2015 Midseason Review: The Best of Brett

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Two years ago Brett Gardner was the Yankees’ second best player almost by default. They still had in-his-prime superstar Robinson Cano, but for the most part the rest of the roster was filled out by retreads and guys on their very last legs — Kevin Youkilis, Travis Hafner, and Vernon Wells all had regular lineup spots on Opening Day and not one of them played another MLB game after leaving the 2013 Yankees.

Last year Gardner was arguably the best player on the team, inarguably one of the two best. He and Jacoby Ellsbury had very similar stastistical seasons, with Gardner showing more power while Ellsbury hit for a higher average and stole more bases. This season, Gardner’s progression has continued, and he has been the team’s best player through the first half of the season.

Oh sure, Alex Rodriguez has better offensive numbers overall, mostly thanks to his power, but A-Rod is a DH and he’s supposed to outhit everyone else because he doesn’t play the field. Mark Teixeira is having a fine season as well, though his only advantage over Gardner is power. Gardner has a 140 wRC+ and Teixeira has a 137 wRC+ — the difference lies in Gardner far superior batting average, on-base percentage, and base-running.

But we’re not here to argue who has better numbers. They’re all on the same team, after all. Gardner has been, indisputably, one of the best outfielders in all of baseball this season. That he had to wait to be named to the All-Star Game as an injury replacement is a knock against the system, not Gardner. He should have been on the original roster, though quiet and unassuming players like Brett are rarely rewarded with All-Star Game nods. It’s a popularly contest.

Anyway, Gardner came into the All-Star break hitting .302/.377/.484 (140 wRC+) with ten homers and 15 steals on the year. Here is the full list of AL players with ten homers and 15 steals at the break: Brett Gardner. That’s it. It’s just him. Gardner is also one of only ten AL players with a .370+ OBP and a .470+ SLG. He’s shown his over-the-fence power spike last season was no fluke, but the difference between this year and last year are the non-homer hits.

As good as he was in 2014, Gardner had only 25 doubles last season. He added eight triples for good measure because, you know, he’s fast. This season Gardner has already swatted 22 doubles and three triples. He’s on pace for 41 doubles, six triples, and 18 homers after going 25/8/17 last year. He’s on pace for 15 more extra-base hits! I’m sure Gardner will slow down a bit in a second half, players do get fatigued, but last year at the break he was on pace for only 49 extra-base hits. His spray charts are pretty revealing:

Brett Gardner 2013-14 Spray Charts

Gardner is using the opposite field more often than he did a year ago. You can see it in the spray chart, last year he had more batted balls to the pull side — if you need hard numbers: 42.0% of his balls in play were pulled last year, this year it’s 35.8% — and the result was a career year in the power department. This season he’s been able to both spray balls the other way for base hits while still yanking pitches to right field when the opportunity presents itself.

Remember, when Gardner first came up, he was a pure slash-and-dash speed guy. He focused on hitting the ball to the left side of the field and running like hell. Over the past few seasons Gardner started pulling the ball with more authority and why not? Yankee Stadium rewards pulling the ball if you’re a left-handed hitter. This year he’s doing both. Pulling the ball for power and serving it the other way for base hits when the pitchers give him nothing to drive. That’s the evolution of a great hitter, and yes, Gardner is absolutely a great hitter.

In addition to his strong performance at the plate, Gardner remains a high-end defender, at least based on the eye test. The various defensive stats have been hating on him for a while now. UZR wants you to believe Brett has cost the Yankees 4.8 runs in the field this year. 4.8! lol UZR, lol. DRS is slightly better — it says Gardner has saved the team one singular run with his glove. I don’t get it. The defensive numbers for Yankees outfielders have been screwy for years. I’m not saying Gardner is the best defensive outfielder in the game, but damn yo, he’s clearly above-average. I’m not being a homer here. I’m very willing to admit when dudes play bad defense. Gardner’s isn’t.

Anyway, at the end of last season I said Gardner just had what was likely his career year. I don’t think it was that unreasonable to say. This year Gardner has been ever better though, especially at the plate because he’s gotten back to slashing the ball to the opposite while still maintaining his newfound ability to unload on a pitch that is begging to be pulled towards the short porch. That’s not an easy thing to do, and for at least the first half of 2015, Gardner has been able to do it. He has been New York’s best all-around player this year.

Gardner headed to All-Star Game as injury replacement for Alex Gordon

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Brett Gardner is an All-Star. MLB and the Yankees announced on Thursday that Gardner has been selected to the AL All-Star Team as an injury replacement for Alex Gordon. Gordon suffered a severe groin strain Wednesday night and will miss about eight weeks.

Gardner, 31, came into Thursday’s game hitting .298/.378/.478 (138 wRC+) with nine homers and 15 steals. He hit his tenth homer this afternoon and is now one of only seven players with 10+ homers and 15+ steals so far this season. And, of course, Gardner’s played awesome defense in both center and left fields.

This is the first All-Star selection for Gardner, who was New York’s third round pick in the 2005 draft. He was a walk-on at College of Charleston — Gardner was actually cut from the team at one point but kept showing up to practice — who is now a big league All-Star and will bank $60M+ in a career. Heck of a story.

Gardner had been one of five players on the AL Final Vote ballot along with Mike Moustakas, Yoenis Cespedes, Brian Dozier, and Xander Bogaerts. Royals fans stuffed the ballots for the All-Star Game starting lineups and it would have been damn near impossible for Gardner to beat Moustakas. Don’t have to worry about that now!

Gordon suffered a Grade II groin strain running down a ball in left field Wednesday. He was voted in as a starter in the fan vote, though Gardner won’t start the All-Star Game. Adam Jones will step into Gordon’s spot in the starting lineup since he was next up on the players’ ballot.

Believe it or not, Gardner is only the fifth position player drafted by the Yankees to represent the Yankees at the All-Star Game, joining Thurman Munson, Don Mattingly, Derek Jeter, and Jorge Posada. For real.

Gardner will join Mark Teixeira and Dellin Betances at the All-Star Game this year, which will be held in Cincinnati next Tuesday. Gardy!

Betances and Teixeira selected for 2015 All-Star Game, Gardner on Final Vote ballot

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The 2015 All-Star Game rosters were announced on Monday night and the Yankees are sending two players to Cincinnati next week, maybe a third. Dellin Betances and Mark Teixeira were selected to the AL squad and Brett Gardner is one of five players on the Final Vote ballot. The full All-Star Game rosters are right here.

I thought Betances was the club’s only shoo-in for the Midsummer Classic. He has a 1.50 ERA (1.58 FIP) in 42 innings this season and leads all relievers with 1.8 fWAR. Dellin, 27, has played two full seasons in the big leagues and had made the All-Star Game both times. Pretty awesome. Betances is very deserving.

“I‘m thankful and honored to have been selected by the players to represent the New York Yankees in the 2015 All-Star Game, and I’m looking forward to having a great time in Cincinnati with Tex,” said Betances in a statement. “I also hope our fans get behind Brett Gardner in the online final vote. He’s a big reason for the success we’ve had this year, and I believe he should be an All-Star.”

Meanwhile, the 35-year-old Teixeira was added to the All-Star Game roster as an injury replacement for Miguel Cabrera, who will miss six weeks with a calf strain. Teixeira is hitting .243/.356/.532 (141 wRC+) with 20 home runs and an AL-leading 59 RBI. This is his second All-Star Game with the Yankees (2009) and only his third overall, believe it or not.

Gardner, who is hitting .297/.373/.481 (137 wRC+) with nine homers and 15 steals, is up against Xander Bogaerts, Mike Moustakas, Yoenis Cespedes, and Brian Dozier on the Final Vote ballot. Here is the ballot. Voting ends Friday. Royals fans stuffed the ballot box for the starters, so I imagine it’ll be tough for anyone to beat out Moustakas in the Final Vote.

“Gardy has turned himself into a dynamic all-around player,” said Joe Girardi in a statement. “He has also evolved into one of the true leaders in our clubhouse. He’s a tremendous outfielder and an offensive force who can affect the outcome of a game in so many ways. I know Yankees fans gravitate toward the way he plays the game, because he plays it with a great deal of grit and determination. It’s my hope that we can all rally behind him and give him the opportunity to play in his first All-Star Game. It’s hard not to root for a guy like Gardy.”

In all seriousness, if you would have told me two years ago that Betances and Teixeira would be 2015 All-Stars, I never would have believed it. Dellin was still struggling to throw strikes in the minors at the time and Teixeira was out with his wrist injury after battling other injuries in previous years. Quite a turn around for those two. Congrats to both.

Obviously the Yankees’ biggest snub is Alex Rodriguez — every player in baseball with a .900+ OPS is in the All-Star Game except for Alex, who is hitting .284/.390/.513 (149 wRC+) with 16 homers. AL manager Ned Yost said he left A-Rod out because he wanted a more versatile roster. Whatever. I’m cool with Alex getting four days off next week. Brian McCann was a minor snub as well.

The 2015 All-Star Game will be played next Tuesday in Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park. The Home Run Derby is the day before that (Teixeira? McCann? A-Rod???) and the Futures Game is the day before that. Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez will represent the Yankees at the Futures Game.

Game 78: LAnaheim

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

The Yankees are on the West Coast for the final time this season even though it’s only June. That’s always nice. They just split a four-game series in Houston, and while that would have been disappointing the last few years, that’s a good outcome now because the Astros are good. Baseball is 2015 is weird, man.

CC Sabathia is getting the ball in tonight’s series opener against the Angels. Needless to say, Sabathia has to start pitching better. The Yankees are keeping him in the rotation because of his contract, which is dumb, so he needs to improve on his 5.65 ERA (4.49 FIP) to give the team a chance to make the postseason. I love Sabathia, he’s an all-time fave, but man he is just brutal right now. Here is the Halos’ lineup and here is the Bombers’ lineup:

  1. CF Brett Gardner
  2. LF Chris Young
  3. DH Alex Rodriguez
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. RF Carlos Beltran
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. 2B Jose Pirela
  8. C John Ryan Murphy
  9. SS Didi Gregorius
    LHP CC Sabathia

Pretty much a perfect night for baseball in Anaheim. Temperatures in the low-80s, nice and sunny, no humidity, just gorgeous. Tonight’s game is scheduled to begin at 10:05pm ET and can he seen on YES. Try to enjoy.

Injury Updates: We had a bunch of injury updates earlier, in case you missed it. Most importantly, Jacoby Ellsbury (knee) started a minor league rehab assignment with High-A Tampa. I assume the goal is to get him back off the DL when the homestand starts Friday.

Awards Update: Brett Gardner was named the AL Player of the Week, MLB announced earlier today. He’s the third Yankee to win the Player of the Week award this year, joining Mark Teixeira in April and Michael Pineda in May, and it’s Gardner’s third time winning it. He was also named Player of the Week in June 2013 and August 2014. Yay Brett.

Brett the Maintainer

Excuse me for starting out on a philosophical note, but one slightly ironic certainty in life is that we have no idea why some things happen. That’s even truer in baseball, and a clear example of that is Brett Gardner. His success as an outfielder for the Yankees is one of the more pleasant surprises I’ve experienced in the last decade or so as fan. When he first came up, I liked his batting eye and I liked his defense, as did everyone else. However, I thought that his lack of power at the beginning would come back to bite him eventually; pitchers would challenge him in the zone, thus negating his good eye and patience, exploiting his lack of power. I’m glad I was wrong.

Taking the more micro view of things, I thought there would be a difference in performance from Gardner after Jacoby Ellsbury went down with an injury, but there really hasn’t been. Ellsbury last appeared in a game for the Yankees on May 19; at that time, Gardner was hitting .291/.366/.433, mostly out of the second spot of the lineup. Since then, through Friday’s game against the Tigers, Gardner has hit .259/.331/.454. There’s been a drop off in average and OBP, but nothing too significant, and that drop is balanced out by a boost in power.

Again borrowing from cliche philosophy, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Gardner moved up a spot in the order to the leadoff spot, a role he’s more than suited for; after all, he and Taco Bellsbury are fairly similar hitters. Going into writing this piece, I was expecting to find some differences in the way pitchers approached Gardner thanks to the new lineup spot, specifically the fact that there’d be no one on in front of him for his first time up which would be a change from the Ellsbury/Gardner configuration. During the opening stretch of the season before Gardner got hurt, Ellsbury was on base quite a bit–his OBP before going down was .412. In turn, Gardner came up to the plate with men on base in 55 of 127 at bats, 43%. Moving to the leadoff position lowered that to 33.33%, which is expected; you’ll always be starting with no men on in your first trip to the plate. Given that difference, though, and the move to the higher lineup spot, pitchers haven’t treated Gardner much differently than they did when he was a two hitter.

He has seen more ‘hard’ stuff since moving up in the order than he did to start the year, but the differences in results aren’t all that drastic, except for the increase in power on breaking pitches, moving from an ISO of .057 to an ISO of .333. His increased power against both hard and offspeed stuff as well just mirrors the overall increase in power noted earlier.

While the Yankees have struggled  in Ellsbury’s absence, Gardner’s been a more consistent presence than realized. The team’s been up and down all year, but he’s been steady, which is exactly what a team needs at the top of the lineup.

First inning dominance driving Yankees’ success early in 2015

Why are the Yankees so great in the first inning? These two. (Presswire)
Why are the Yankees so great in the first inning? These two. (Presswire)

Last night the Yankees did something for the ninth time in 13 games this month: they scored in the first inning. Nine times in 13 games! They’ve now scored in the first inning in 16 of their 35 games this year, with last night’s game breaking a tie with the Padres for the most in MLB. New York has scored 36 runs in the first inning in 2015, eight more than any other team.

On the other side of the coin, the Yankees allowed a run in the first inning last night for only the third time in 13 games this month. They’ve allowed a run in the first inning eleven times in 36 games this season, which ranks middle of the pack — 16th fewest in MLB and seventh fewest in the AL. Their 16 first inning runs allowed are the tenth fewest in baseball, so when they do allow the other team to score in the first, it’s usually just one run.

Between their first inning offensive dominance and their average first inning run prevention, the Yankees have the best first inning run differential in baseball at +20. The Orioles have the next best at +11. The Athletics and Pirates are the only other teams in double-digits. More often than not, the Yankees are getting off to a great start and playing from ahead. They’re forcing the other club to play catch-up right from the start.

Usually individual innings splits are pretty meaningless. No one says “this guy is a good fourth inning hitter.” That doesn’t exist. If anything, we’d look at performance the second and third time facing a pitcher. The individual innings mean very little. Now, that said, there’s a pretty obvious explanation for the Yankees’ first inning offensive excellence: Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner.

The first inning is the only inning in which Ellsbury and Gardner are guaranteed to bat. And not just bat either, they’re guaranteed to lead off. They aren’t coming up with two outs and the bases empty or something like that. They’re starting the inning and setting the table for everyone else. Ellsbury and Gardner have been dominant atop the lineup this year, total game-changers, and they’re always going to bat in the first inning.

The run prevention angle is a little different. As a whole, the Yankees have a league average rotation this year. The group has a 3.93 ERA (3.63 FIP) overall, a touch better than the 4.13 ERA (4.04 FIP) league average thanks mostly to Michael Pineda. Hitters have a 118 OPS+ the first time facing a Yankees starter this year, which applies to the first inning. The team’s average rotation is facing the other team’s best hitters (in theory) in the first inning, and the result is basically middle of the pack run prevention.

Last season the Yankees had -12 first inning run differential and the year before that it was a staggering -33 first inning run differential. The 2013-14 Yankees were constantly playing from behind, it seemed. This year’s squad is the exact opposite — they’re scoring in the first inning on the regular and taking the lead. They’re taking control of the game right from the start and that changes everything. Teams play a little differently when they’re behind. We see it every night.

With Ellsbury and Gardner atop the lineup, I don’t think the Yankees’ first inning offensive success is any sort of fluke. If they’re not the best one-two lineup punch in baseball, they’re on the very short list. It’s either them or Kole Calhoun and Mike Trout in Anaheim. Either way, those two generate so much offense for the Yankees, and it starts right in the first inning. The pitching has been solid as a whole, not great but not terrible, but average pitching plus Ellsbury and Gardner equals a major first inning advantage for the Yankees, and it’s a big reason why they’re off to such a strong start in 2015.

Yankees’ improved offense starts at the top with Ellsbury and Gardner

And they have a special handshake. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
I bet they have a secret handshake only other fast guys know about. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

When the Yankees missed the postseason in both 2013 and 2014, the offense was the main culprit. Sure, there were other factors like injuries, bad team defense, and just an okay pitching staff, but the Yankees really struggled to score runs and it was the reason they lost more often than not. They hit .244/.307/.378 (88 wRC+) in over 12,000 plate appearances as a team from 2013-14. I mean, come on.

Thankfully the story has been much different so far this year. The Yankees are averaging 4.85 runs per game, up considerably from 3.91 runs per game last year and well-above the 4.19 league average. They’re hitting .244/.321/.418 (104 wRC+) as a team overall, which is oh so much better than what we sat through the last two seasons. Much of the improved offense is thanks to power — the Yankees have a team .174 ISO this after .134 from 2013-14.

The Yankees are also benefiting from the best one-two lineup punch in baseball. Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner are both off to tremendous starts, especially hitting for average, getting on-base, and running the bases. The power isn’t really there, but that’s not their game. Look at these numbers:

AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ SB/CS K% BB%
Ellsbury .358/.433/.415 143 11/4 12.5% 9.2%
Average Leadoff Hitter .262/.320/.389 99 4.4/1.8 17.7% 7.1%
Gardner .309/.404/.444 141 8/1 12.4% 11.3%
Average No. 2 Hitter .261/.321/.405 105 1.1/0.6 18.3% 7.7%

The only other team in baseball getting something even remotely close to Ellsbury/Gardner production from the one-two spots this year are the Angels thanks to my boy Kole Calhoun (139 wRC+) and the amazing Mike Trout (167 wRC+). Calhoun recently spent a few days hitting lower in the order as Mike Scioscia tried to generate more offense too, so he hasn’t even been a full-time leadoff guy.

Of course, traditional lineup construction plays a big role in only one other team having two hitters his productive atop the lineup. Just about every team has two above-average hitters these days, yet managers continue to adhere to the whole “the best hitter bats third” theory. Teams are slowly starting to come around on batting their best hitters second — Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista have taken turns batting second for the Blue Jays, Joey Votto has batted second for the Reds, etc. — though it’s hardly common practice.

Joe Girardi deserves credit for batting his two best hitters in the top two lineup spots. It certainly helps that they are leadoff types who should hit near the top of the order, but Girardi could easily split them up saying he doesn’t like back-to-back lefties atop the lineup and no one would really question it. It’s sorta silly, yeah. It’s one of those things managers do though. Aside from occasionally sitting Gardner for Chris Young, Girardi has stuck with Ellsbury and Gardner atop the lineup.

“We definitely push each other,” said Brett Gardner to Chad Jennings earlier this week. “It’s a lot of fun hitting next to (Ellsbury) in the lineup. Feels like every time I come up, he’s on base. I feel like he makes me better, and hopefully he feels the same about me. Like I said, we push each other. We take a lot of pride in getting on base, and that’s our job at the top of the lineup. We feel like we’re two leadoff hitters, and we can get on base for those guys in the middle of the lineup and give them RBI opportunities.”

As a result of these two atop the lineup, the Yankees’ number three lineup spot has batted with at least one man on-base in 66 of 124 plate appearances this year, or 53.2%. Last year it was 44.8% and the league average is 45.0%. (The rate for the cleanup spot is nearly identical to last year and the league average, in case you’re wondering.) We’re talking about an improvement of nearly ten percentage points from one year to the next. Ellsbury and Gardner are table-setters and man, they couldn’t possibly be doing a better job right now.

Lineup protection is not a myth. It just exists in a different way than everyone’s been saying for the last century. The best protection is not having a great hitter behind you — that helps! but lots and lots of research has shown it doesn’t help that much — it’s having runners on base when you’re at the plate. MLB hitters have put up a .239/.299/.377 (90 wRC+) batting line with the bases empty this season and .262/.332/.407 (104 wRC+) with men on base this year. It’s not a sample size issue either. The league wide split was 93/101 last year and has been similar for years and years and years.

Batting with Ellsbury and/or Gardner on base is the best protection a Yankee can have this year and it’s not just because of those bases empty/men on base batting splits either. Those two guys are not typical base-runners. They draw attention when they’re on base because they’re threats to steal. Remember when Clay Buchholz threw over to first base even though Ellsbury was literally standing on the bag (twice!) a few weeks ago? That’s what they do to pitchers. They’re unnerving. I’m not sure it’s possible to quantify that but we see it game after game.

Last season the Yankees were hamstrung atop the lineup by Derek Jeter, a legacy Yankee the team was unwilling to drop in the order. Jeter’s an all-time great, we all know that, but the 2014 version of Derek hit .256/.304/.313 (73 wRC+) and snuffed out rallies on a nightly basis. That’s not happening this year. Girardi is able to use his two best hitters atop the lineup and the offense has benefited in a big way. The Ellsbury/Gardner duo is a legitimate game-changer and they’re a huge reason the offense has improved so much 27 games into 2015.

“They get our offense going,” Girardi said to Jennings. “That’s their job, and they’ve been really good at it. You look at the stretch we’ve been in, they’ve played extremely well. They had a tremendous weekend; a big part of our success in Boston, and we need it to continue. You can’t expect Jake to get on six times every night. It would be nice, but both of these guys have an ability to change the game in a lot of ways, and that’s what they’ve been doing.”