A good pinch runner can make a huge difference in a must-win game, and this is something that the New York Yankees know as well as anyone. It's a lesson they learned way back in 2004, and their teacher was none other than Dave Roberts.
Roberts, as both Yankees and Red Sox fans well know, was the one who stole second base in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS off of Mariano Rivera, eventually coming around to score the tying run. From there, it was pretty much downhill for the Yankees, who would go on to become the first team in major league history to blow a 3-0 lead in a postseason series.
Here we are eight years later, and the Yankees are toying with the idea of having their very own Dave Roberts for the stretch run of the regular season and beyond in the person of Brett Gardner.
Gardner has been out almost the entire year with a bad right elbow, but Jeff Bradley of The Star-Ledger has reported that the speedy left fielder could be activated off the disabled list in a matter of days. If and when he is activated, the plan will likely be to use him merely as a pinch runner and as a defensive substitute.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi first floated this notion last week, telling Bryan Hoch of MLB.com that Gardner's speed and defensive ability could make him an asset in "a crazy game" (i.e. a game similar to Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS).
Gardner definitely has the pedigree and the track record to be a legitimate stolen-base threat in a pinch. Combined between 2010 and 2011, he used his considerable speed to rack up 96 stolen bases, more than any other American League player. He was caught stealing only nine times in 2010, the fewest of any player with at least 45 thefts.
There is, however, cause for concern in regards to Gardner's ability to steal a base on command. He's undoubtedly a top-notch base-stealer, but opposing teams were a little wiser to his act in 2011 than they were in 2010. Of the 13 times he was caught stealing last season, 12 happened when he was trying to steal second base.
To put this in perspective, Gardner was caught stealing second only eight times in 2010. To put it in further perspective, Roberts stole 38 bases back in 2004 between his time with the Dodgers and Red Sox, and he was caught stealing second base only twice all season. When he broke for second, it was practically a given that he was going to make it.
That had as much to do with Roberts' brain as it did his legs. He wasn't the fastest guy in the league back in 2004, but he flat-out knew in his head when it was the right time to go. As good a base-stealer as Gardner may be in his own right, the cerebral aspect of base-stealing is something that he hasn't quite mastered yet.
The other thing to keep in mind where Gardner is concerned is that he hasn't had the chance to hone his skills as a base-stealer this season. He hasn't played since mid-April, and he only had seven opportunities to steal a base when he was playing this season, according to Baseball-Reference.com. He may be a bit rusty coming off the disabled list.
It also remains to be seen whether or not any wear has accumulated on Gardner's legs. The Yankees obviously wouldn't be thinking about activating him if they didn't think he was still fast, but asking him to cut loose after five months on the DL is asking a lot.
The other thing the Yankees don't know yet is if Gardner can hit. The sentiment last week was that Gardner was "not close" to being able to swing a bat against major league pitching. While he insisted otherwise to The Star-Ledger, it stands to reason that the Yankees won't take any chances with Gardner's elbow if they don't think he can hit major league pitching. The last thing they want to do is put his 2013 season at risk.
Gardner doesn't need to be able to hit in order to help the Yankees out as a pinch-runner. But if they also want to use him as a defensive replacement, the possibility of Gardner being unable to hit could lead to a dilemma.
One assumes that the Yankees' plan is to only use Gardner in the field when they have a lead to protect, but what would the Yankees do if their lead somehow disappears and a given game heads to extra innings? Gardner would be taking up a spot in the lineup, and the Yankees would have to decide to either let him hit or take him out and replace him with somebody else.
If they don't think he can hit, then Gardner may be strictly limited to games in which the Yankees have three or four-run leads, the likes of which are only lost when the other team is racking up extra-base hits. It's either that or risk taking him out if the game goes into extra innings. And if it comes to that, the Yankees would then be without their top pinch-running option.
Where the Yankees can learn from the 2004 Red Sox is in the reality that the Red Sox didn't bother to use Roberts in the field all that much in the 2004 postseason. For that matter, he barely played at all, appearing in only three games and logging a grand total of zero at-bats.
The only reason we remember Roberts is because he was able to steal a base when the Red Sox needed one. It helps that he also scored the tying run of Game 5 of the 2004 ALCS, which the Red Sox went on to win in 14 innings. That goes to show how big of an impact a pinch runner can make, even if he doesn't do anything else.
Presently, the Yankees are light on options in terms of players who could conceivably pitch in with a well-timed stolen base and a run scored. The stolen base hasn't been a huge part of their offense to begin with this season, and most of their top stolen base threats are starters who won't be coming off the bench anytime soon.
One guy who could fill the role of a base-stealing pinch-runner is Eduardo Nunez, who has 11 stolen bases in 13 opportunities this season and has 38 steals in 46 opportunities in his career. He stole 22 bases in 28 opportunities last season.
If the choice is between Nunez and Gardner, however, there's little question that Gardner is the better option for a limited pinch running role. In addition to elite speed, what Gardner has that Nunez doesn't is a reputation. He'll have a pitcher's attention as soon as he takes his lead off first base, and that could force said pitcher into making a mistake.
As such, the Yankees won't necessarily be wasting their time (not to mention a roster space) if they choose to only keep Gardner around so he can serve as a pinch runner. All it will take for them to look like geniuses is a timely steal or a mental mistake on the part of the opposing pitcher that gets Gardner into scoring position. Regardless of how he gets there, he could then easily give the Yankees a much-needed run.
Getting much-needed runs by a means other than the long ball has been a problem for the Yankees this season, in no small part because they've simply lacked the personnel to play small ball.
Provided his legs are a lot healthier than his elbow, that's something Gardner could change for New York in the playoffs. If he does, they'll be able to reap the benefits both in the final days of the regular season and perhaps well into October.
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