A good amount of the Yankee’s 2013 success will center on the play of speedster Brett Gardner. With the team’s major power sources (Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez) out for the foreseeable future, the Yankees will have to take a different approach to plating runs than they have in recent years. This approach will have to focus more on small ball, than on waiting for the big home run. Due to this necessary change, do not be surprised to see Brett Gardner atop the lineup on Opening Day.
Gardner has already been leading off the majority of games for the Yankees in spring training. He has been focusing on taking the ball the other way and has thrived so far, hitting for a .325 batting average and a .400 on-base percentage. The best aspect of Gardner’s hitting is his ability to drag out his at-bats and wear opposing pitchers down. Over his career, he has averaged 4.3 pitches per at-bat. Gardner told YES’ Meredith Marakovits: “I’m a guy who’s always been pretty comfortable hitting with two strikes. I don’t mind getting deep in the count. I plan on being more aggressive this year. I know my role is to see pitches, try to wear the pitcher down and get on base.”
When Brett does decide to swing the bat, he has been very efficient. When swinging at a pitch, Gardner makes contact a ridiculous 90.4 percent of the time. His combination of seeing a lot of pitches and making contact when swinging is perfect for the leadoff spot. Hypothetically, Gardner could lead the game off for the Yankees, make the opposing starter throw 5-7 pitches, and get on base. This would be a huge advantage for the Yanks. It would force the opposing starter to show most of his pitches against his first batter, while already wearing down his stamina early on in the game.
When Gardner reaches base, he causes even more problems for opposing pitchers. The best facet of his game is his speed. In 2011, he led the American League with 49 stolen bases. Over his short career, he has an 82 percent success rate (137-167) when attempting to steal a bag. If he ends up leading off for the Yankees, he will immensely help facilitate a small ball approach to scoring runs. With Jeter batting second after Gardner, there would be many opportunities for Brett to go from first to third. Jeter’s ability to take the ball the other way into right field could spark many hit and run possibilities for the Yankees.
The scary thing for opposing teams this season is that Gardner could wreak even more havoc on the base paths than in seasons past. Gardner has had a history of injuring his left thumb when sliding into bases. In 2009, he fractured his left thumb and eventually re-aggravated it two years later. This season, the Yankees training staff constructed a molded piece of fiberglass for Brett to wear over his left hand. The apparatus covers his entire left hand and protects him for injuring it while sliding into bases. This new device should help Gardner run with even more reckless abandon on the bases, while not having to worry about re-injuring his thumb.
After missing almost all of last season with a nagging elbow injury, Gardner is heading into the 2013 season fully healthy. He is optimistic that he will remain healthy and play in every game for the Yankees. His small ball approach to hitting should be highly conducive to the lineup that the Yankees will be starting out with come opening day. Do not be surprised to see Gardner have a big year for the Yankees, likely out of the leadoff slot.