Brett Gardner is fast. He can outrace most baseball players, and he won’t get caught too often by even the best of catchers. Victor Martinez, not a great defensive backstop, shouldn’t phase him, and yet, when faced with a prime opportunity to run and the perpetual green light, Gardner froze yesterday. His indecision could have cost the Yankees a shot at the game.
To set the stage, we return to the top of the eighth. Mark Teixeira had just hit a home run to cut the Red Sox lead to 2-1, and Alex Rodriguez followed that up with a single. A-Rod had stolen a base on Sunday night, but Joe Girardi wanted the sure thing. Although A-Rod’s spot could have come up again, the Yankees’ manager turned to his speedy weapon off the bench, and Brett Gardner was called upon to pinch run.
The entire stadium knew what would happen next. Gardner would take off and get into scoring position with no one out. The Yankees’ WPA would have been nearly 50 percent at that point, and Robinson Cano and Jorge Posada would have had the opportunity to plate the tying run by making two outs. Knotted at two, the game could have evolved into a battle of the bullpens while the Bombers would have enjoyed home field advantage. It didn’t work out as planned, and Mike’s recent analysis of Brett Gardner’s declining number of stolen base attempts seemed to predict this very situation.
The three-way face-off amongst Robinson Cano, Brett Gardner and Daniel Bard was an epic one, and Bard, to his credit, played it perfectly. He came set twice, held the ball for a long period of time and threw two fastballs to Cano. After coming set for the next two pitches, he twice threw over to first base. Each time, his time to the plate or to first varied, and Gardner couldn’t get a read on his move. The 1-1 pitch was a change-up, and the 1-2 pitch a fastball. Neither time did Gardner get a good read on Bard’s move. Two more pick-off attempts sandwiched a foul ball, and on the sixth pitch of the at-bat, when Cano had to protect the plate on 1-2, Gardner took off. The slow roller probably wasn’t hit hard enough for the Red Sox to turn two, and the chess game on the mound seemed to paid off.
In an ideal world, Gardner would be the Jacoby Ellsbury of the Yankees. The speed is there, but Gardner doesn’t have the instincts or daring of Ellsbury. Four times, the Red Sox’s center fielder took off during Monday’s game, and four times, Ellsbury beat the throw, including once on a pitch-out. Ellsbury knows he’s faster than Jorge Posada’s arm, and he knows how to read a pitcher’s move. As soon as the right-hander’s leg goes up, he runs. Gardner, on the other hand, did not. He should have gone on the first pitch and never went at all when it could have made a difference.
When Mike wrote about Gardner’s stolen bases here last week, he highlighted a quote from Gardner. “Early in the season I was getting on base a lot and running a lot, and my legs just got a little tired,” he said. “I need to start running more. I wish I had been running more recently in the last several weeks, but I will. When we need me to try to get into scoring position, I’ll try to…it’s just a matter of trying to be smart.”
I’m not in a position to ask Gardner about his mental approach on the bases, but it seems that he isn’t what baseball scouts would call a natural basestealers. He can rely on his speed but hasn’t mastered the mental art of knowing when to go and how to go. In fact, his reticence on the basepaths led the Yankees to employ Freddy Guzman exclusively as a pinch runner last year, and yesterday, it came back to bite them as the team never had a chance to use Gardner’s speed.
It’s very hard to teach fast players to be good baserunners. In his prime, Bernie Williams was a speedster in the outfield who never could run the bases well. Gardner, by virtue of his even better speed, can cover for his mistakes, but yesterday’s was a glaring one. He doesn’t seem to trust his legs; he doesn’t seem to run enough; and when the season is over, the Yankees will have to examine Gardner’s approach to the bases. With Carl Crawford, a stellar baserunner, available, Gardner’s hesitancy could weigh against his Yankee future.