The Yankees have plenty of players with more star-power to their names, but it’s Brett Gardner leading the way, again, in New York.
The New York Yankees have no shortage of star power; they never do. With a lineup that typically reads more like a who’s who of overpriced but well-known talent, the Bronx Bombers have never struggled in the name recognition department. This season is no different; Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, even Brian McCann is a fairly well-known player. Yet despite the names around him, it’s once again the relatively-anonymous Brett Gardner leading the way for the Yankees.
Unlike many of his teammates, Gardner is not a household name. He has never been an All-Star, never won any kind of award in the league, and earns (a comparatively paltry) $12.5 million while many of his teammates earn close to double that. Yet somehow, the 31-year-old outfielder is also probably the Yankees’ best, most complete player, and has been for two seasons going now.
Gardner was at it again yesterday at Fenway; in a game featuring little offense, Gardner had two of his team’s nine hits and drove in three of their four runs, including a game-deciding, two-out, two-run single in the fifth inning. He’s currently second on the team in hits and stolen bases, and leads the team in on-base percentage. Yet if you were to ask a person on the street to simply start naming members of the Yankees, Gardner not only wouldn’t be near the top of their list, he may not appear at all.
This isn’t all that new of a development, either. Gardner led the Yankees in WAR last season in what was actually a down year for him. He’s hit at least .250 every season since his 2008 rookie campaign. He’s stolen at least 20 bases every full season of his career, and is on pace to do so again, as he has six early on in 2015. He hits for some power (career-high 17 home runs last season) and has tremendous speed, usually landing near the top of the league in both stolen bases and triples, considering his playing time. Despite names like Rodriguez, Teixeira, and Ellsbury, Gardner has been more valuable to the Yankees than any player they’ve had since Robinson Cano (the only Yankee with a higher WAR in 2013, by the way).
Gardner’s value to the Yankees lies in the fact that he doesn’t fit the typical Yankee mold. New York is, and has been for a while now, full of one-dimensional players. They have guys like Rodriguez and Teixeira, who will hit for power, but do so while bringing a team’s average way down. They have Ellsbury, who uses his speed and ability to hit for contact well, but won’t hit for a ton of power and is actually less skilled with the glove than many believe, as he makes up for some of his lack of ball skills with his speed. They have Stephen Drew, who has Gold Glove-caliber fielding skills, but can’t hit his way out of a wet paper bag.
Gardner, though, doesn’t do one thing exceptionally well; instead, he does a variety of things pretty well, making him a relatively unknown commodity in the Yankees lineup. He hits for average and uses his speed like Ellsbury. He flashes some pop, hitting only five fewer home runs than Teixeira last year, and two more than Carlos Beltran. He is versatile on defense, showing an ability to play all three outfield positions (though left is his natural position) and do so at an above-average level; his 8.7 lifetime DWAR is 22nd amongst all active players according to Baseball-Reference, better than Alex Gordon, a player often in the discussion for best glove in the league. His career .992 fielding percentage is 12th among active outfielders and 25th all-time.
Brett Gardner will never have the name-recognition of an Alex Rodriguez or a Mark Teixeria. He will never have the contract of a Jacoby Ellsbury or a Carlos Beltran. He may never make an All-Star Game or win an award. He won’t hit 25 home runs, or steal 60 bases, or hit .350. What he will do though is a bit of everything. He’ll save runs with his glove and drive them in with his bat. He’ll steal bases and leg out triples. He’ll hit at the top of an order or the bottom, and produce regardless. He’s exactly the type of player a team needs to win games, and exactly the type of player the Yankees typically don’t employ. So when you’re watching tonight’s Sunday Night Baseball game, you’ll see plenty of more identifiable players; just know they aren’t as valuable as Brett Gardner.