Brett Gardner hit the 100th home run of his career on Wednesday night, in dramatic fashion: a 7th inning, go-ahead grand slam against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees had struggled all night to get anything going against former Yankee Nathan Eovaldi but pounced on the Sox’ shaky bullpen, and it was fitting that the Yankees’ longest-tenured player was the one to deliver the decisive blow. His career is on the downswing, and if 2019 is not his final year, 2020 almost surely will be. Before then, Yankee fans should take the time to appreciate a player who has had a fine career as a New York Yankee, consistently providing consistent and overlooked value to what was often one of the league’s best teams during his tenure here.
A 100 home-run career feels slightly underwhelming in the post-steroid era: after all, a generation of fans watched sluggers like Barry Bonds almost hit that many in a single season. But that view is short-sighted. Consider that 19,472 players have played baseball at the MLB level and that, as friend of RAB James Smyth noted on Twitter, only 895 have hit 100 home runs. That means that Brett Gardner is the newest member of a club to which only 5% of all MLB players in history belong.
That is quite the accomplishment for a player who, at age 17, was not even sure he would make the roster at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. In fact, he originally didn’t: he was cut after trying out for the team as an unrecruited walk-on. But he showed up for practice anyway and was never asked to leave again, eventually drafted in the third round of the 2005 draft by the Yankees after hitting .447 as a college senior. He has never left the Yankees organization, either.
He made his Yankee debut in 2008, and is the only player left on the current Yankees to have donned the pinstripes at the original House that Ruth Built. Since then, he has hit .260/.344/.391 (102 wRC+) in 1377 games for the Bombers, compiling 37.5 bWAR. He is renowned for his patience at the plate, always taking pitches and ranking toward the top of the league in pitches per plate appearance. He was an All-Star in 2015 and a World Series winner in 2009.
On top of league average offense—which was often more than that in his prime, as he posted a 127 wRC+ season in 2012 and several others above 110—he was a fantastic defender in the outfield. Four times in his career, Brett saved more than 10 runs in the outfielder and twice exceeded 20, with 25 and 23 DRS in 2010 and 2011, respectively. He saved 17 runs in 2017, and, even last year, he saved 8 runs. He has been an above-average defender (often well-above-average) for a decade. He won a Gold Glove in 2016.
That defensive prowess, in which he manned the spacious left field at Yankee Stadium, was made possible by Gardner’s trademark speed—speed that hasn’t left him. As Mike noted in Gardner’s 2019 season preview, Gardner remains as speedy as ever. To the numbers, using sprint speed from Statcast:
- 2016: 28.7 feet per second (69th in MLB)
- 2017: 28.8 feet per second (71st in MLB)
- 2018: 29.2 feet per second (37th in MLB)
- 2019: 28.8 feet per second (27th in MLB)
That has made him a prolific baserunner, logging above-average baserunning figures according to both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference last year. In other words, even as his offensive skills have depreciated, he has remained an efficient, above-average baserunner with above-average defense and one of the league’s speediest players.
Those skills, odd as it may seem, are why Gardner was able to join the exclusive 100 home run club last week: he was always offering value to the Yankees. Consider that he has been worth less than 3 bWAR exactly once (discounting 2012 when he logged only 16 games) after he became a full-time player in 2010, That was last year, and it was 2.8, meaning that Gardner has been a consistent 3-win player for a decade. Even though that’s not superstar material, it is a very valuable MLB player—and a rare one, at that.
Gardner has played with inner-circle Hall of Famers and with big-name superstars with divisive personalities that command talk radio attention and tabloid headlines. Through it all, he has provided steady clubhouse leadership and been an unofficial captain of sorts of the new Yankees, alongside CC Sabathia and Aaron Judge.
Brett Gardner’s career has been easy to overlook, but that doesn’t mean you should overlook it. After all, either after this year or next, he will no longer be a Yankee—and when that time comes, I suspect you’ll find yourself missing the speedy, efficient outfielder who has so woven himself into the fabric of the New York Yankees that you barely even notice he is there, doing what he has always done.