The New York Yankees are rolling right now. They have won 9 of 11 and 14 of 18 since dropping to .500 on May 21st and last night’s win put them into a tie for first place with the Tampa Bay Rays. But there is something, rather someone, missing who can make this team even better; Brett Gardner.
Gardner unfortunately suffered the second setback of his rehabilitation for a sore right elbow over the weekend when he played in his first game at Single-A Charleston on June 8th. He was seen by famed surgeon Dr. James Andrews yesterday and is scheduled to meet with specialist Dr. Tim Kremchek on Thursday for a second opinion. The findings will help the Yankees and Gardner determine the next course of action. The Yankees are hoping that surgery is not on the table or they could end up without Gardner for the remainder of the season. Even if surgery is not required, it is looking like Gardner may not be back until after the All-Star break.
Outsiders and maybe even some Yankees fans may suggest that the team is doing just fine without Gardner, so what’s the difference if or when he returns. There are multiple reasons why Gardner’s presence is a positive for the Yankees.
First, Gardner brings an aspect to the team that it is sorely missing right now; pure speed. Gardner’s ability to create chances is something that no other Yankee on the roster can do. With Gardner gone, Alex Rodriguez and Eduardo Nunez lead the team with six stolen bases. Gardner can rack up six bags in a week. Without him, the team has a total of 32 stolen bases and the running game is more or less non-existent. Nunez may be the only player who has similar base stealing qualities as Gardner, but he’s in Triple-A (currently on the 7-day DL) and his glove causes too many issues, thus his absence from the team.
Gardner’s base-stealing abilities place him in scoring position more than any other Yankee from his own efforts (meaning not moved into position by a teammate or by virtue and opponent’s miscue). In 2011, with 49 stolen bases, 19 doubles and 8 triples he was in scoring position 76 times without help from a teammate. Derek Jeter the leadoff hitter for much of last year did that 44 times (16 SB, 24 doubles, 4 triples). When Gardner reached base last season he scored 42% (R-HR/H+BB+HBP-HR) of the time. Jeter was at 38%.
The counter-argument is the Yankees are flailing with runners in scoring position anyway so does it matter if Gardner is with the team and able to swipe second and/or third base? The answer is that everything goes in cycles. Right now, it is true that the Yankees are winning despite their miserable numbers with runners in scoring position. Every trend has an eventual swing in the opposite direction and this one will too. Gardner’s numerous chances in scoring position give the Yankees that many more opportunities to break out of their RISP doldrums.
The Yankees are built around their power, not many would suggest otherwise. But, there will come a time when the Yankees will need to win a ball game when the home run hitters are not lined up in the order and they need just one run. Or worse, the big boppers will be slumping and in a homer-less drought and a simple hit is all that is needed because Gardner reached on a single and stole second. Gardner takes some of the pressure off the run producers so they don’t feel the need to try to homer each time up.
Next, the simple fact that Gardner is not in the field is going to come back to haunt the Yankees at some point. He is coming off a gold glove winning season and generated ridiculous fielding metrics; 31.8 UZR/150 in 2010 and 29.5 UZR/150 in 2011. Virtually anyone they put out there is not going to measure up to Gardner. The guys the Yankees are using in left field, mainly Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones, were not meant to see much if any action in the field this season. Ibanez is a poor fielder and while Jones was once a superior defensive player, he’s older now and not as used to playing the field as he once was.
Lastly, and this may be going overlooked, Gardner does many of the little things right. He takes walks and beats out infield hits (57 infield/bunt hits in 2011), which aids his .355 career OBP. He can move runners over, whether by bunt or hitting a ground ball to the necessary side. He can stretch singles into doubles and doubles into triples. Gardner has the ability to score on almost any fly ball to the outfield from third base. Plus, believe it or not, Gardner can drive in runs with a clutch hit every so often. There are not many players hitting out of the number nine slot who hit like a leadoff hitter. Gardner gives the Yankees this dynamic.
Yes, the Yankees are on a roll and they’ve done it without Brett Gardner. But the Yankees are in danger of becoming a one-dimensional offense without him and when the power fades for lengthy periods, Gardner’s wheels would be greatly appreciated. It’s too bad his bum elbow is getting in the way.
*Statistics via FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com.