Brett Gardner is still going, folks. As I’ll get to shortly, he keeps staving off the end of his playing days even when things look bleak. His performance was uneven during 2020, but ultimately, he ended with an above average batting line with his typically strong glovework.
Just when you thought he was done…
How many consecutive years has Gardner looked done? I mean, check out some of the craters in his rolling wOBA:
Well, he did it again in 2020. Through August 31st, Gardy had a .169/.302/.338 (80 wRC+) in 86 plate appearances. His power from a year ago (28 home runs!) was no more. Sure, he still drew his fair share of walks (15.1 percent), but he was also striking out more than ever before (26.7 percent). For reference, he hasn’t had a strikeout rate north of 20 percent since 2015. Even in the bizarre playing environment that 2020 brought, it (again) seemed like Gardner was toast.
It’s not like Gardner was running into bad luck, either. Gardner’s wOBA (.283) and xwOBA (.282) were nearly identical during that time period. Rather, he was making a lot of not so great contact. For instance:
Those three pop-ups were emblematic of what was going wrong for Gardner through August. Gardner’s lifetime ground ball-to-fly ball ratio was 1.44 entering this season and he’s never posted one below 1.14 (2014). But this season, he had a 0.70 mark through the end of August. Look, Gardner may have some home run pop, especially at Yankee Stadium, but even in his recent good seasons he hasn’t lifted the ball that much.
In 2017, when Gardner hit 21 dingers, his GB/FB ratio was 1.34. Last year, when he hit 28 bombs, it was 1.16. So even when he was displaying power, he was still hitting the ball into the ground more often than not. And with his speed, it paid off. He has a career infield hit rate just north of 9 percent, and that hasn’t really wavered even as he’s gotten older. League average tends to be below 7 percent, by the way.
In retrospect, it sure looks like Gardner may have sold out for power too much at the beginning of the season. Because by the end of the year, things turned around.
…he pulls you back in
Turning the calendar to September made all of the difference for Gardner, apparently. The longest tenured Yankee hit .288/.417/.458 (146 wRC+) in 72 plate appearances during the month. And while he played above his xwOBA (.379 actual vs. .356 expected), it’s not like he didn’t deserve the good results he received. All told, the final month of the regular season was enough to bring Gardner’s full-season offensive stat line to respectability (110 wRC+).
Perhaps to no surprise, Gardner’s turnaround coincides with him hitting the ball down more often:
He lowered his launch angle toward the end of the season and obviously stopped hitting so many balls in the air. In September, his GB/FB ratio stood at 1.2, much more like the Gardner of old.
Now, we’re dealing with much, much smaller samples than usual, but this is in line with Gardner’s story over the last few years. He was not so good in 2016, struggled in the second half of 2017, and was awful down the stretch in 2018. Yet, at the end of each swoon came a rebound. Gardner did just that in 2020 too. He can’t keep doing this forever…right?
The Yankees declined Gardner’s $10 million option for the 2021 season, so he’s currently a free agent. It’s pretty hard to envision him joining a new team at this stage of his career, but I suppose it’s possible.
Gardner can still runs well, plays good defense, and is durable even at his age. He’s still a good fit for this roster, but definitely not in a starting role. Left field is Clint Frazier’s now. But as a fourth or fifth outfielder? Gardner would be just fine. I’d really prefer him to be the fifth outfielder, with a better bat ahead of him in preparation of inevitable injuries.
FanGraphs projects a one-year, $8 million deal, though he’s assuredly going to get less if it’s from the Yankees. For one, the team already paid him a $2.5 million buyout, effectively making the 2021 decision a $7.5 million one. So to pay him more after cutting him loose wouldn’t make sense.