‘Hart of the Order’
By Sean Hartnett
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When the 2011 season got underway, Brett Gardner struggled mightily from the leadoff spot.  Gardner’s troubles lead to fans question his ability as they pondered if his superb 2010 hitting displays were the exception rather than the rule.  It seemed to some that he either had a ‘one-off career year’ or American League pitchers had figured him out.

In actuality, neither was the root cause of his issues at the plate.  While reviewing video, Yankees’ hitting coach Kevin Long discovered a mechanical flaw in Gardner’s stride.  Joe Girardi dropped the .146-batting Gardner to ninth in the lineup on April 17th but maintained confidence in his leftfielder.

“We’re just trying to get him going.  It’s a place (leadoff) he hit all year last year and had success there.  I’m not saying this is a long-term thing.  We’ll move him down to see if we can get him going and if we do, we’ll move him up again if we want,” the Yankee manager explained to reporters at the time.

Gardner went to work with Long to rediscover his swing and began experiencing positive results.  Going into May 1st, his average stood exactly at the ‘Mendoza Line’ of .200 but by the end of the month, Gardner raised his average 50 points.  His confidence, approach and discipline continued to improve as the year progressed.

A scorching June average of .417 has rocketed Gardner’s average to a more-accustomed .282 and he’s recorded six multi-hit games out his last ten outings.  He is again looking like version of himself that a year ago led the major leagues in most pitches seen per plate appearance, a telling statistic for lead-off hitters.  Gardner was unequivocally the predominant top of the order batter in all of baseball in 2010 as his .383 on-base percentage was highest of all lead-off men.

When Derek Jeter returns from the disabled list, Girardi must play the ‘hot hand’ and continue penciling in Gardner as the first name on his lineup card.  There is no reason to shift Curtis Granderson out of the number two slot as he is enjoying an MVP-caliber season and is an expert at putting the ball in play and advancing runners.

Neither Gardner nor Granderson should have to make way for a .260 hitter whose on-base is .324, even if his name is Derek Sanderson Jeter.  Never one to back down from a challenge, it could be the motivation Jeter needs to pick up his mediocre 2011 numbers.  When Gold-Glove winning shortstop Alex Rodriguez was acquired to play alongside him in 2004, Jeter worked meticulously to earn his first career Gold Glove that season but that was when he was still in his prime at 29.

Jeter has always had a knack for proving his doubters wrong and the challenge to reclaim his full-time place at the top of the Yankee lineup would be the most arduous of his career.  Some will quickly point out that Jeter is batting .299 and carrying a .405 on-base percentage against lefties.  I’m still not on board if Girardi elects the easy route and demotes Gardner to the lower third of the order against left-handed starters and allows Jeter to lead-off in these situations.

I would never question Jeter’s desire but there is one vital reason why he shouldn’t lead-off in any scenario.  As he approaches his 37th birthday, his speed has greatly regressed and Gardner is one of the fleetest runners in the game.  Even taking into account Jeter’s strong numbers against left-handers, he doesn’t possess the speed required to advance from first to home plate.

Gardner not only has the speed to do so but can also steal bases at ease, putting himself into scoring position.  A vital statistic is scoring the opening run of a ballgame and whenever Gardner starts off the game with a hit, he’s a threat to steal second.  With his wheels and Granderson’s ability to move along runners, this could be the key to many Yankee victories.

Girardi must make best use of the weapons at his disposal and not placate Jeter because of his reputation and glittering career.  The time has come for Gardner and Granderson to become the new Yankee one-two punch.

Let’s hear your opinion on the Yankee lead-off debate…  Does Jeter deserve the right to continue the role when he returns or is it Gardner’s time?  Sound off below and send your tweets to @HartyLFC.

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