MLB: Chicago White Sox at New York Yankees

Brett Gardner‘s success at the big league level is something of a mystery. A mystery that is equal parts utility and scarcity. A triumph of selection bias, really.

Players like Gardner tend to slip through the cracks, more often than not. Lacking the big time power profile of a prototypical outfield prospect, players who go about their business in the style of the Yankees newly minted millionaire put a lot of pressure on notoriously unreliable measures.

The Yankees are no fools. They understand how important a player like Brett Gardner is to their success and so they rewarded their left fielder with a four-year, $53 million contract extension.

Watching Gardner go about his business, it is easy to wonder why there aren’t more players like him the big leagues. High OBP, great defense in the outfield, excellent base runners. Many fourth or fifth outfielders attempt to make that combination of skills work, but so few pull it off. Gardner is the rare case to make it work as a starter,

Even Gardner himself realized the infield singles/walks/defense look was difficult to pull off, adjusting his approach ahead of the 2013 season to include more power. He walked less often than before and knocked around a career-high total of extra base hits.

The scouting process and infrastructure in baseball is set up to overlook players like Gardner. Again: making his combination work is a much tougher task than it appears. His baseball career that began as a walk-on at the College of Charleston, keeping him off the radar of most scouts. His college career also positioned Gardner as “old” for his level at times in the minor leagues.

Now entering his sixth year as a big league pro, Brett Gardner received the type of payday even he could not have dreamed. The Yankees have their outfield solution for four years, a player who might not post a typical Yankee Stadium stat line but one, because of the things he does well, helps the team win.

Even though he missed nearly the entire 2012 season, Gardner ranks in the top 15 among outfielders for Wins Above Replacement. The occasionally maligned stat rates Gardner ahead of players like Hunter Pence (five years, $90 million) and Nick Swisher (four year, $56 million), and Curtis Granderson (four years, $60 million) since 2010. Even though his production takes on a different shape than these other players, the “baseball marketplace” recognizes their contributions as roughly equal.

Moving to left field on a full-time basis might reduce his “on paper” WAR but Gardner’s combination of league-average (at worst) offense and above-average to excellent defense make him a winning ballplayer.

Brett Gardner is nearly the perfect outfielder to play left field at Yankee Stadium. He has the range to track down balls in the deep power alley but also the strong, accurate throwing arm to make the long throw from this position back to the infield. His range and defensive know-how allows the Yankees to shade new CF Jacoby Ellsbury towards right, protecting the aged and the infirmed (Ichiro, Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Beltran) the Yanks plan to station there. Gardner can also take up the mantle in center should Ellsbury miss time with injury.

Brett Gardner doesn’t produce like a standard issue corner outfielder but he certainly does produce – with his defense, with his legs, with a patient approach and with bat, if the pitcher isn’t careful. The Yankees made a wise choice when they locked up this player before he gets to free agency. More teams than the Bronx Bombers would surely covet this rare combination of skills.