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