At this point, you know how you feel about Brett Gardner. You either believe the 38-year-old outfield staple has a place on the Yanks until he hangs up the cleats or you think it’s embarrassing that the Yanks keep bringing him back on what is ostensibly a title contender. Little will change anyone’s mind on this. I do want to offer a few fun facts about the longest-tenured Yankee, though:
- Gardner’s 44.3 career bWAR as a Yankee is good for 17th in franchise history. It’s more than Don Mattingly (42.4) and Jorge Posada (42.7), while ranking just behind Robinson Canó (44.4).
- If his career was spent entirely in Toronto instead of New York, he would be the best position player in Blue Jays history by bWAR, ranking ahead of Jose Bautista (38.3). That is also true in Arizona (Paul Goldschmidt, 39.9) and Miami (Giancarlo Stanton, 35.7). He’d even be close for the crosstown Mets (David Wright, 49.2).
- With 1,688 games played in pinstripes, just 12 other people in history have played more games for the Yankees. (With one more season under his belt, he will be in the top 10 in this category.)
- Gardner has 1,470 hits as a Yankee. Just 21 individuals have more in pinstripes.
That is just some context about Gardner, who is a much bigger part of Yankee history than you likely thought. Anyway, Gardy put up a .222/.327/.362 (93 wRC+) line in 140 games for New York as he was once again thrust into regular playing time. He often looked rough, particularly during the first half, but he rebounded in a serious way after the All-Star Break.
This is me, watching Gardner play during August and September:
Let’s break down his performance, shall we?
A Tale of Two Halves
As I noted back in our 2019 Gardner review, the lefty once had a deserved reputation for falling off in the second half of seasons. Here is a chart lifted from that analysis for some context:
|First Half||Second Half|
|Career||.271/.353/.421 (108 tOPS+)||.244/.328/.374 (89 tOPS+)|
There’s no mistaking it. He’s been better in first halves historically, to the point where his second half declines would lead to a spirited offseason discussion regarding his future. Lately, though, he has really reversed that trend. In fact, Gardner has become a much better player in the second half than the first ever since.
While that was most dramatic in 2019, it was true once again in 2021. (It was last year, too, but there wasn’t a traditional second half so we can leave that to the side for now.) In fact, Gardner looked positively cooked in the first half of 2021, hitting just .194/.310/.304 (75 wRC+) overall. It really did look like age had finally caught up with our man.
Then, though, things changed a bit. Gardner hit .250/.344/.418 (111 wRC+) in the second half. Unfortunately, that basically made him one of the most potent players in the Yankees’ lackluster offense – but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Gardner looked really, really good again.
And, in fact, even this overall split is a bit deceptive. Gardner didn’t really start cooking until August 1, after which point he hit .261/.351/.441 (119 wRC+) with a 11.9% walk rate and a 18.9% strikeout rate. Six of his 10 home runs came in August and September, as did 15 of his 30 extra-base hits overall. Here’s are illustrative graphs:
He started hitting the ball harder and with more consistency, and the results followed. That’s about all there is to it. Why that happened is beyond me, and ultimately doesn’t matter. He’s a good player who rebounded – so much for the end of Brett Gardner, huh?
Fastballs, Fastballs, Fastballs
It wasn’t all rosy for Gardner, though. Far from it. Two good months do not a season make, nor do they entirely compensate for declining skills at the plate. There is one specific concern that arose in 2021: Gardner basically stopped hitting offspeed offerings entirely.
From 2017-20, Gardner hit a .254/.299/.397 against such pitches, which was better than the league average .234/.282/.387. Pitchers threw them at him about just over 12% of the time during that stretch. Then, this year, he fell off dramatically, hitting just .146/.180/.250 against offspeed pitches. League average, by contrast, was .231/.280/.379. That is a very significant decline!
It is also somewhat worrying, given two things. First, Gardner has never really hit breaking balls (.241 career wOBA; .265 league average), and that didn’t change in 2021 – in fact, it got a bit worse, as his wOBA against breaking balls to .220. While he’s always hit fastballs, and continued to do so in 2021, that leaves just Gardy with two vulnerabilities going into next season, not one. Second, he actually saw fewer offspeed pitches than normal:
Not a huge drop off, actually, but a significant one given that Gardy was mostly successful against fastballs. It may even have contributed to his second half bounce back. Look at the pitch percentage by month in 2021:
As we look toward 2022, this is an area of concern. If I were developing a game plan against Gardner, I would focus on hammering him with breaking balls and offspeed stuff most of the time. That approach would likely work, and it would minimize his ability to do damage against fastballs, against which he hit .264/.389/.432 in 2021.
Speed and Patience are Skills That Stay
Still, where there’s regression with Brett Gardner, there’s consistency. He has long been one of the speediest Yankee players. That was still true in 2021, even in his age-38 season. His sprint speed, per Statcast, was 28.6 feet per second in 2021 – just a hair slower than it was in 2015, the first year Statcast tracked such data. While there were faster Yankees in 2021 – remember Tim Locastro? – Gardy was, once again, the quickest Yankee regular last season. (His defense, by contrast, was just middling.)
At the same time, sprint speed is not a super reliable proxy for speed – it measures only top speed, which is misleading. How fast one can run is not the only factor in measuring speed. Acceleration, duration, and consistency are also key factors. By another, more effective measure, Gardner has indeed slowed down a bit. It takes him, on average, 4.15 seconds to reach first base from home these days. That’s slower than 4.09 in 2015, though it was tied with Tyler Wade for fastest on the Yankees.
Still, some age-related decline with speed is to be expected for a player with a long career like Gardner. What’s more remarkable is that he’s barely slowed down at all: he’s still in the 87th percentile across the league. Speed plays, and it’s a valuable skill for him to have.
Similarly, Gardner has always been an extremely patient hitter at the plate – the epitome of working a pitcher. That also did not change in 2021, as he saw 4.54 pitches per plate appearance. Gardy was just 41 at-bats short of qualifying last year but, if he had, that rate would have lead the league by a significant margin. You could argue that Gardner should swing more, since he does take a lot of belt-high fastballs:
But I’m fine with it. This is who Brett Gardner is, and that’s fine. In fact, it’s a skill in-and-of-itself – and it’s one that’s not likely to go away even in the swan song days of his career. Brett Gardner, so long as he remains in pinstripes, will remain the speedy, patient left-handed bat we all remember.
Who knows? Gardner’s contract has a split option next year, and he could opt-in to join the Yankees. If he does, his salary would be $2.3 million for 2022. That’s just under his $2.85 million 2021 deal (he had a $1 million signing bonus, remember), and probably fair market deal. If Gardy declines, there is no chance the Yankees pick up his $7.15 million club option – they’d simply buy him out for $1.15 million.
Anyway, this is somewhat complicated, but it doesn’t need to be. Gardy is on-the-record as saying he wants to return to New York, and I think $2.3 million is fair market rate for a reliable, if declining, backup outfield option with durable skills. I expect Gardner to utilize his option for 2022, return to pinstripes, and look to retire after a trip down the Canyon of Heroes.