Observe, if you will, the following WAR leaderboard, covering from the beginning of the 2010 season to the current date.
There, in 12th place amongst all position players, sits New York Yankees left fielder Brett Gardner. His total of 9.2 is closer to fifth place then it is to 13th place. Perhaps he hasn’t done it in the traditional way — blasting the ball across the ballpark and hitting his way into the hearts and minds of baseball fans — but there should be little doubt. Brett Gardner is one of baseball’s elite.
Of course, this idea that Brett Gardner isn’t a hitter sells him short. Surely, his power pales in comparison to every other name on the list, but Gardner does his own damage at the plate. Over his last two seasons, spanning 806 plate appearances, Gardner has mustered a 121 wRC+, establishing himself as a well above-average hitter.
Despite the flash typically associated with the speedy players, the key behind Gardner’s game is the least exciting play in baseball: the walk. Gardner walked 79 times in 569 plate appearances in 2010 and should approach 70 walks again in 2011, with 25 entering Tuesday’s play. However, particularly this year, Gardner has made pitchers pay on pitches in the zone as well. Through his first 237 plate appearances of the current season, Gardner has added some power to his repertoire, socking four home runs — only one fewer than all of last year — to go with 11 doubles and four triples. The resulting .151 ISO is actually 14 points above the league average.
Early-season power can be a mirage, and the left-handed Gardner is likely aided by the friendly confines of the New Yankee Stadium. But Gardner and the Yankees will surely survive even in his power numbers slip back to their previous levels, as Gardner has established himself as one of the most well-rounded players in baseball.
Hitting, fielding, and baserunning all combine to make Gardner elite. Since the 2010 season began, Gardner has been at least five runs above average in all three facets, better than 20 runs above average in both hitting (+22.5) and defense (+38). Of all the great players in the Major Leagues, Andres Torres is the only other Major Leaguer who can make that claim. Surely, small-sample UZR total can create myths out of men, but given the vast amount of video evidence in support of Gardner’s fantastic glovework, I count myself as a believer.
He may not be doing it in the most traditional or the most visible way, but, in this case, the numbers don’t lie. When Brett Gardner isn’t busy creating runs with his bat or his wheels, he’s saving them with his glove. Add it all up, and you come to an inescapable conclusion: Brett Gardner is one of the Major League’s best players.