New York Yankees: Why Brett Gardner Is Most Underrated Defender in MLB

Chris SbalcioCorrespondent IFebruary 23, 2012

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 03:  Brett Gardner #11 of the New York Yankees  in action against the New York Mets during their game on July 3, 2011 at Citi Field in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

When you think of the New York Yankees, you probably think of big-name players, championships, and ludicrous contracts.  With the Yankees, the motto might as well be "go big, and you better not go home."  The Yankees have always and will always do anything within their power to win; it's just in their nature.

So, with a roster that includes premier players like Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and CC Sabathia, why would the Yankees choose to play a guy like Brett Gardner in left field?  If the Yankees only play the best of the best, what does Gardner bring to the table?

Well, you see, while Cano might be baseball's best overall second baseman, Granderson and Teixeira two of the league's best power hitters, and Sabathia and Rivera potentially the best ace-closer combination in the MLB, Gardner rounds out the field by giving the Yankees the best baserunner and, more importantly, the best defensive player in the game.

Anyone who knows of Gardner knows him for his speed.  He is arguably the fastest player in the game, and if he could get on base a little more frequently, 60-70 stolen bases could become a yearly occurrence.  But his speed doesn't just affect his baserunning, it's one of the reasons he is the elite defender that he is.

Now here's where I'm going to get a little complicated for those of you unfamiliar with sabermetrics (all the information I'm using is thanks to Fangraphs). In 2011, Gardner blew away the rest of the league in pretty much every fielding category.  

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I'll start off with his UZR, or ultimate zone rating, which compares actual plays to similar plays made in the past to determine how much better a player is than the "average player."  In 2011, Gardner led baseball with a 25.2 UZR, with the next best being Jacoby Ellsbury at 17.9.  

So what this in effect shows is that Gardner was not just the best defensive left fielder or outfielder in baseball, he was the best overall player defensively in the game.

Now, I don't tend to buy much into sabermetrics, as I am one of the believers that you have to actually see a player play the game to judge his abilities.  Having said that, I am a Yankees fan that watched at least part of the vast majority of their games last season, and I can honestly say without bias that it was nothing short of a crime to deny Gardner a Gold Glove award in favor of Alex Gordon.  

Gardner is exactly what most people refer to him as, a center fielder playing left. 

In fact, he actually makes his teammate, Curtis Granderson, look bad in center because he makes so many of the plays that usually wind up being the responsibility of the center fielder.  Let's just say that with Gardner in left and Granderson in center, Nick Swisher probably has the sweetest right field gig in the majors.

So if he's so good, why do we rarely see Gardner on the highlight reels?  Well, think about what kind of plays are featured on those video montages on MLB Network and Sports Center. Usually, it's the dives and leaps and sprawling catches that get all the attention payed to them, but when a player is so good that he can reach most of the fly balls and line drives that others can't, it doesn't look as impressive as it would if he had had to give up his body on the play.  

Gardner makes difficult plays look easy.  His ability to read the path of the ball, find the best route and use his speed to get there with time to spare makes it look like he's playing the outfield in a little league park.

When you can make playing a position at the major league level actually look easy, you know that's a special player.  Gardner doesn't get enough credit for what he really does for the Yankees.  He may not be the guy driving in all the runs, but he is the guy that saves all the runs, and that is an invaluable skill set to have on any major league baseball team.