Brett Gardner in Perspective
By Lincoln Mitchell
October 23, 2020
Since he was just a prospect in the Yankees system, I’ve always liked Brett Gardner. Gardner had several of the characteristics that make me inclined to like a ballplayer. He was homegrown rather than acquired in a trade or through free agency. Because I throw, bat, write, brush my teeth, eat and do everything else left-handed, I’ve always had a slight preference for players who throw and bat lefty-this is one reason why when I was high school Don Mattingly was my favorite player and before that I always loved Vida Blue. I also liked Gardner because, it seemed, he was a young fast guy on a team full of old slow players.
Gardner is no longer a prospect or a young fast guy. He is an older player who may be wrapping up an excellent career. In over 1,500 games Gardner, as his 101 OPS+ suggests, was essentially a league average hitter, but his excellent defense and speed on the bases made him a very valuable player. His 42.8 career WAR is not enough to get a real look from Hall of Fame voters, but is what you would expect from a player who for pretty much a decade was one of the better players in the game at his position.
As Gardner’s career winds down, he is beginning to get some of the recognition he deserves and is being acknowledged as one of the more underrated good players in Yankees history. This has even led some to suggest that Gardner should get a plaque in Monument Park. This idea should be put to rest immediately while taking nothing away from Gardner’s on the field contributions. The speedy outfielder was a valuable player who may retire having spent his entire career with the Yankees, but he is hardly an all time Yankees great, nor was he ever a major part of a great Yankees team. He was a good player who was in pinstripes for a longish time. That seems like a pretty low bar for a plaque in Monument Park.
Gardner’s overall value to the team kind of snuck up on many fans because he so quietly played well for a relatively long period of time. There are two major problems with rewarding players with a plaque for that kind of accomplishment. The first is that Gardner is not the most underrated Yankee to be similarly unrecognized. Roy White was, by pretty much any measure, a better player than Gardner. He also played his entire career with the Yankees and was a key part of three pennant winners and two World Series winning teams. Tommy Henrich and Charlie Keller played all or most of their careers with the Yankees and were great players who were important parts of multiple World Series winning teams. Henrich, Keller and White may not deserve plaques in Monument Park, but it is hard to rationalize recognizing Gardner in this way, but not those other excellent but underappreciated outfielders. A more interesting comparison might be with Earle Combs, who had a very similar skill set as Gardner, but somehow managed to sneak into the Hall of Fame. Combs, a speedy centerfielder who batted leadoff on the great Ruth and Gehrig teams, spent his whole career with the Yankees and was a key player on three World Series winning teams, does not have a plaque in Monument Park either.
There are also a handful of players who did not spend all, or even most, of their career in pinstripes, but who had an enormous impact on Yankees history. Graig Nettles may have been the best player overall on the 1976-1978 Yankees and almost singlehandedly saved game three of the 1978 World Series. Dave Winfield, spent half of his Hall of Fame career in pinstripes. Alex Rodriguez was not uncontroversial, but an excellent player without whom the Yankees would not have won the 2009 World Series. Hall of Famer Waite Hoyt was the ace of three Yankees World Series winning teams. Honoring Gardner while neglecting these others, particularly Hoyt and Nettles would reflect a recency bias that, particularly for a franchise that celebrates its history so much, would distort perceptions of the Yankees over the years.
I still like Brett Gardner and would love to see him come back in 2021, contribute as a fourth outfielder and win a World Series in his last year as an active player. Who knows, if he gets a big hit or makes a game saving catch in that World Series, I might even change my mind about him deserving a plaque, but unless that happens, this honor would create an unhelpful recency bias and push more deserving Yankees further into the shadows of history.