By Jesse Pantuosco, Contributing Writer, The Sports Network
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) – So, quick question: when did Brett Gardner become this awesome?
If I had to ballpark it, I’d say a week and a half ago. The New York Yankees left fielder has gone ballistic over his last nine games, producing five homers, seven RBI and a .400 batting average (14-for-35). He’s crossed the plate ten times during that stretch. The Yankees have also won three of Gardner’s four multi-hit games over that span.
As sensational as he’s been since the All-Star break (1.042 OPS, .652 slugging percentage in 84 plate appearances), Gardner is more than a flash in the pan. He’s on pace to set new career-highs in just about every offensive category including home runs (15), RBI (50) and runs scored (72). By all accounts, 2014 has been Gardner’s breakout season.
To say Gardner has exceeded expectations would be underselling it. TSN’s 56th ranked outfielder heading into the season, Gardner is now a top-25 fantasy player in all formats. Gardner’s auction value in ESPN leagues was $4 at the start of the year. Now it’s closer to $22. That’s roughly the same amount owners were paying for Yasiel Puig five months ago.
Gardner won’t blow you away in any one stat. He’s not in the top-20 in any of the three Triple Crown categories. But his overall skill set is astounding. With just five homers and two steals to go, he should be able to coast to his first 20-20 season.
Gardner’s current pace calls for 22 HR, 72 RBI, 26 steals and a .283 batting average. Only four players in MLB reached those totals last season: Carlos Gomez, Andrew McCutchen, Hunter Pence and Mike Trout. Those four have 12 All- Star appearances, three gold gloves and one MVP award between them, so it’s safe to say Gardner is in pretty good company.
Speaking of leather, Gardner has yet to make an error in left field this season (176 chances). That’s probably why he has a higher wins above replacement (4.4) than Puig, Pence, Gomez, Jose Altuve and a host of others.
What stands out most when looking at Gardner’s meteoric rise is his drastically improved power. Gardner’s eight home runs since July 1 are as many as he had all of last season. After homering just once every 67.4 at bats last year, Gardner has left the yard once every 27.3 at bats in 2014. Remember, this isn’t Big Papi we’re talking about. Gardner is listed at a puny 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds.
Of course, some of Gardner’s success has to do with playing at Yankee Stadium. Predictably, all seven of Gardner’s home runs in New York this season have traveled to right field. The distance from home plate to right is a laughable 314 feet. Indeed, Gardner’s 371-foot blast to right center against the Red Sox on June 27 wouldn’t have been a home run in any other park. His 330-footer versus the Blue Jays on June 17 would have gone out in one other stadium.
The 30-year-old Gardner isn’t without his flaws. His hitting away from Yankee Stadium (.264 AVG in 212 at bats) leaves a lot to be desired and his strikeout rate is too high (on pace for 145 whiffs this season). But he has also excelled in areas where few others have. In 133 at bats this year, he’s hit .316 with runners on base to go with a groundbreaking .290 average against left-handers. Gardner, who is left-handed, had been only a .253 career hitter against lefties prior to this season.
Gardner’s power surge couldn’t have come at a better time for the Bombers. With roughly a third of the season left, the injury-ravaged Yanks are still in the hunt, just one game behind Toronto for the final wild card berth. Six of Gardner’s home runs and 19 of his RBI have come against division opponents, which bodes well considering 32 of New York’s final 49 games are against teams in the AL East.
Gardner for MVP? It could happen.