By Matt Mirro, Lead American League Writer
Being a Yankees fan I have had the pleasure of watching left fielder Brett Gardner transform from a speedy, defense oriented fourth outfielder into one of the New York’s most talented players. Yet, as Gardner continues to grow both as a player and as a leader in the clubhouse he is unfairly denied his long overdue accolades. Overshadowed by teammates such as Jacoby Ellsbury, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann and Alex Rodriguez (Not to mention the beloved Derek Jeter up until this season) Gardner has gotten little praise outside of the New York market.
I had hoped that this year, with the Yankees being in first place and once again drawing baseball’s eye, would finally be the year that Gardner was rewarded for his efforts. Unfortunately, like every other year, players who are more than deserving of a spot on the All-Star Game roster are left out. There aren’t many bigger snubs this time around than Brett Gardner. The fans chose Alex Gordon to start in left field on behalf of the American League while Jose Bautista, J.D. Martinez and Adam Jones were chosen by American League manager Ned Yost to serve as reserves.
Gardner is one of the final five candidates set to be chosen by fan vote. He’s currently competing with third baseman Mike Moustakes (Royals), outfielder Yoenis Cespedes (Tigers), second baseman Brian Dozier (Twins) and shortstop Xander Bogaerts to fill the final spot on the American League Roster. Now, all these selections are indeed warranted and there’s no arguing that the men who made the roster are deserving of such honor. I feel as though Gardner’s true impact on the ball field is often clouded by his original billing of “bench player”
Let me make this clear; Brett Gardner is an All-Star and there should be no debate.
Sadly, far too many people still see “Brett the Jet” as the same player who hit .228 over 42 games in his rookie season of 2008. I’ll admit that even I was not a fan of the younger vintage when he trotted out to center field at just 24 years old.. Gardner had a career year last season, batting .256 with 17 home runs and 58 RBI. He stole 21 bases (He was thrown out just five times) and reached base enough to boast a .327 on base percentage. He also doubled 25 times to go along with eight triples. While I thought he made a fair case to be an All-Star last season his numbers to date in 2015 makes it even harder to believe he’s not headed for Cincinnati.
Gardner currently owns a .296 batting average along with nine home runs and 39 RBI. He’s already stolen 15 bases while being caught just three times. He’s on pace to shatter last season’s doubles total as he already has 21 two base hits as well as three triples. All that plus his 34 walks has him sporting a .373 OBP. Not to mention that he’s played nothing short of superb defense in both left field and center field. Oh, and he’s also scored 61 runs already this year, serving as the team’s top of the order catalyst after Jacoby Ellsbury went down with injury.
How do Gardner’s numbers fare against those chosen over him for All-Star spots?
There’s no denying Gordon’s talent and his election to the All-Star Game is well deserved. Thus far he’s batted .280 with 11 home runs and 39 RBI. He’s stolen just one base while getting caught four times. He’s hit 13 doubles and no triples while also posting a .394 OBP, aided by being hit by a pitch a league leading 12 times (Ouch!). Many see Gordon as baseball’s best defensive left fielder and that may very well be the case. He’s made plenty of highlight plays since moving from third base to the corner outfield like this one in April against the Chicago White Sox.
So I’ll agree that Alex Gordon is more than deserving as the American League left fielder. But I he’s far from over the moon better than Gardner. In fact, they’ve had very similar seasons to date and either or would be a fair choice. If you base Gordon’s candidacy solely on his power numbers than I might ask you why Stephen Drew (.176 batting average and 11 home runs) isn’t starting over Jose Altuve (.299 batting average and 7 home runs). Just food for though.
Over the past two seasons J.D. Martinez has launched his career into the stratosphere. Playing right field for the Detroit Tigers the 27-year old has become a full-fledged star since being cast off by the Houston Astros before the start of last season. Through his first 81 games here in 2015 he’s batted .289 with 24 home runs (He had 23 homers in 123 games for the Tigers last year) and 58 RBI. He tends to strike out a bit too much, 90 times so far already (Gardner has struck out 70 times and Gordon has been set down on strikes just 63 times) but still sports a solid .345 OBP. He is not as swift of foot as other outfielders on the All-Star roster, having stolen just two bases and being caught once.
Martinez’s power might have made him a stronger candidate than any others but the Tigers have struggled this season, leading baseball observers to shy away from the normally heavy coverage of the Motor City felines. I would still see Gardner as the better candidate, however. With power numbers throughout baseball at a relative low point there has been a renewed emphasis on speed, something that Gardner utilizes far more than Martinez. While it’s not fair to directly compare these two very different game styles the American League squad is full of big power guys. Some speed out of the lefty batter’s box side would’ve looked nice next to the big hairy monsters don’t you think?
Normally, Adam Jones would be a lock to start the All-Star Game but I do find it surprising how close his and Gardner’s seasons have been. Jones is batting .288 with 11 home runs and 40 RBI. He’s stolen just one base and has been thrown out three times which isn’t abnormal for the center fielder who has never been particularly fleet of foot on the base paths. For a middle of the order bat he owns a somewhat low on base percentage at just .334. This is probably due to the fact that he’s walked just 16 times while striking out 46 times in his first 73 games. He’s also struggled with some injuries this year which hasn’t interfered with his usual brand of slick fielding.
So far this season Jones has not been the MVP caliber player we’re used to seeing. He has been a big piece of the Baltimore roster yet again but it’s not fair to look at his season and say it is better than Gardner’s. In fact, Gardner’s outplays Jones in more than a few statistical categories this year. Which is why I wonder why Jones was chosen over Gardner. The American League team has more right fielders and center fielders than actual left fielders. Unless Yoenis Cespedes wins the final vote the only legitimate left fielder on the team is Gordon. So, why chose another center fielder when there is a left fielder with similar, if not better, numbers available?
Finally, we get to Joey Bats. While Bautista has displayed his normal off the charts power he’s been more or less an all or nothing player so far this season. Currently, the Toronto right fielder is bating just .239 in his first 79 games. Despite his 17 home runs and 58 RBI he’s had a down season by his standards. He does, however, boast a very respectable .388 OBP which could probably be attributed to his incredible strikeout to walk ratio at 65 base on balls to just 51 strikeouts. His power numbers are quite impressive and no one is arguing with that but when compared to Gardner there are a few things that stick out.
Bautista is not half the fielder Gardner is nor does he possess the same kind of speed the Yankee left fielder does. For those who see his power as being the thing that sets him over the top despite Gardner’s higher numbers elsewhere I must beg the same question I did when looking at Alex Gordon. Would you start Stephen Drew over Jose Altuve because he’s hit more home runs? No! Of course not! The other numbers provide a clearer picture. It shows that Gardner is surprisingly having a better overall season than Jose Bautista.
So now that my ranting and raving seems to be nearing its end I must say that even I, a life long Yankees fan am surprised by the type of player Brett Gardner has become. Since Jacoby Ellsbury went down with a sprained knee in May he’s lead the team on the field and has been a strong voice of leadership in the clubhouse. Gardner is the type of blue-collar, hard nose player that the Yankees used to cultivate back in the late 1990’s. He is the team’s only home-grown position player outside of bench players Jose Pirela, Ramon Flores and John Ryan Murphy. New York fans have loved Gardner for a long time now. I think Gardner’s accomplishments and growth deserves far more attention than has been given. He may be the most underrated player in baseball and it’s about time that ends.