Gardner and Ellsbury Living Up To New Contracts

When the Yankees signed Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury to contracts this winter it represented a pretty big change for them and it has paid huge dividends so far.

The Yankees invested big money in two outfielders who are known for their speed, defense and contact hitting. Brian Cashman has never been one to hide his love for "big hairy monsters" who hit home runs, so the fact that he signed two non-power outfielders in one offseason was pretty surprising.

Also, when the Yankees gave Gardner a new four-year, $52 million contract it represented another change in philosophy. The Yankees never gave out contract extensions to players before their current deals expired, and it might have cost them Robinson Cano. Most other MLB teams have been locking up their young players early for years now, while the Yankees were lagging behind, so it was big of them to see what they were doing wrong and adjust.

The Gardner signing was an easy call, and the Yankees got a great value. According to FanGraphs, Gardner was worth an average of $20.7 million over his last three healthy seasons in 2010, 2011 and 2013.

He has gotten off to a great start this season, as he has hit .295/.367/.386/.754 with a 117 wRC+ and a .340 wOBA. Gardner's biggest problem still seems to be an issue though, which is his lack of aggressiveness stealing bases. He only has attempted two stolen bases in the first 13 games of the season, which is far too few for a guy with his speed and who has been on base as much as him.

Gardner has often not been aggressive enough at the plate either throughout the years, as he seemed to get down 0-2 in the count by looking at the first two pitches way too often. However, this year Gardner has swung at 57.8 percent of pitches in the strike zone, compared to 50 percent for his career.

Gardner will continue to be one of the most underappreciated players in MLB with his elite defense and underrated hitting skills.

Ellsbury’s seven-year, $153 million contract was much less of a slam dunk than Gardner’s deal. The biggest risk was Ellsbury’s injury history, as he has only played in at least 140 games three times in his career.

One thing that didn’t make sense was that the Yankees already had a similar player to Ellsbury in Gardner, who was getting paid a fraction of the cost, and still is even after his extension. Did they really want both of them in the same outfield?

Another thing that seemed puzzling was that the Yankees signed Ellsbury to that seven-year, $153 miilion contract, yet only offered Cano a seven-year, $175 million deal. Cano was a homegrown Yankee, was much more durable, the better player and played a more premium position.

However, the Yankees appear to be right about Ellsbury so far, as he is off to a marvelous start. He is hitting .362/.423/.447/.870 on the season with a 150 wRC+ and a .387 w/OBA. It would seem unlikely that he could keep those numbers up the whole season, although he did in 2011 when he finished second in the MVP voting.

Ellsbury seems to be the kind of player who you have to watch every day to get a true appreciation of his skills. Although, it is weird that Boston Red Sox fans and beat reporters do not seem to share the appreciation that I have gotten for him over his first two weeks in pinstripes. This nonsense tweet by The Boston Globe’s Pete Abraham from Sunday’s game is an example of that.

Ellsbury has shown great versatility in being able to bat third for the Yankees since Mark Teixeira went on the disabled list. The Yankees are still better off with him setting the table and leading off, but he has proved to be a capable third hitter.

Ellsbury has yet to hit a home run, so power has been the only thing yet to come around for him. Some were predicting that he could hit 20 home runs with the short porch at Yankee Stadium, and that is still a possibility for him.

Stolen bases haven’t been an issue for Ellsbury and they never are. He leads the American League with six stolen bases and has been aggressive on the base paths. That aggressiveness didn’t pay off for him Sunday when he made an awful out at third base to take away a run, but it is nice to see the Yankees have a player who can go from first to third on a hit with ease.

Gardner and Ellsbury have helped the Yankees achieve the balance in their offense that they were looking for. They are third in the AL in wRC+ (114), third in wOBA (.335), fifth in home runs (13), second in batting average (.273), third in OPS (.762) and first in stolen bases (11).

The Yankees are still fifth in the home run department even after getting off to a slow start in that area. It seems like a good possibility that the Yankees can finish in the top three in the AL in stolen bases and home runs, which would be a great thing.

A theory to the Yankees’ struggles in the postseason over the last decade has been that they were relying too much on the long ball to score runs. That is tough to prove since the postseason is always a small sample size. If the Yankees are fortunate enough to get to the playoffs this season, we will see if having a more balanced offense with Ellsbury and Gardner leading the way will change things.

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Brett Gardner's defense

For years Brett Gardner has rated as the best defender in baseball. He's accumulated tons of runs saved according to UZR, shagging flies and diving for balls ... in left field. Gardner's defense was difficult to assess fully because he was playing out of his natural position. In addition, in a game that now uses relative measures to value defense, Gardner was being compared to inferior defenders. Left fielders are not center fielders. Typically they are among the worst defensive players on the field, while center fielders are among the best. This favorable comparison, it was often suggested, juiced Gardner's UZR results.

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Rays score only three runs, but that was good enough to beat Yanks 3-1

The Yankees can't score runs. The team got seven hits on the day, but Brett Gardner and Zoilo Almonte got three and two of those respectively, which meant that the rest of the team wasn't in a position to knock them in. Gardner scored the sole Yankee run on the day, as Rays starter Chris Archer pitched six innings of one run ball.

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Chris Stewart and Brett Gardner help Yankees squeak past M's, 2-1

Felix Hernandez showed up today in a big way for Mariners. Lucky for the Yankees, David Phelps also brought his A game. The King did precisely what he's paid to do. He gave the Mariners seven innings of one run baseball, allowing just one run on five hits with two walks while striking out seven. Felix looked a little shaky in the beginning of the game. His pitch count was in the forties after just two innings. But he settled down and dominated the Yankees, as he always does. David Phelps matched Hernandez almost pitch for pitch. He gave the Yankees six innings of one run baseball, allowing three hits and three walks with six strikeouts.

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Gardner Getting It Done Lately

Gardner vs TB

(Syndicated from An A-Blog for A-Rod.  Stats are as of Wednesday afternoon.  Gardner's gone 2-9 w/ 1 R in the 2 games since)

Amidst the scores of struggling bats, one man has been flying under the radar and quietly putting together a really nice month.  That man, if you were unaware, is Brett Gardner.  I almost didn't realize it myself until a day or two ago, so I'm sure hopeful there are a few more of you out there who didn't realize it either.  After a slow start to the year and some slightly disturbing swing trends, Gardner has really come around and been both a spark at the top of the order and a stud in the field in May.  Were it not for his contributions this month, the Yankees would likely be out a few more Ws.

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Brett Gardner retains his value

Unsurprisingly, Robinson Cano is the most valuable Yankee this season, in terms of fWAR (1.7). He's slowed down a bit from his hot start, but Robbie is still putting up a .378 wOBA. When you do that at second base you'll make yourself a high cost commodity, no matter how bad your defense is. It's the second name on this list that may surprise people. Once again, Brett Gardner (1.4 fWAR) rates as one of the most valuable Yankees, so long as you like defense.

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Where Was Brett Gardner Last Night?

Matt Wieters, Brett Gardner

To not see Brett Gardner's name included in last night's lineup was more than a bit surprising.  There hadn't been any reports of him being sick or injured, the team was coming off a scheduled off-day for travel and had actually had 2 scheduled off-days in the last 5 calendar days, they were playing in the notoriously offense-friendly Coors Field, and Gardner has been the best defensive player and one of the best all-around players on the team so far this season.  Yet there he was, plopped on the bench while Joe elected to send arguably the weakest lineup of the season out there to play, not score, and lose.

Joe's explanation for this decision was, as you'd expect, matchups.  The Yankees were facing another left-handed starter last night in Jorge De La Rosa, and Joe wanted to put another righty bat in the lineup.  Unfortunately, the only available righty bat on the bench is Ben Francisco and that's where the decision making train starts to come off the tracks of logic.

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Just one more day ...

Tonight, the 2013 Major League Baseball season begins, with the Texas Rangers playing the Houston Astros. The most beautiful thing about the baseball season is that it changes how I spend my leisure time. Nothing on TV tonight? They always play baseball. Can't think of something to do after work? Call a buddy and watch some baseball. Don't know how to spend time on a sunny afternoon? Upper deck tickets are cheap on Stub Hub and the 4 train moves fast. 162 games plus the playoffs means something to do, something to watch and something to talk about for half the year, and in terms of weather it's the better half of the year. After the gift of always having something entertaining to do, my second favorite thing about the baseball season is following story lines. Most Yankee fans are upset because the team enters 2013 in the weakest state that it has been in since 2008. Not only is the team not favored to win the AL East, but many believe the team will miss the playoffs. Win or lose, challenging seasons at least give fans like me more story lines to follow. When the Yankees put a juggernaut on the field and it demolishes its opponents every success was essentially scripted and only the failures make headlines. When the team is predicted to struggle, as it is this year, then new story lines will emerge, not only about failure but also about unexpected success. If the Yankees are going to make the playoffs they're going to need to get strong performances from a number of players who are not household names, especially while household names Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson are on the DL. Here are some of the story lines I'll be following during the first month of the season:

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Gardner Makes A Change In His Batting Approach

As I watched Brett Gardner extend his hot start in Spring Training last night, I wondered how the slap hitting outfielder could be making such good contact. I watched a few of his 2013 at bats, and then went back to 2012, and then I realized that he's made a key change. Take a look at the GIF below and see if you can spot it. gardnerhands

Gardner is no longer keeping two hands on the bat, and is taking a one-handed follow-through immediately on point of contact with the pitch. In 2012, Gardner's two-handed approach at the plate was more reminiscent of a power hitter, rather than the contact and speed he usually uses at the plate. Prior to 2012, Gardner used this same one-handed approach, and it's a mystery as to why he ever changed.

At first I thought it had to do with injury, but he was keeping both hands on the bat prior to his injury in 2012. Perhaps it was to get more power, as it's understood that you can generate more energy from your hips with a two-handed follow-through. The benefits of the one-handed approach include keeping your head steady on contact, and thus a better ability to keep your eye on the pitch, as well as keeping your torso in the hitting zone. Coach Dan does a great job of explaining the benefits here.

Over at Bio-Kinetics, they compared a 3D skeleton swinging the bat with the one-handed approach (in this case Mark McGwire), and that of a two-handed approach. Although the timing is different, you can see that in the follow-through, the head area stays in a much more stable position.

What's the better approach? It's been debated, but in the end it's about the batter's preference. For Gardner, a one-handed follow-through makes the most sense since he's looking for contact over power.

The outfielder is now 11 for his last 19,. Yes, it is Spring Training, but there are few hotter hitters. Correlation does not imply causation, and we can't assume that his decision to go back to the old swing has made him a .579 hitter. This hot streak obviously won't go on forever, but at least he looks incredibly comfortable with the change in his approach. Hopefully it'll help him return to 2010 type numbers.

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The Problem With Brett Gardner

(Syndicated from An A-Blog for A-Rod)

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 Monday'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.