Brett Gardner and Baseball's Most Entertaining Runners
We've entered a new era of baseball history over the last few seasons. General managers, advertisers, fans and everybody in between are no longer mesmerized by home runs like they were during the "Steroid Era." People are tired of one-dimensional sluggers like Adam Dunn, David Ortiz, Mark Reynolds, etc., who embarrass themselves in the field or whenever their swing doesn't connect for a home run.
They've realized while such players certainly have a niche on Major League rosters, they aren't very valuable in what has become a pitcher's league characterized by deep bullpens (see the Braves, Rangers or Yankees) and unhittable off-speed pitches.
Many of the veteran faces in the middle of MLB batting orders are being surpassed by their teammates hitting at the top or bottom: the fast guys.
In today's game—with homers becoming increasingly rare—this other ability makes an impact in defensive scenarios, on the bases and the instant the ball gets put in play. In lieu of power, speed is now the sexy trait we're looking for first in an individual.
Everybody wears it differently, and in my opinion, the quickest guys aren't always the most attractive. Baseball's "runway" is between the foul lines. I like runners who capture my attention with their distinctive sprints. Here are the best looking of the bunch—players who I find are a ton of fun to watch run.
Emilio Bonifacio (INF): Florida Marlins
2011 season: Bonifacio struggled to find playing time with Florida last season, but now Jack McKeon pencils him into the starting line-up every day. It would be unwise to allow such a weapon to rust on the bench. Bonifacio fills in at whatever position is available— he is currently at shortstop with Hanley Ramirez on the DL—because his inconsistencies in the field are well-documented.
One of several Dominican dashers in this slideshow, Bonifacio leads the majors with 21 stolen bases since the start of July, a period that has included a 26-game hitting streak. This will be the closest he has ever come to a full season, and his career-best triple-slash of .291/.360/.373 is evidence of his improvement since debuting in 2007.
As a runner: Short and stocky by MLB standards, Bonifacio isn't exactly "graceful" on the diamond, nor is he a physical, NFL-style runner. He really shines on extra-base hits where doubles turn to triples and triples to round-trippers (see video above). While his acceleration isn't outstanding, those fast-swinging arms allow him to maintain speed when there are a few hundred feet to cover. Bonifacio has hit three home runs since the start of 2009—two have been of the inside-the-park variety.
Peter Bourjos (OF): Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
2011 season: Speed doesn't always show in a player's statistics. Peter Bourjos, for instance, has only as many stolen bases (16) this season as Bonifacio had in the month of July (16), but just as much velocity in his step. You see it more in his fielding, where Bourjos stepped in as a ROOKIE and moved perennial All-Star Torii Hunter from center to right. He has established himself as one of the world's top defensive players in fewer than two full seasons.
However, he's no slouch with the bat in his hands. The triple you see here is one of nine Bourjos has hit in 2011 (2nd in AL). Only a handful of American League players have maintained a higher slugging percentage than him while stealing more bases. For comparison's sake, that elite company includes names like Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson and Dustin Pedroia.
As a runner: At 6'1" and 185 lbs., Bourjos is taller and lankier than Bonifacio. The difference is that you're going to want to stare at this guy's legs, not his arms. I haven't taken a formal measurement to prove it, but I'm convinced Bourjos takes more steps per second than any other MLB player while running. He's like a BLUR! He is one of three white guys in this slideshow.
Michael Bourn (OF): Atlanta Braves
2011 season: Meanwhile, Atlanta's newly acquired center fielder Michael Bourn boasts his quickness during both halves of an inning. He has swiped more bags (45) than Bonifacio and Bourjos combined in 2011 and plays Gold Glove-caliber defense—literally—he has two consecutive Gold Gloves!
Surprisingly, speed doesn't usually translate into flawless fielding, and among notoriously fast players in the game today, only Ichiro has won more hardware (10 straight Gold Gloves). Bourn has developed into an asset on offense. He has matured from a .229 hitter into a batting title contender in only three seasons. With a more fluid swing, his slugging percentage has increased nearly 100 points in that span.
As a runner: Bourn's initial burst is crucial to his effectiveness. I don't think any Major Leaguer accelerates quicker! That allows him to get an excellent jump on the bases and coast towards fly balls in the outfield without the concern of "getting there" in time.
Dustin Pedroia (2B): Boston Red sox
2011 season: Didn't think I could go shorter than Bonifacio and Bourn? Think again! Dustin Pedroia is among the littlest men in the Majors...and among the best. I hate to admit it—being a huge Yankees fan and all—but the Red Sox's second baseman is a complete player.
Pedroia, the only former MVP on my list (2008), is having a similarly impressive 2011 campaign. He cracks the AL Top 10 in stolen bases, runs, walks and consequently, on-base percentage, while just missing in batting average and OPS. He is the front-runner to win another Gold Glove and an incredibly clutch hitter. If that weren't enough, Pedroia is batting clean-up with Kevin Youkilis on the disabled list! What a guy!
As a runner: It's fascinating to watch him fly, mainly because I can't explain how he does it! His body resembles an oompa loompa's more than a track star's! His game is anything but smooth. We see him chug around the bases as if constipated and sprawled on the infield dirt to snag tough grounders.
Perhaps the charm is in his hustle. As corny as it is, he comes to play and will carry the team on his back if he has to. Pedroia isn't pretty, but he gets the job done. Scratch that: He does a great job.
Cameron Maybin (OF): San Diego Padres
2011 season: Meanwhile, Cameron Maybin receives far less notoriety. (I bet half of you didn't even know he was in San Diego.) A highly touted draft pick in '05, Maybin is enjoying a breakout season with the Padres, hitting .275 with power, playing awesome defense and stealing 31 bases.
Actually, Maybin's success rate on steal attempts (91.2 percent) is tops in the majors among players with 20 or more tries. Unfortunately, his team stinks. Also, it must be tough for him to get into a rhythm, considering he has hit in eight different slots in the order.
As a runner: Size-wise, Pedroia and Maybin are on opposite sides of the spectrum—that's why I love baseball, because so many different styles can be successful. Although he has put some meat on since debuting with Detroit a few years ago, Maybin is still rather lanky. He takes long strides to get from A to B, the kind of running you would see from B.J. Upton (Rays) and Andrew McCutchen (Pirates). So graceful!
Brett Gardner (OF): New York Yankees
2011 season: Ah-ha! Here's my cover boy! Gardner is probably the streakiest player of 2011. Early on, he wasn't contributing anything on offense, struggling to make contact and getting reads off the pitcher once reaching base. Keep in mind that this was a player who stole 47 bases the year before!
Well, he got back on track in a big way, at one point stealing 22 consecutive bases without being caught. His average flirted with .300 in early June and mid-July. Overall, his career is developing very much like Bourn's. Their ages, defensive reputations and statistics are astonishingly similar since 2008.
As a runner: Gardner's running style is a combination of several I've already mentioned. It begins with Bourn-like acceleration, which contributes to his base-stealing efficiency. Gardner can protect himself from pickoffs by taking slim leads, yet compensate by reaching his max speed almost immediately. Then throw in the Bonifacio body type and technique. Actually, Gardner possesses a bit of that NFL physicality I mentioned in an earlier slide (the guy has some impressive quads). Finally, incorporate Pedroia's intangibles, the mindset that he's always playing with something to prove and belief that smooth baseball isn't always the way to win.
Put it all together, and you get Brett. He's a complex hybrid of other elite ballplayers culminating in a distinct result.
Jose Reyes (SS): New York Mets
2011 season: I've saved the best for last. As much as I love Gardner, Jose Reyes has played like an MVP when healthy. He leads baseball with 16 triple—some of which would have been home runs if not hit at the cavernous Citi Field—and a .336 batting average. Reyes would also be setting the National League pace in runs and stolen bases had he not already missed a month with hamstring injuries.
His defense is much improved, as is his ability to put balls in play (only 30 K in 428 AB). Reyes has been the No. 1 must-see attraction in the majors this season, and hopefully he returns to the Mets next week.
As a runner: The only way I can think to describe Reyes is "athletic." He is the fastest player I've seen—period. I can imagine a pack of cheetahs booking him for an appearance just so he could put on a running clinic. He has flawless technique. It's how I'd want my kids to run.
Who Turns You On?
Considering that 26 of 30 MLB teams have a player at (or on pace to reach) 20 home runs in 2011, you could conclude that power is pretty ubiquitous, right? Well, the king of basic speed metrics—stolen bases—is even more convincing: all but one Major League club has a player with double-digit steals this season.
Yeah, speedsters are EVERYWHERE! I don't get a chance to watch them all, so tell me: Who's missing from my list? What other "beauties" thrive on the runway? Why do they make running fun? A simple identification is all they need—social networking will take them the rest of the way (see "The Legend of Sam Fuld").