Quick, who has been the Yankees’ team leader in fWAR over the last two seasons? Robinson Cano, of course, who has accumulated 12.1 fWAR since 2010. No surprises there. But it may be surprising to find out who the second best Yankee has been in terms of fWAR since 2010: Brett Gardner, who checks in with 11.3 fWAR, better than Curtis Granderson‘s 10.5.
Established issues with fWAR aside, Gardner’s value numbers are particularly suspect because he derives so much of them from his defense. Make no mistake, Brett is a phenomenal defender. In fact, according to Fangraphs, Gardner has been the best defender on the planet the past two seasons, by a considerable margin. No one is doubting Gardner’s glove, but Fangraphs suggests that his defense has been worth 5 wins the past two years. That valuation may be suspect, which in turn would depress Gardner’s actual value to the team, but one thing is certain: the days of Gardner being seen as the weakest link in the chain of Yankee regulars is over. Brett can play. Can he keep it up?
It seems like a long time ago, but way back before the start of the 2010 season there were serious questions about whether or not Brett Gardner would be able to handle the rigors of a 162 game season, playing for the Yankees no less. Gardner went out and shocked everyone. His glove was never in doubt, and that was addressed earlier in the post, but Brett also got it done with the bat. He posted a .358 wOBA and an impressive .383 OBP over 150 games. With Brett’s speed, that was more than enough for him to silence his critics.
2011 was a bit of a regression year for Gardner, but overall he continued to impress with the stick. Gardner got off to a horrendous start, posting a .286 wOBA in April before heating up from May through July. Gardner slumped again in August, posting a .281 wOBA before ending the season fine in September. The total production was enough for a .330 wOBA and a .345 OBP, both of which were above average for a major leaguer. Throw in Gardner’s speed and D and you have an all-around solid season, even if it wasn’t as strong as his 2010 showing.
My personal rule of thumb is that a young player has officially established a reliable production level after three seasons of solid performance. For example, Robinson Cano’s miserable 2008 performance (.307 wOBA, .305 OBP on the season!) is officially in my rear view mirror because he has established a consistent level of outstanding value for three seasons since. This logic means that I’m not ready remove Gardner’s name from my list of players who may yet surprise on the down side, at least not until he puts together a solid 2012 campaign.
Fortunately for Gardner, speed never goes into a slump, as Ken Singleton likes to say. That means Gardner just has to get on base to provide the Yankees value. His wheels will take care of the rest. Unfortunately for Gardner, he went to the Johnny Damon school of batting. No player in baseball has a swing that reminds me more of Damon’s choppy hack at the ball, and Gardner seems to be just as slump prone as Johnny was.
In total, I’m willing to bet that Gardner will give the Yankees something in between his 2010 and 2011 campaigns this year for a couple reasons. First, if 2009 is taken into consideration, a season when Gardner lost his starting role to Melky Cabrera due to both injury and poor play, then Gardner has actually put together three consecutive seasons with at least a .345 OBP. Second, Gardner may have been the victim of some bad luck in 2011. His BABIP fell to .303 from .340 in 2010. Even if his 2010 production was also due a bit to luck, his true level is almost certainly something between those two numbers, which means that Gardner can probably put up a wOBA around .320 or so in 2012. If he does that, he’ll steal a lot of bases.
Gardner has been one of the most pleasant surprises on the Yankees since he emerged in 2009. On a team that focuses heavily on players who can put the ball into the people, Gardner compliments the Yankee attack nicely with exceptional speed and defense. I wouldn’t want the entire team to be cut from his cloth, but having a player like him on the team makes the Yankees that much more difficult to beat. Gardner’s talents may never be as appreciated as power hitting, but if he truly is a consistent threat to have a .350 OBP then he will have a role on the Yankees for many years.
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