When he came into the league in 2008, Brett Gardner wasn’t known for anything other than being a speedster, or someone who could rack up stolen bases in a heartbeat. And it was true; in only 42 games of his rookie season, Gardner managed to swipe 13 bases, which put him on pace for approximately 50 stolen bases over a 162-game span.
He wasn’t the best hitter early on, but Gardner did manage to hit .270 in his first full season as a Yankee in 2009. He didn’t have the best throwing mechanics in the outfield either, although his speed helped to account for many putouts deep in left field. Brett Gardner was simply an average player at the beginning of his career on the New York Yankees, and nobody really expected anything more from him.
Fast forward to July of 2015, which is about seven years after his Major League debut. Not only is he a 2009 World Series champion, Gardner was the American League stolen base co-leader in 2011, the AL leader in triples in 2013, the winner of two Fielding Bible Awards from 2010-11, a three-time AL Player of the Week, and the icing on the cake, an All-Star in 2015. The man who came into the league with practically nothing but his speed managed to reach the pinnacle of baseball success: a trip to the Mid-Summer Classic.
The evolution of Gardner’s game is truly remarkable, specifically due to his transition from being a constant threat on the basepaths to being able to drive the ball and reach extra bases. His first home run, which he hit off former Blue Jays pitcher Scott Richmond in 2009, came after almost 200 at-bats, and it was hit right next to the right-field foul pole, which is the shortest section of right field in the Rogers Centre. By then, Gardner had already racked up 25 stolen bases for his career, so his reputation for much speed and not-so-much power was already taking shape.
It is possible that Gardner was able to drive the ball more later in his career due to him being more comfortable with major league pitching. However, Garder did make a few tweaks in his swing to help aid the process with the help of former Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long.
Long, who is now the hitting coach of the Mets, had a reputation for adjusting swings of slumping hitters so that less energy was wasted moving the bat around before contact. Such improvements helped players such as Nick Swisher, whose bat-wag was significantly reduced after working with Kevin Long, Curtis Granderson, and even Alex Rodriguez.
After having a terrible April to begin the 2011 season, Gardner worked with Long to tweak his approach at the plate by keeping the bat still while waiting for the pitch, and also by standing farther up in the batter’s box so as to reduce his reaction time. With the adjustments in play, Gardner quickly became one of the hottest hitters in baseball, hitting above .350 for more than 50 games after the modifications.
In turn, he has continued using the altered swing to this day, with obvious results.
At the half point mark of the 2015 season, Brett Gardner has planted 10 home runs already, which puts him on pace for about 20 home runs for the season. His previous career high was 17 home runs in 2014, a year most would consider to be his breakout year, power-wise. Interestingly enough, Brett Gardner has steadily increased his home run total by the year, excluding 2012 when he only played 16 games due to injury.
However, with the increase in power came a decline in his stolen base attempts. In 2011, Gardner attempted 63 stolen bases, with a success rate of about 78%. Since then, his stolen base attempts have dropped from 32 to 26 to only 18 so far this year. Granted, the veteran is approaching his 32nd birthday in the coming August, so the decline could have something to do with age. In any case, Gardner is still one of the fastest players in the league, and clearly the fastest player on the Yankees.
Speaking of, Gardner is ranked sixth all-time in Yankees history in stolen bases with 197. After clearing 200 stolen bases, which should happen this year, he would need 159 more to pass Derek Jeter for the all-time record of 358. It seems very feasible for a player with Gardner’s speed to average 20 stolen bases for the next eight years. After all, even Jeter managed to steal 16 bases at the age of 37. To come into the league predominantly for speed and to achieve such a record would place Gardner firmly in Yankees lore.
Included in Brett Gardner’s evolution as an all-round baseball player is his improvement on defense. Most people don’t talk about Gardner in regards to his defense, mainly because there’s nothing remarkable about Gardner’s arm in left field. His mechanics are a bit funky, as he winds up in an unorthodox manner before releasing the baseball. However, his arm strength and accuracy have always been above average.
In fact, in 2010 Gardner was second in the league in assists by left fielders behind Delmon Young with 9. Gardner has also been in the top-10 in fewest errors three times in his career, which helped him win the Fielding Bible Award in two of those years. Although it isn’t the Gold Glove Award, the Fielding Bible Award is still an award given to the top defensive player statistically for his position, so Gardner has gotten recognition for his efforts.
His throwing mechanics have vastly improved over his career, with a point of emphasis being on decreasing the time needed to catch-and-release the baseball. And let’s not forget, his quickness and speed makes him that much more valuable when roaming around the outfield.
If he continues going in this trajectory, Brett Gardner should be considered one of the most underrated Yankees of all-time. Aside from the actual baseball aspects of his career, he has never had an issue off-the-field with the media, mainly by assuming the classiness of the organization that he represents. He hasn’t had any scandals or problems or any news negative about him, and it has translated into Gardner becoming a leader of the clubhouse.
Gardner has continued the line of home-grown Yankees position players to make the All-Star team that dates back to 2005. In fact, Brett Gardner is the first and only position player ever drafted by Brian Cashman to make the All-Star team. With any luck, he will remain a Yankee for the duration of his career.