defense. The Yankees didn’t have many bright spots this year, but Gardner was very obviously one of them.

Prospect Profile: Ian Clarkin
Yankees re-sign Joe Girardi through 2017
  • WhittakerWalt

    Grit Gritner!

  • Kevin Ocala, Fl

    How much could Gardner really steal? With nobody but Cano behind him, Cano would have been pitched around all season. And his legs, not being used to CF, may have been heavy at times. All in all, Gardner has been one of the best CFers that the Yankees have had in the last thirty years. There’s Bernie, then, possibly, Roberto Kelly….

  • entonces

    Excellent post. Fully agree. May not be coincidence that Yanks collapsed after Gardner went out.

  • http://www.thewebsitemarketingagency.com Geno

    The lack of steals was definitely weird. Maybe he was afraid to slide with the bad elbow? Hopefully he gets over it – I love the disruptive element speed brings.

  • RetroRob

    I noticed early on he was jumping on more pitches early in the count. In prior years, it seemed pitchers would just lay in strike one to get ahead, knowing he’d take it. Gardner turned the tables by jumping on more of those pitches, hence the highs in HRs and doubles. I suspect we’ll see an increase in his walk rate in 2014 as pitchers no longer take strike one for granted.

    I have no explanation for those defensive numbers. I wonder if it’s possible Yankee Stadium CF is more difficult for these systems to score? Granderson’s numbers sunk out there but went out (at least according to FanGraphs) when he moved to LF.

    • Now Batting

      The explanation is defensive metrics fail to reflect reality, especially over a one year period. It’s laughable that people compare players using WAR when it incorporates these metrics.

      • JGYank

        Yeah that and the positional adjustment is the only reasons why I don’t like using WAR. I stick with the offensive metrics but occasionally I will use WAR or defensive metrics as a guideline or suggestion.

      • Darren

        Shhh! Don’t tell anyone the dirty secret about defensive metrics. Their whole world will crumble.

  • Wolfgang’s Fault

    They’ve gotta decide if he’s worth more to them in centerfield or playing for some other team. He’s a grinder who wears pitchers out & is the only qualified leadoff hitter they presently have (other than Jeter, but that’s another story), but he also turned 30 in August, his leg speed – his best tool, will diminish, & he’s a F/A who’ll be expecting a big contract in 2015 when he’s 31. With so many holes to fill and Williams, Heathcott not that far away, and Granderson still a viable alternative w/more pop, they have to decide which player is a better fit going forward. I’ve always liked Gardner and thought he was a nice piece, but he’s not a guy you build a team around. I can see resigning him to a one year deal for 2014 & waiting to see how Williams, Slade develop next year, but I could also see them thinking outside of the box & moving Gardner if the right deal comes along this winter or even during the 2014 season should an opportunity present itself to them. This team no longer has a core that defines it. If Gardner, alone or together w/others, can bring back a return that gives them better options with which to rebuild, they should jump on it.

    • Frank

      You beat me to it. If the Yanks can fill another need like SS or 3B, or even another starter, by trading Gardner as part of a package, they should definitely pull the trigger. That said, he’s a good, solid player and had a nice season.

  • Robinson Tilapia

    I fucking love the big-headed bastard. There.

  • JGYank

    I like Gardy. He has a lot of hidden value and plays hard. Besides power, there are no holes in his game (although the increasing K rate worries me). I don’t know why he wasn’t put into the leadoff spot or in center earlier.

    “+6 DRS, -0.5 UZR, -7.3 FRAA, -20 TotalZone (?!?)”
    This is why I don’t trust defensive metrics yet. I’m fine with using offensive ones, but the defensive numbers fluctuate and don’t seem accurate way too often for me to trust them.

  • RealityCheck

    Gardner can’t possibly be good. He was developed in the Yankees systems and they are incapable of doing that. Get rid of him. He stinks.

  • Patryk

    Great to see Gardy get some credit for his solid year. I fear the outfield composed of Wells/Suzuki/Granderson without Gardner in center. Why overpay some other free agent or trade for someone who will make 2 or 3 times what Gardy will?

  • whitey

    Grit is my fav player but I’ll throw out a question. What do you guys/gals think he would bring in a trade?

  • There’s the Door

    Good player. Not the problem. Not the solution, either.

  • villapalomares

    He’s tough. He’s gritty. He’s a gamer.