Brett Gardner, Born Again [2019 Season Review]

One year ago today, the Yankees and Brett Gardner came to a one-year, $7.5 million contract agreement after the team initially declined his $12.5 million option. Brett Gardner, the Yankees’ longest-tenured player, had never played anywhere else. Bringing him back on a one-year deal to serve as the team’s fourth outfielder made sense at the time, even considering his relatively rough 2018.

Things…didn’t work out that way, as it happened. Brett would play in 141 games in 2019 due to a rash of injuries to nearly everyone else, making 550 plate appearances. He hit .251/.325/.503 (115 wRC+), put up 3.6 fWAR, and played typically reliable outfield defense in the vast expanses of left and center field in Yankee Stadium. He played 41 games in left and 97 in center (he appeared in the other three as a pinch hitter) and started the first five playoff games in center. Baseball, Suzyn, predictions, etc.

He reached a major personal milestone, too, slugging his 100th career home run in truly grand fashion:

That very good home run sent the Yankee Stadium faithful into delirium–folks, I was there, and if you closed your eyes, you’d have thought it was a playoff game and not an April matchup–and sealed a two-game sweep of the rival Red Sox. It was truly great. As I wrote for River Ave. Blues, it’s pretty remarkable that Gardy even has hit 100 career home runs. Who would have thought this was possible in 2008?

He was also repeatedly ejected for banging the ceiling of the Yankee dugout–see above–and therefore spawned the “Let Brett Bang” gesture the Yankees made after reaching base. It was also the genesis of the now-legendary “Savages in the Box” rant from Boone.

All in all, it was a great year for Brett. Obviously, a few things stand out, so let’s get right into those.

Reversing the Trend

Gardner has always had a reputation for being a better first-half hitter than a second-half hitter–and that’s reputation he has really earned. Check out his first/second half splits over the last five years (before 2019) and his career splits:

First HalfSecond Half
2014.279/.353/.424.218/.286/.417
2015.302/.377/.484.206/.300/.292
2016.257/.353/.355.267/.348/.371
2017.256/.346/.454.274/.354/.399
2018.254/.345/.403.209/.288/.316
Career.271/.353/.421 (108 tOPS+).244/.328/.374 (89 tOPS+)

That’s a pretty clear trend. Gardner would be a very good first-half player and tail off considerably in the second half. It got worse in 2017 and especially last year, when Gardner was barely an MLB-quality player (a .604 OPS is virtually unplayable, especially on a contender).

That’s really well captured in his career tOPS+, which is a useful metric adjusts OPS over a time frame–in this case, the first half–and sets against his career production, which serves as the baseline. Over 100 is better than average, under is below average, and 100 is exactly average. Simple concept. Overall, Gardner is 8% better than expected in the first half throughout his career and 11% worse in the second half. I don’t think that’s surprising to anyone.

All of this context is why it was fair to be concerned about Brett’s viability as a productive player in the early going this season. On June 8, through 232 plate appearances, Gardner was hitting just .217/.293/.406 (83 wRC+). Add that to his horrendous second-half performance in 2018, and he’d put up a .213/.290/.360 (75 wRC+) line in his last 473 plate appearances. It was tough to watch, and Brett was clearly frustrated. He didn’t hide it. This was June 8:

Apparently, drilling himself in the face with his own batting helmet was exactly what he needed. From June 9 (more on this game below) through the end of the season, Gardner went on a tear that I don’t think anyone, possibly excluding himself, saw coming: he hit .275/.349/.574 (139 wRC+) with 20 (!) home runs in 318 plate appearances. It was truly great to watch. So much for a second-half skid, huh?

Same Old Brett Gardner

One of the beauties of watching a long-tenured player is that you know what to expect from them, even when they’re struggling. For Brett Gardner, that really means two things: working the count and relying on his speed. He brought both of those core competencies with him in 2019.

Working the Count

The Yankees, long before they were considered savages in the box for doing so, have valued swinging only at strikes and getting up pitch counts. While the latter has only so much value in 2019 with most starting pitchers only going two turns through the order at most, it was a very effective strategy against the aces of yesterday, notably Pedro Martinez. In any event, it is something the Yankees have long prized–and Brett Gardner, more than perhaps anyone, has been the staple of that approach over the last decade.

Check out his pitches-per-plate-appearance over the last five years, with his MLB ranking in parentheses:

  • 2015: 4.16 (11th)
  • 2016: 4.09 (30th)
  • 2017: 4.23 (12th)
  • 2018: 4.24 (9th)
  • 2019: 4.32 (5th)

This tenacity was especially on display during Game 3 of the American League Division Series against the Twins, when Gardner had a classic Gardner at-bat against Jake Odorizzi. With the score just 1-0 in the 3rd inning and Gio Urshela standing on 3rd base, Gardner came to bat and worked a five-pitch at-bat that featured a tough two-strike foul and a slapped hit the other way.

Here’s the plot:

And here’s the video:

I know a five-pitch at-bat isn’t quite the same as his legendary Game 5 AB in the 2017 ALDS, but it is classic Gardner. Why? Because check this out. By taking pitches and commanding the at-bat, he was able to survey the field and pick up on what the Twins did defensively…which is why the slapped base hit is even more impressive than it seems. See here:

In one million years, you will never convince me that he didn’t do that on purpose. Folks…that’s Brett Gardner.

Relying on His Speed

The Yankees are not exactly known for their speed, but Brett is the lone exception to that rule. He’s always been reliably quick, even if he doesn’t steal as many bases as we’d like. Yet again, that was the case in 2019.

Statcast’s sprint speed metric is a way to judge a player’s speed, and Gardner has always been one of the quickest players in the league. Here are his sprint speed stats, with his percentile place in the league in parentheses:

  • 2015: 28.8 feet-per-second (92nd percentile)
  • 2016: 28.7 feet-per-second (90th percentile)
  • 2017: 28.8 feet-per-second (89th percentile)
  • 2018: 29.1 feet-per-second (94th percentile)
  • 2019: 28.9 feet-per-second (91st percentile)

Our man has not lost a step at all in terms of his quickness. That’s why he remained an above-average fielder according to Statcast’s outs-above-average ranking, which placed him 43rd in the league out of 92 qualified outfielders.

One thing that was interesting here, though, is that Gardner’s baserunning took a bit of a step backward in 2019. He took the extra base (i.e. first to third on a single) 42% of the time (41% league average) compared to 54% of the time last year (41%). Weird.

In any event, Brett is a reliably quick runner and has clearly not lost a step at all. Once more, Brett Gardner was the fastest Yankee regular. Same as it ever was, age be damned.

This is Brett Gardner?

One of the other beauties of watching a long-tenured player is that when they surprise you, they really surprise you. Such was the case in 2019 with Brett Gardner, who suddenly became a power hitter. I mean, 135 batters qualified for the batting title in 2019, and Brett Gardner’s 28 (lol) home runs ranked 60th among those. That’s not Stantonian power, of course, but it is still power–and given the context of Gardner’s career, it was quite remarkable indeed.

In 2018, for example, he hit 12 home runs, which ranked him 117th out of 140 qualified hitters. He’d only once cleared 20 home runs before in his career, in 2017; he hit 21 that year. Aside from 2017, he’d hit more than 16 home runs just twice (16 in 2015 and 17 in 2014) and more than 10 just four times, including his 12 in 2018. This year, as I said above, he hit 28. 28 home runs! From Brett Gardner!

Now, the average distance of those home runs was just 382 feet and it was surely bolstered by the fact that the ball was juiced as hell. This was not a normal year. I also don’t care. It was fun as hell to watch Brett Gardner almost hit 30 home runs and it was fun as hell to watch him and Aaron Judge have a light-hearted competition over their individual home run totals. That’s what the game is all about, isn’t it? Having fun?

I already showed his 100th career homer, the grand slam against Boston, above. That was my favorite of his home runs this year by far. Here’s another one of my favorites, from August 9 against the Orioles:

Not a very notable home run on its face, but that was actually the very first opposite-field home run of his career. Of course, it came against the Orioles. Who else could it have been? (Relatedly, he has only hit 13 home runs to center field; six of those came in 2019.)

Here is one more interesting fact: of his 28 home runs in 2019, seven were more than 400 feet. Brett Gardner hit seven home runs further than 400 feet! Here was the longest of those:

According to Statcast, that one traveled 430 feet. It doesn’t seem that way to the eye, but I’ll trust Statcast on this one, because: Brett Gardner hit a 430 foot home run! Why wouldn’t we celebrate that?

Another fun fact about this home run, aside from its sheer absurdity, is the fact that it came on June 9th–remember, the day after he drilled himself in the face with the helmet. In fact, this was the very next at-bat afterward, and it propelled Gardner forward for the rest of the year. Turns out that all Brett Gardner needed to do to save his season, and possibly his career, was give himself a bloody lip

What’s Next

Brett Gardner is a free agent, but I don’t think it will be for very long. After all, that was probably the best season of Gardner’s career and the Yankees brought him back after probably his worst season just twelve months ago. The Yankees value Gardner’s leadership, and after CC Sabathia’s retirement, I’d be surprised if the team wants to let Gardner depart.

In other words, I fully expect the two parties to come to an agreement soon. If I had to guess, I’d say a one-year, $7.5 million contract again. That’s the exact replica of his contract from this year. While he performed better, I’d guess the Yanks argue that the juiced ball was the primary factor behind his power surge.

Not to mention, they won’t want to devote more CBT space to Gardner, much as they love him. Gardy himself has stated many times he never wants to play elsewhere, and I expect that–plus the chance to win another ring–to win out in the end. See you in 2020, Brett.

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1 Comment

  1. DJ Lemeddardhieu

    To me Gardy is the quintessential American hero, Bobby. He reminds me of a coal miner that just comes to work every day with his rusty lunch pail and does his job with no fanfare. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd priorities this offseason should be re-signing Gardy to a lifetime contract. Enough with this 1 year garbage. If he signs a lifetime deal he can turn into a coach or a FO guy when his playing career is over. This way we don’t lose him to the Mets like we lost Carlos. Now who’s going to actually watch the games and pick up on our pitchers tipping pitches instead of staring at a spreadsheet filled with irrelevant stats?

    At the very least Gardy should get a raise and not the same $7.5M contract as last year. He hit 28 HR’s and started all year for Christ sake. Factor in his performance and inflation and he should get at least $10 million because that’s what Hicks got to be injured for two seasons. Brett is going to have to start a lot next year again with Hicks out. And if rickety Stanton or that circus clown Clint Frazier starts in LF he’ll basically be covering two positions so $20 million isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

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