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Brett Gardner powering past age, expectations in Yankees' outfield

Gardner is on pace for a career-high in home runs and slugging percentage

Brett Gardner leads Yankees outfielders with 15 home runs and eight stolen bases. (AP)

Every year in Spring Training, you hear the same refrain from outside observers: Brett Gardner's playing time with the Yankees could be reduced. Every season, Gardner defies those odds, playing through injury to produce well above expectations for the Bombers.

In his 12th season in pinstripes, Gardner has produced more power than ever, having hit 15 home runs in the first half alone. That already outpaces the dozen he hit in 2018 and is just six behind his career-high in 2017.

After hitting just .236 with a .368 slugging percentage in 2018, he's raised his batting line to .250/.330/.473, currently sporting a career-best .804 OPS in 339 plate appearances. Even in an era where home runs have reached peak levels, Gardner's accomplishments stand out.

For many hitters, adding power to their game comes at a cost. Some have lost bat speed and have slugging percentage rise as batting average craters. Many hitters experience a rise in strikeouts as they sell out to hit the ball farther.

Gardner instead has his lowest strikeout rate in a decade. The veteran outfielder has maintained his fastidious eye at the dish and ranks 14th in MLB with 4.20 pitches seen per plate appearance. A recent hot streak buoyed his stat line, yet his numbers were above his recent norms beforehand.

Along with many batters across the league, he's added more power by hitting the ball more in the air more often. His fly-ball rate has increased for the third straight season, and he's pulling the ball more than ever, taking advantage of Yankee Stadium's short porch.

As mentioned above, Gardner wasn't supposed to receive as much playing time this season with Giancarlo Stanton expected to get more reps in left field. However, Stanton's injury -- coupled with ailments for Aaron Hicks and Aaron Judge -- tossed Gardner into regular playing time.

Through 92 games, Gardner leads Yankees outfielders with 80 starts, 88 games played and 339 plate appearances. He's taken most of his starts in center field for the first time since 2013 as Hicks missed the first five weeks of the season. Perhaps most impressively, the veteran has been an above-average fielder in the middle of the Yankees' outfield by UZR, Outs Above Average and other defensive metrics.

The former Gold Glove winner possesses plenty of defensive acumen, yet most 35-year-olds would have lost a step. (Former Oriole Adam Jones, for instance, was shifted to a corner outfield spot.) Gardner has defied age and is still the fastest Yankee by Statcast™'s sprint speed, ranking in the 93rd percentile overall.

At the plate, Gardner has saved his best performance for the Yankees' divisional competitors. He swung an early-season game against the Red Sox with a go-ahead grand slam, then added a home run during the teams' London Series.

Gardner's power has come through especially against the Rays and their elite pitching staff. He has a pair of home runs this year against early Cy Young candidate Charlie Morton, as well as a long ball against defending Cy Young winner Blake Snell. He's hitting a sterling .302/.354/.628 vs. Tampa Bay.

Gardner has played more often this year and thus far handled the extra workload while staying healthy. The Yankees have the depth with Hicks, Judge, Mike Tauchman and, in Triple-A, Clint Frazier to give him more days off before Stanton's potential return. That would allow him to stay fresh down the stretch and into a postseason run.

Though presumably in the latter part of his career, Gardner has earned consideration for a longer stay in pinstripes. He signed a one-year deal before this season and could make sense returning to fill the prescribed more-than-your-average fourth outfielder role that the Yankees earmarked for him this year.

Gardner's future with the club beyond 2019 appeared uncertain, yet his performance might dictate a change in plans. No one expected a potential 20+ home run season in 2019, nor for him to remain one of the team's most productive hitters.

Continuing to doubt Gardner appears a fool's errand. He's proven everyone wrong to this point.