Brett Gardner has been with the Yankees long enough to the point where he has seen many different phases of the team: he was with the team as a rookie in 2008 when they said goodbye to the old Yankee Stadium, was a part of the World Series Champion 2009 squad, established himself as an MLB regular when the Yankees were still contenders, and then saw his friends and teammates grow older, and eventually retire. And now, in 2017, on a club that has only made the playoffs once in the past four years, Brett Gardner, the longest-tenured Yankee, has morphed into that same veteran presence that helped ease his transition into the league almost 10 years ago.
The Yankees of today are a team built for the future: Aaron Judge, Clint Frazier, Luis Severino, and Gary Sanchez, among others, are no older than 25 years old and look to be the cornerstones of a future dynasty. And right there beside them is Brett Gardner, the old man of the bunch, the trusty veteran to show the kids the ropes.
Brett Gardner has often flown under the radar in his MLB career, and it is only now that other teams are beginning to realize that they cannot let their “Gard” down when Brett Gardner is at the bat, as his heroic performance against the Tampa Bay Rays last weekend can attest. Either at the bat, in the field, or in the clubhouse, Brett Gardner is the true captain of the New York Yankees.
Gardner came from humble beginnings. Born and raised in a quiet South Carolina town, he was a walk-on to the College of Charleston baseball team, who persisted through adversity until he was a cornerstone of the team.
Sound familiar? Gardner wasn’t ever a top prospect, and made his MLB debut as an injury replacement for Johnny Damon back in 2008. Gardy didn’t hit much in his rookie season, but he endeared himself to Yankee fans with his speed, defense, and scrappy approach. Damon ended up taking Gardner under his wing, and after they won a World Series together in 2009, Gardner replaced Damon in left field for good for the 2010 season.
Gardner proved he could be an MLB starter in 2010, posting career-bests in average, on-base percentage, walks, and 47 stolen bases, a number he would top one year later with 49 swipes. Gardner missed almost all of the 2012 season due to an elbow injury, which threatened his MLB career. However, he bounced back in 2013, and entered what can be described as phase two of his MLB career.
From 2013 onward, Gardner has had to embrace a veteran leadership role on the Yankees. He found himself batting leadoff more on a regular basis, rather than batting ninth as he had for most of his prior MLB career. In the field, he moved from left field to center field for the 2013 season, and can play both positions capably. Gardner has been a top fielder for many years, but is just now receiving the national recognition he deserves. He won the Fielding Bible Award in 2010 and 2011, a Gold Glove in 2016, and was the overall Wilson Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2016. Gardner has made many highlight-reel catches in the outfield, but also saves runs early in games with his range and his precise throwing arm.
At the plate, Gardner became a different hitter from 2013 on. He began to use his legs in a different way than he had before, stealing less bases but generating more power in the batter’s box. He led the league with 10 triples in 2013, and hit more extra-base hits than ever before.
After the Yankees acquired Jacoby Ellsbury, a similar player, for the 2014 season, Gardner too signed an extension, which will keep him in the Bronx until at least the end of the 2018 season. But while Ellsbury has struggled with consistency and has not lived up to his salary, Gardner is one of the best bargains in baseball. He made his lone All-Star team in 2015, but may be having his best overall season this year, at age 33.
Gardner has a career-high 19 home runs so far this year, and will certainly finish with over 20 for the first time in his career. He will also likely swipe 20 bags, joining the prestigious 20-20 club. Gardner doesn’t run as often as he used to, but he is almost never caught stealing when he does go. He has a career success rate of 81% on the basepaths, an excellent score. Gardner has said that with the batters who hit behind him, including Judge, Frazier, and Sanchez, he considers himself in scoring position as soon as he reaches first base. This aggressive mentality is why he is always among the league leaders in runs scored.
But the best part of Gardner’s game has to be his knack for clutch hits. Gardner has the most walk-off hits of any Yankee since 2000 with 10 such hits, including two in one weekend against the Rays in a crucial series just two weeks ago. And on the game in between those two walk-off hits? Oh, he just led the game off with a home run. Gardner also led the Yankees to a come-from-behind win over the reigning World Series Champion Chicago Cubs with a three run home run that came with the Yankees down two and down to their last strike on the road. The Yankees are 16-0 in games in which Gardner has homered this year, by the way.
Gardner knows that the outfield in New York is crowded, and he could have lots of trade value on the market. However, he also knows that he only wants to play for the Yankees, the only franchise he has ever known. He is the de facto captain of this Yankee squad, and the young players feed off of his leadership. Gardner will likely end his career as a lifelong Yankee, even if he will never get the respect he deserves outside New York. But that’s ok with Gardy. As far as he is concerned, he is better when the spotlight is off of him, because as soon as the opponent lets their “Gard” down, there’s Brett Gardner, ready to strike.