The Problem With Brett Gardner

He does deserve props for the bunt. Courtesy of the AP

(Syndicated from An A-Blog for A-Rod)

Getting Brett Gardner back is going to be a huge boost for the Yankees this year.  His count-working ability and speed on the basepaths brings back a key missing element to the team’s offense and gives Joe another lead-off option, and that same speed makes him arguably the team’s best and most important defensive player wherever he is in the outfield.  When Gardner went down last season, the team’s speed went down with him, and getting that speed back is a huge blessing for a team that’s lost a big chunk of its power.  But Gardner’s speed can also be a curse, something that can and has gotten him into trouble before.  Nowhere was that more apparent than in his first at-bat of yesterday’s Monday’s game.

Top of the 1st inning, Gardner is leading off the game.  He slapped a grounder to the right side of the infield that Chris Davis had to range to his right to field.  Gardner raced up the line to try and beat Baltimore pitcher Brian Matusz to the bag and secured an infield base hit thanks to a headfirst slide into first base.  That’s right, folks, a headfirst slide into first base as the leadoff batter in the third Spring Training game of the year, the day after the team lost its best power hitter until early May.  There’s a time and a place for everything in baseball, but even the biggest baseball purists would agree that the top of the 1st inning in the 3rd ST game in late February is not the time nor the place for a headfirst slide into the bag.

This is where the downside to Gardner’s speed comes in.  If Gardner weren’t as fast as he is, that play doesn’t play out the way it did.  Gardner probably never makes it close enough to the bag to think he could beat a potential tag with a headfirst slide and instead runs through the base.  He may have still been safe, more than likely would have been out, but the risk of getting injured on the slide would be completely eliminated because it would never factor into the equation.  That risk of injury is what makes Gardner’s speed a detriment in these situations, and bringing it up is not just empty talk because we’ve seen Gardner get hurt before.

Gardner’s history with sliding headfirst is well-documented, and the rumor after the game yesterday was that Joe might have another word with him about ending the practice.  Gardner himself has always been firm in his stance that he gets to the bag quicker when he slides headfirst, and to this day I haven’t seen any study that disproves his claim specific to his own baserunning career.  What I have seen is Gardner bang up his thumb sliding into bases in years past, and injure his elbow sliding awkwardly to make a catch in the outfield last year.  Gardner has put himself in harm’s way on more than occasion with his speed, and if yesterday’s play in the 1st is any indication he still hasn’t learned anything from those past occasions.

The Yankees got by without Gardner last season and they’ve had enough quality bench players to get by without him before, but that trend might not continue this season.  The competition for the 4th outfield spot was already comprised of a couple of Major League has-beens and a bunch of unproven Minor Leaguers with little to no Major League experience.  It was already more important for Gardner to stay healthy and stay on the field this year, and that was before Curtis Granderson went down.  Now Gardner is even more important and yet he’s still choosing to put himself at risk of injury because of his speed.

Having not been blessed with any athletic gifts, I can’t speak from experience about what it’s like to be able to tap into those gifts when the moment calls for it.  Gardner can, and because he can he would probably the first one to tell you that in the middle of a play like that there is no thought, just reaction.  Gardner’s first instinct in situations where it could be a bang-bang play at the base or the difference between a great catch and a hit in the outfield is to dive, and he only has the opportunity to make those instinctual plays because of the tremendous speed he has.  That speed is the foundation of his entire baseball skill set and it’s what makes him valuable as a player.  It’s also what limits him as a player from time to time.  If we’re going to talk about a young prospect like Slade Heathcott needing to tone it down and dial it back a bit on the field every now and then, we should probably be saying the same thing about a veteran like Gardner, at least in ST games.  It’s in the team’s best interest for this season and in his best interest for both his immediate future and his long-term career.

Born in Dover, Delaware and raised in Danbury, Connecticut, Brad now resides in Wisconsin, where he regularly goes out of his way to remind Brewers fans that their team will never be as good as the Yankees. When he’s not writing for IIATMS and An A-Blog for A-Rod, he likes to spend his time incorporating “Seinfeld” quotes into everyday conversation, critiquing WWE storylines, and drinking enough beer to be good at darts.

6 thoughts on “The Problem With Brett Gardner

  1. roadrider

    Gardner himself has always been firm in his stance that he gets to the bag quicker when he slides headfirst, and to this day I haven’t seen any study that disproves his claim specific to his own baserunning career.

    The question is not whether there is any evidence to “disprove his claim” – its whether Gardner’s claim is supported by any evidence other than his own anecdotal, unscientific feeling about it.

    Yes, Gardner is a very fast runner but when he slides headfirst into 1B he’s no longer running – he’s diving and sliding along the ground. I have difficulty believing that those things are faster than continuing to run at full speed through the bag. After all one of the points of sliding is to slow you down so you don’t overrun a base.

    I’ll believe that diving/sliding into 1B gets you there faster than running when I see sprinters doing the same thing to get to the finish line in track meets.

    Baseball players believe in a lot of stupid things – like that those titanium necklaces have some kind of impact on their performance (and if they did shouldn’t they be banned as an artificial performance enhancer?). So, I don’t take Gardner’s evidence-free assertion about headfirst sliding seriously and I hope Girardi is able to convince him to stop doing it and not only in spring training. Then again, Girardi is the guy who had his ace pitcher issue an IBB to the third batter he faced last season so he might not be too credible on the issue of keeping things in perspective.

  2. tanzo

    I have coached kids in high school and in college in sprinting and hurdling. The fact of the matter is that we never want a runner in the air for any more time than necessary. I have taught that you should get your foot back on the ground as fast as possible in order to push off again and to maintain your speed. When you are in the air, you slow down, when your body hits the ground you are extremely slowing down. Speed comes from the powerful push off the leg gets from the ground. The more powerful push off the faster you go. Sprinters and hurdlers should not float, they should get the foot back down on the ground as fast as possible. There are drills to snap the leg/ foot back on the ground. Smooth but not float.
    The other issue is injury! Which has nothing to do with speed to first base. It’s about being smart, and Gardner is not being smart. They should fine everyone who slides into first $1000.00. IMHO

  3. Gardner shouldn’t slide head first into any base, not just first. However, it’s hard to fault him for instinct. Having played a fair amount, and possessed pretty good speed, I can attest to the compulsion. I am not claiming to have major league experience, but ultimately, the instinct is the same.

    I also agree with Gardner about it sometimes being quicker to dive into first base. Most of the time when you run to first base, the bag happens to be in your natural stride. However, on some occasions, you need to take one stutter step to avoid missing the bag. When that happens, the alternative is to take two steps instead of one, or dive for the bag. I firmly believe the latter is faster in these instances. Gardner apparently does too. And yet, having said that, it’s still not worth the risk of injury.

    It would be great if Gardner could learn to slide feet first into second, third and home, and avoid diving into first altogether, but with his speed comes close plays, which in turn trigger the instinct. In other words, it’s probably a risk the Yankees will need to live with.

  4. roadrider

    A stutter step when running at full speed would still be faster than sliding on the ground – friction, you know?

  5. Kel

    Since you never played high level sports, you cannot tell a high level athlete how he should play.

    Also, spring training? Really? How sick is it to claim a player has a problem because of something you saw in spring training!

    • Actually I can. That’s the beauty of living in America. I’m free to voice my opinion, same as you. I’m sure Gardner would disagree with my stance, which is why he keeps diving headfirst, but that doesn’t change my opinion on it.

      And this was not the first time Gardner dove headfirst into a base, so to chalk it up to “something you saw in spring training” is wrong on your part.

      For the record, I played 4 years of Little League baseball and had what I believe was 5 total hits in those 4 years. Also played 4 years of varsity HS lacrosse. If that’s not high level sports, I don’t know what is.

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