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“Do I wish I had done it more in the past? Do I wish I was better at it? Absolutely.”
Brett Gardner asked those questions during a conversation I had with him late last week. What was he talking about?
Gardner is easily one of the fastest guys in baseball. We know he can run. Gardner has stolen 86 bases in 101 tries since his debut in 2008. He also has 15 triples. Two of Gardner’s 8 career home runs are inside-the-parkers. In one game last year, Gardner had 3 infield hits.
Speed has never been the issue.
So why hasn’t Gardner’s greatest asset, his pure foot speed, become a greater weapon through one of baseball’s oldest and best methods of getting on base? It’s a mystery to many around the Yankees, including Gardner himself to a degree. It’s something they continue to work on, and it’s something they hope will turn into a greater part of his offensive game… and hopefully soon.
Brett Gardner wasn’t always afraid to lay down a bunt. In fact in 2006, in just half a season at AA-Trenton, Gardner legged out 18 bunt hits in 251 plate appearances. That’s an average of one bunt hit every 14 PA’s. Since reaching the majors, however, Gardner has only 9 bunt hits in 995 PA’s, or an average of once every 110 PA’s.
Meeting somewhere in the middle would actually be sufficient. According to data from baseball-reference.com, Kenny Lofton averaged a bunt hit every 47 PA’s and Juan Pierre every 40 PA’s. Lofton and Pierre are two of the fastest guys and best bunters of the last twenty years, and ideally the type of player the Yankees want Gardner to become.
So what’s holding Gardner back from bunting more? Here’s his answer:
Gardner isn’t being stubborn, he just seems a little uncertain. As he alluded to, perhaps there was so much time devoted to working on his swing and trying to prove he can hit big league pitching and be an everyday player, maybe he just lost the knack for doing what used to come so naturally.
And it’s not like the coaches haven’t been trying to get him to do it more. Joe Girardi has mentioned more than once how he’d like to see Gardner bunt more. Coaches Rob Thomson, and Mick Kelleher have spent hours working with Gardner, while Hitting Coach Kevin Long has implored Gardner to use bunting as a tool to avoid prolonged slumps.
Gardner does the extra work, but still hasn’t been able to make it translate on the field:
As Gardner explains, sometimes the opportunities aren’t there based on the infield playing in. But he also acknowledges that a well-placed bunt can beat even the most prepared defense. It’s still a play that makes major leaguers nervous. Just go back and look at the Detroit Tigers in the 2006 World Series, when their bunt defense turned them into the Bad News Bears.
Just showing bunt more will make Gardner a more complete offensive player, a point that’s not lost on him:
Talking about bunting, practicing bunting, and knowing he has to bunt more are all important parts of this grand plan to get Brett Gardner to use all his talents in the proper way. But there’s only so much talking and practicing can do. At some point the words have to translate into actions, and Gardner knows it:
Gardner enters this season healthy after off-season wrist surgery. The injury, which occurred last June 27th, bothered him so much that Gardner hit just .233 the rest of the season after hitting .321 for the first three months.
Combine good health with an already keen ability to take pitches and get on base (Gardner led all major leaguers in 2010 with 4. 61 pitches seen per plate appearance and despite his second half slide led the Yankees with a .383 OBP) and the 27-year old Gardner appears ready to take the next step as a baseball player.
Now all he has to do is just get a few bunts down.