While much of the focus of the New York Yankees’ surprising 2015 season has centered on the resurgence of the team’s veteran hitters, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, the impact of table-setters Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury cannot be overlooked.
Gardner is finally hitting his stride in his eighth season as a major leaguer, raising his average (.295) to the closest its ever been to .300 and earning his first All-Star game nod. The 31-year-old has nearly as many doubles (23) and stolen bases (15) as he did all of last season — 25 and 21, respectively — and is on pace for career-highs in hits, runs scored and OPS. His performance has ranked among the top ten in the American League in several offensive categories, including offensive wins above replacement (eighth), runs scored (fourth), on-base percentage (eighth), sacrifice hits (fourth), times on base (ninth), win probability added (ninth) and stolen bases (seventh).
He’s also been reliable in left field, ranking fourth in the AL in range factor per game, which measures the number of putouts and assists a player has contributed per game.
Although the former third-round pick has been a pretty solid player over his career, the elevation of his game to an All-Star level has the Yankees’ lineup operating in-sync for the first time in several years.
The funny thing is, some didn’t even expect Gardner to be a Yankee by this point in his career.
When New York expressed interest in signing Ellsbury away from the rival Boston Red Sox following the 2013 season, there were questions whether this meant the Yankees were moving on from Gardner. Certainly, New York didn’t need two speedy leadoff centerfielders — or simply couldn’t play them together.
However, instead of trading Gardner away, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman opted to offer him a four-year, $52 million contract extension — something New York has rarely done under Cashman. While critics suggested the team should have spent their money on other areas of need, the decision to keep Gardner looks a steal now considering his $11 million 2015 salary.
Holding onto Gardner has also given New York the insurance they need given Ellsbury’s lengthy injury history. Although the 31-year-old managed to play in 149 games in his first season in pinstripes, a knee injury has already forced him to sit out seven weeks this year.
During this time, Gardner slotted into center field and kept the lineup afloat — preventing the Yankees from taking a dive in the standings despite Ellsbury’s absence.
Should Ellsbury stay healthy for the rest of the season, the Yankees’ one-two punch will make them a very tough out in the playoffs.
In the 51 games sandwiched between his injury, Ellsbury has managed to collect 14 stolen bases, 21 walks and posted a .292 batting average — great numbers for a player who’s been in and out of the lineup.
New York currently owns the top ranking in MLB for first-inning runs scored and should see their lead grow with Ellsbury healthy again. While it’s also possible his return could throw off Gardner’s groove, the South Carolina native envisions quite the opposite.
“We definitely push each other,” Gardner said of Ellsbury. “It’s a lot of fun hitting next to him in the lineup. Feels like every time I come up, he’s on base. I feel like he makes me better, and hopefully he feels the same about me. Like I said, we push each other. We take a lot of pride in getting on base, and that’s our job at the top of the lineup. We feel like we’re two leadoff hitters, and we can get on base for those guys in the middle of the lineup and give them RBI opportunities.”
With both Gardner and Ellsbury hitting nearly .300 from the leadoff spot to start the game — .341 and .298, respectively — Cashman’s decision to keep both players has already paid off. While New York certainly could have filled one of their positions with a power hitter to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch, the formula being used has actually helped them get the most out of Rodriguez and Teixeira’s expensive contracts, instead.
While the 2015 Yankees offense may not come close to matching the team’s dangerous lineups of the late-1990s, with Gardner and Ellsbury on top, the Yanks are still primed for their first legitimate playoff run in six years — the only thing that matters in New York.