When the New York Yankees signed free agent outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury to a ridiculous seven-year, $153M contract, not only did they likely say adios to second baseman Robinson Cano, but they also reiterated the fact that they simply don’t trust Brett Gardner enough to be their regular center fielder or leadoff hitter. Is he not capable of playing well defensively out there? Can he not get on-base at a reasonable rate? Is he not fast enough to steal bases and set the table properly for the heart of the order? Apparently not, if the Yankees continue to push him aside for every over-priced marquee name that looks their way. Forget about the fact that last season, his first real opportunity to play center field and bat leadoff, he posted a .271/.344/.412 slash line and played a strong defensive game. In Yankee-land, that’s role-player material, at best, worthy of move to left field and trip back to the bottom of the order.
As he quickly made his way through the farm system, Gardner seemed to be on the right path, headed towards being the newest home-grown Yankees center fielder and leadoff hitter. He showed strong plate discipline, a solid on-base percentage and fantastic speed. Maybe his strikeouts ran a bit too high at times , but his walk rate was outstanding and twice in three years he swiped 50 or more bases. He wasn’t incredibly strong against left-handed pitching, but he was still serviceable and had both time and room to grow and learn.
A cup of coffee in the majors in 2008 got his feet wet, but in 2009, Johnny Damon was vacating center and Gardner was ready to step in. With Damon and Derek Jeter around though, Gardener would have to wait his turn to bat first. He occupied the ninth spot in the order predominately, but he did get 46 at-bats atop the order and hit .304 from there with a .327 OBP. He also swiped four bases from there without getting caught. Nothing phenomenal, but solid enough to know that he was more than capable of handling the job.
However, the following two seasons, Gardner was pushed out of center field in favor of Curtis Granderson and while he garnered more work atop the order, he was forced to share the leadoff spot with Jeter and still found himself on the short end of that platoon in the beginning. In 2010 he saw just 96 at-bats from the leadoff spot and posted a .277/.383/.379 slash line with 12 stolen bases and an 85.7-percent success rate. He was afforded more work up top in 2011 when Jeter missed 31 games and while his overall batting line suffered due to a low (for him) .303 BABIP and an unusually high 19.6-percent infield fly-ball rate, he still hit better from the leadoff spot than he did from the nine-hole. Not as good as he was from the seventh or eighth spot, but definitely better than the ninth.
The 2012 season was a total bust due to injury. He played in just 16 games that year. But he certainly rebounded well from that with numbers we’ve already discussed. Did his walk rate suffer a little and his strikeouts spike last year? Yes on both counts. But he was also trying to be more aggressive at the plate, swinging at a vastly greater number of pitches than ever before. Ideal for a leadoff guy? No. Of course not. You want your leadoff guy to see a bunch of pitches and really set thing up for the rest of the team. But he’s been moved around so much and asked to wear so many different hats in the lineup, that you can understand why he would try to do too much when finally granted an opportunity he should have really been given four years prior.
While we’d like to think that, if given another chance, Gardner would be able to make the necessary adjustments to being strictly a leadoff hitter. He’d go back to being more patient, taking more pitches, walking more and in turn, stealing more bases. Unfortunately though, we won’t get to see much of that this year as he’ll go back to the bottom of the order…at least for the 85-90 games Ellsbury will be in the lineup until he breaks, tears, or sprains something.
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