The New York Yankees are in the midst of a renaissance. Branded as the Baby Bombers, this fresh new core built around “veterans” Luis Severino, Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez along with an influx of rookies in Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar among others have the Bronx shaking with excitement for the future, and the rest of baseball sighing heavily at the prospect of yet another Yankees dynasty. It’s the youngest roster in 24 years, and we all know what happened in the mid-90’s.
Then there’s Brett Gardner. He’s looked about 45 years-old for about six years now, though he’s only 34. He’s the grizzled veteran on the team though, only he and CC Sabathia the holdovers from their last World Series berth. Against odds and expectations, Gardner continues to perform. His 4.0 fWAR last year was his best in half a decade, and his 21 homers his most ever. Nobody expects guys in their mid-30’s to get better at baseball. But seriously, when is he going to get old?
It was supposed to happen a few years ago. Sprightly outfielders that make it work with their legs are supposed to fall off once their fourth decade on earth begins. Kenny Lofton or Rajai Davis are outliers when it comes to speed, but infield hits and stolen bases, the backbone of that kind of player’s career, fall off as the years pile on. Yet we saw Gardner have a great year last year after a disappointing and injury-plagued 2016, and the Yankees continue to slot him at the top of the lineup and play him regularly in the outfield. He’s far from a bit player even in the back half of his career.
To be true, it’s been a poor start to the season. He’s slashing .198/.320/.248, good for a .269 wOBA. But with so much in baseball still ahead, passing judgement on a player after the first month is a fool’s errand. He’s been rather unlucky with a .256 BABIP , 43 points off his career average, and he’s also seeing more pitches than ever at 4.32 per at-bat. He’s striking the ball harder than in his excellent 2017 by a smidge, an 85.7 mph average exit velocity topping the 85.4 mark from a year ago. A slump or hot streak or facing the Rays and Orioles for a couple series could do a lot to affect that right now, but it’s something. And the speed is still there, a team-best 28.6 feet per second sprint speed topping all those youngsters (though some haven’t had a chance to show off their legs yet) and rates ninth among all left fielders. A position that isn’t known for speed, sure, but it would place him 21st among all center fielders, a total of 45 players, and ahead of Kevin Pillar, Lorenzo Cain, and of course Abraham Almonte.
A lot of his value has come from being a great outfielder, even in a position that doesn’t call for a supreme glove. Baseball Reference says he’s been worth 11.3 dWAR in his career, including 1.6 last year. FanGraphs states he’s been worth +55.6 defensive runs (+3.1 last year his first positive season in the last five), and Statcast said he was worth five Outs Above Average in 2017. Defensive stats are always a bit murky, but everyone agrees he’s good at his job. Speed is a vital key to that in the outfield, and if that sticks around with the added wiles of more experience, you’d have to think he’s not going to get worse at it. Barring that one thing that happens more to older players due to wear and tear that we’re trying not to mention because we don’t want to jinx him, of course.
We as fans and amateur analysts might put a bit too much credence into youth. It’s that potential that gets to all of us, that chance that the future can be brighter than today; it makes us look for ways to denigrate and find ways to trade away legitimate good players because they’re “too old”. Heck, I probably wrote a few pieces over the years for various Cleveland Indians-focused sites about trading for Gardner because he’s old, so obviously he’d be cheap and a nice platoon piece or insurance policy for Michael Brantley, and that was when he was 31.
Four and five years later, he’s still performing (at least in his peripherals, if not the results) and barring injury (whoops!) should be a solid contributor for the dawn a new age of potential Yankees dominance. It’s quite the arc his career has taken, bookended on one side by an older group of high paid stars and on the other by a rebuilt powerhouse, but seeing him not fall off hard, and be a vital player for the team throughout his career, it’s impressive. Father Time is undefeated in sports. It could all come crashing down at some point, and actually has to because that’s how this all works, but Gardner has done a great job scaring him off so far.
Merritt Rohlfing marvels at baseball for Beyond the Box Score, and mainly just the Indians at Let’s Go Tribe. He co-hosts Let’s Talk Tribe, the podcast over there. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillLunch.