It’s easy to forget it now, but the 2010 Yankees were stacked on paper heading into the season. The team had a legitimate staff of five pitchers with proven track records (funny how that turned out) and an All Star-caliber player at every position — every position save one, that is: Left field. In 2009, Brett Gardner hit .270/.345/.379 in 284 PAs compiled over 108 games, good for a .337 wOBA. That performance was better than people acknowledged, but it wasn’t enough to protect Brett’s starter’s job once he got injured. Melky Cabrera took over for him, and doubts about what Gardner would be able to do over the course of a full season were raised. It turns out he could do a lot.
Brett Gardner was one of the brighter surprises for the Yankees last season. He erased all doubts that he could serve as an adequate everyday left fielder, and emerged as one of the best players on the team. His bWAR of 4.0 was tied for third on the Bombers with Nick Swisher, trailing only Mark Teixeira (4.2) and Robinson Cano (6.1). Gardner’s .383 OBP led the team, and allowed him to steal 47 bases while getting caught only 9 times (an 84% success rate). He also played phenomenal defense in left field, accumulating a UZR of 21.9, according to Fangraphs. So, yeah, the gritty one got the job done last season.
Bet on Brett to do it again. The Marcel projection system forecasts Gardner to hit .269/.357/.378, while stealing 37 bases and accumulating a .341 wOBA. That would be a slight decline from his 2010 totals of .270/.383/.379 and wOBA of .358, but still strong. The key with Brett is his OBP. He’ll never be a heavy middle-of-the-order bat, but with legs like his he doesn’t need to be. He may not be able to post a .383 OBP again, but he’ll have a place on my team so long as he can get on base at a clip of .340 or better. His wheels can do the rest.
Furthermore, the Marcel projection seems conservative. It’s pretty much the straight average of what Gardner did in 2009 and 2010. That’s a safe way to forecast a player with less than two full seasons of big league experience under his belt, but the end result seems too safe a bet. Gardner demonstrated improvement from 2009 to 2010. His lack of power means that he will need to refine his on-base skills throughout his entire career. With that in mind it seems more probable that Brett will give the Yankees upside from the Marcel projection. A range of that projection as a floor, and a repeat of his 2010 as a ceiling seems likely, with his OBP falling in somewhere around .365. That should be more than enough for him to steal plenty of bases.
So far defense has not been discussed in these posts because it isn’t really the Yankees’ thing. Sure, Tex and Cano are both good in the field, while Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez leave something to be desired, but at the end of the day defense in baseball just isn’t as critical a skill as pitching and hitting. The 2005 Yankees won 95 games with what is widely considered to be the WORST defensive team of all time. The Bombers have won five World Series titles with subpar defenders at shortstop and catcher. There is, therefore, ample evidence to support the fact that defense on the field can seldom make all that huge a difference in the outcome … unless a player like Brett Gardner is picking up a glove. According to Fangraphs, Brett was THE best defender in all of baseball last season. No matter what he does with the lumber in 2011, his defensive contributions will remain excellent.
Brett Gardner excels at all the things in baseball that are under-appreciated in today’s game. Instead of hitting for a high average, he runs fast. Instead of hitting for lots of power, he’s a phenomenal defender. Fortunately for him today’s game values his most important skill: He gets on base. And when he gets on base, he wreaks havoc. Brett may not fit the mold of the prototypical Yankee, but that is precisely why he is such a strong fit for this team. The Yankees may never be a team that thrives on speedy athletes, like the Rays, but it is important to have one on the roster to terrorize the pitcher while the heavier hitters do their thing. Two consecutive seasons analysts have underestimated Brett’s talents and he’s delivered what was asked of him. There is no reason to believe he won’t do it again.
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