Monday, September 5, 2011

The Pest Nobody Knows

By Neil Bright

Without saying a word in the ninth inning of an otherwise unmemorable game, the left fielder of the Yankees spoke volumes about who and what he is. With two outs in a hopeless contest destined to be lost by 6 runs, Brett Gardner refused to die.

Down to his last strike, he took a changeup wide for a 2-2 count. Pitch five of the at-bat was an 83 mph slider fouled off. Pitch six was a four-seam fastball in the mid-90s also fouled off. The next offering was a 93 mph heater off the plate for a ball. With the count full, more heat and another foul ball.

Rearing back for extra velocity, the pitcher delivered his ninth pitch of the AB. Making contact, Gardner punched a slow roller in the hole between first and second. Breaking from the plate as if running from the bulls in Pamplona, he sprinted toward first base. With batting helmet flying and a yard to go, he morphed into an undersized Superman launching himself at the bag. Skidding into foul territory, chalk flying up and in a uniform now suitably filthy for a Maytag moment, the pest nobody knows was safe.

There comes a time when a difference-making competitor is so noticeable that even if one knows little about sports, such ability is obvious. And there comes a time when followers of a team first realize that a young and unheralded player is a real deal keeper. For casual observers who may have been watching and for Yankee fans who were paying attention, July 15, 2011 was the time and Brett Gardner was the do-anything-to-win athlete.

At five-foot 10 inches and 185 pounds, it's easy to undervalue and overlook Brett Gardner. In uniform, it would be difficult to envision him as a weekend warrior accountant, let alone a professional baseball player. For Gardner, that "not big enough, not good enough" perception is nothing new. Yet watching him every game, it is hard to ignore his value as expressed by far more than numbers. And that value of leadership, unrelenting hustle, instincts for the game, and "bringing it" every play in every game has been evident well before donning pinstripes.

Not highly recruited out of high school, his true grit determination and can-do confidence so evident as a major leaguer was fully displayed in a 2001 walk-on tryout for the College of Charleston baseball team. Not hearing from the coach after the tryout, Gardner showed up uninvited the next day for the first official practice. When asked why he was there, he self-assuredly responded that he knew he could play at the highest collegiate level. And he was right.

Becoming a three-year starter, Gardner's .447 average in 2005 was third in the nation and no Division I baseball player had more than his 122 hits. And after his junior year, he was drafted in the third round to play for the New York Yankees.

Invited to spring training after just 45 class AAA games in 2007, Baseball America ranked Gardner as the Yankees' fastest minor leaguer, as having the best plate discipline, and as the 12th-best prospect in their minor league system. Never lacking confidence and without a single major league at-bat, when asked if he envisioned himself as one day starting in center field for the team whose legacy includes Joe DiMaggio and Micky Mantle, Gardner responded without hesitation: "absolutely."

Much as a superficial glance at Brett Gardner belies his ability and worth, casually analyzing his career statistics shortchanges him, as well. Since his first major league at-bat, he's been a career .267 hitter, has hit only 14 home runs, and has driven in slightly over 100 runs. Yet looking deeper into Gardner's numbers, it is clear why he is one player Yankee fans love and opponents love to hate.

A thorough examination of Gardner's less obvious statistics validates what "eyeball analysis" has always indicated. The fact is No. 11 with the no-quit motor does all the little things needed to win. In 2010, while seeing more pitches per at-bat than any other American League player, Gardner made contact on 93% of his swings, third best in the junior circuit.

In the American League, "the nuisance" has consistently been in the top 20 in walks per plate appearance, is currently eighth in pitches per at bat, and is tied for the league lead in stolen bases. Defensively, Gardner is second among AL left fielders in fielding percentage, second in assists, and first in "range factor," which is the total of putouts and assists per nine innings.

While it is easy to focus on superstars, every team needs players who unspectacularly go about their business until in a crucial situation a base must be stolen, a catch must be made, or a count must be worked. These are the often unnoticed and unappreciated "glue guys" without which few teams can win championships.

On a team of all-stars and Hall of Famers in waiting, one such "glue guy" emerged during spring training in 2008 when Yankee GM Brian Cashman said a young rather unimpressive-looking outfielder with "old school" socks and a no chance of making it 91 on his uniform was opening up a lot of eyes. Years later, the pest nobody knows still is.

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