No one could have foreseen Brett Gardner’s offensive performance last season. When he trudged to the finish in 2018, it seemed like his career was entering its final stages. Instead, he followed that up with the best offensive season of his big league career. Granted, just about everyone put up numbers never seen before thanks in part to the juiced ball. Still, Gardner was awfully impressive at the dish.
Gardy received a well-deserved raise for the 2020 season and is slotted as the club’s everyday center fielder until Aaron Hicks returns. After that, Gardner should slide over to left field regularly presuming his performance doesn’t fade. Decline is always a concern for someone Gardner’s age — he’ll turn 37 in August — but there’s no question he’s kept himself in great physical shape. He’s played in at least 140 games annually since 2013.
It’s hard to imagine Gardner repeating what he did in 2019, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be a valuable contributor to the team. Hitting aside, Gardner’s defense has always remained a strong point. Plus, and perhaps more importantly, he’s a significant presence in the clubhouse. Now with CC Sabathia in retirement, Gardner’s role as a leader is further emphasized. He’s now the last vestige of that 2009 championship team, as odd as that sounds.
Will his power return?
Take a look at the following marks that Gardner set career-bests in last year, all related to his power output:
|Statistic||2019||Previous Best (Year)|
|Meatball Swing%*||64.7%||59.1% (2015)|
*Only dates back to Statcast’s availability (2015).
Never say never, but it’s very doubtful that Gardner approaches last year’s marks. Regression and age-related decline get to everyone. Gardner won’t be an exception. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean he can’t remain a threat to go deep.
The physical baseball will certainly play a role in Gardner’s power output come the regular season. It certainly helped him last year. Whether it’s the same ball, a juicier one, or a deadened one, there are still some positives from last year that may be indicative of continued power.
Approach will be key. Gardner’s always been patient at the dish and maintained that last season in spite of some more aggression. In particular, the longtime Yankees outfielder swung at nearly two-thirds of what Statcast defines as meatballs (essentially right in the hitter’s sweet spot). That was up nearly ten percent from 2018 and quite easily was a career high. As long as he continues attacking pitches in the heart of the zone, Gardner should be able to continue hitting for power.
Lifting and pulling the ball was huge, too. Speedsters like Gardy have often been encouraged to put the ball on the ground, but things have changed in the era of launch angles. Hitting more fly balls, particularly as a left-handed hitter at Yankee Stadium, is a recipe for success. Gardner maximized that last season and maintaining a similar batted profile can help him come close to last year’s power performance.
Can he stay strong all season?
It took a long time, but Gardner finally bucked a career-long trend of fading during the dog days of summer in 2019. He finished the year on fire after looking toast late in 2018 and early 2019. Now it’s just a matter of whether that’s a blip or something Gardner can repeat in 2020.
The easy thing to say is that last year was a blip on the radar. And not only has he typically stumbled toward the finish, he’s also not getting any younger. He’ll turn 37 in August and have already spent a bunch of the season at the more demanding center field position. In other words: it’s a lot to ask of Gardner t to not wear down again.
But hey, it’s fun to imagine that 2019’s second half (124 wRC+) Gardner is the real deal from here on out. Sure, the odds are against him holding off his usual second half swoon (and age-related decline). Then again, maybe there’s some sort of adjustment to his preparation or tweak to his regimen that improved his endurance in 2019.
On the bright side, the Yankees shouldn’t need Gardner as much in the second half this season. Key word: shouldn’t. That assumes good health for Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton come the second half. That’s a pretty big assumption to make, unfortunately.
Is this the end of the Gardy Party?
The Gardy Party began back in 2005, when the Yankees drafted him. Now, 2020 will be his 16th season with the organization. It could be his last:
Conversation overheard in the Yankees dugout at spring training:— A.J. Herrmann (@AJHerrmannYES) February 18, 2020
Lee Mazzilli: “You got a good five years left.”
Brett Gardner: “Doing what?”
Lee Mazzilli: “Doing what you’re doing!”
Brett Gardner: “Gonna go out on top in about nine months.”
In other words, Gardy plans to do what his friend Sabathia wanted to do last year: retire a champion. Or does he? Playful banter or not, nothing’s set in stone, especially considering that the Yankees hold an option to retain Gardner in 2021. In a formal interview setting with the New York Post, Gardner shared his view on his future:
At this point, I’m just kind of taking things one year at a time. I’ve really always looked not too far into the future, obviously. The contract that I signed, the Yankees have a team option on me for next year. In a perfect world for me, I stay healthy and have a good season and they pick that option up and I come back and do it all over again. For me, I’m just focused on this current season and literally taking things one day at a time, trying to get prepared for a season. I know it sounds cliche, but I kind of learned that from some guys that I’ve played with along the way, that when you’ve been around this long, there’s no sense in looking too far into the future, really. You don’t know how much longer it’ll last, so really just enjoy every minute of it.Gardner
You can flip that response around to a fan’s perspective, too. Enjoy watching Gardner this season and worry about his potential retirement later.
2020 Outlook: What They’re Saying
Here is what the projections are saying going into the season:
- PECOTA (525 PA): .234/.313/.401, 17 HR, 95 DRC+, 1.8 WARP
- ZiPS (531 PA): .247/.327/.414, 16 HR, 97 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR
- Steamer (523 PA): .246/.327/.422, 17 HR, 99 wRC+, 1.9 fWAR
There’s a consensus here. All expect Gardner to be a slightly below average hitter while still offering some value in the field. None of these are exciting, especially off of one of Gardner’s finest campaigns, but it’s difficult to expect too much more from a soon-to-be 37 year-old.
A +2 win season isn’t anything sexy. Yet, all things considered, it’s a solid projection at this stage of his career. The Yankees really need Gardy to hit on this forecast though, because they’ll already be without a good deal of production in the outfield to begin the campaign.
Hopefully, Gardner delivers an encore to his terrific 2019 campaign. I can’t say I’d bet on it, but I’m here for a late career power surge (as are you, I’m sure). The Yankees could really use a carryover effect from last year while the big boppers in Stanton and Judge are down for at least the first couple of weeks of the season.
Performance aside, I want to see Gardner go out on his own terms whether it’s this year or next. If I were in his shoes and the Yankees won it all this year, I’d be hard pressed to return in 2021. But I’m not him, of course. In any case, Gardner deserves the year-to-year treatment a la Andy Pettitte and Sabathia. He’s been here forever and done everything the organization could have asked for (and then some). World Series title or not, if Gardy wants to return after this year, I’m all ears.