Brett Gardner can run. Brett Gardner can defend in left field as well, if not better, than anyone in baseball right now. Brett Gardner can do many things on a baseball field, however he has yet to prove that he can be an offensive force throughout the course of an entire season.
Before the 2010 season, Kevin Long, the Yankees' hitting coach, was very complimentary of Brett Gardner, suggesting that he was capable of hitting between .270 and .280 with 65-70 steals and 100-plus runs scored. Long was quite prophetic, actually, as Gardner finished the year with a .277 AVG and 97 runs scored, though he did fall short of the stolen base number that Long threw out by around 20.
Watching Gardner closely throughout that year, though, there were far too many ups and downs in terms of production, and far too many streaks where he was hit or miss. For someone with his speed, this should never be the case.
As part of his response to this reality, Gardner dedicated himself to perfecting his bunting skills heading into the 2011 season. The thinking was that he could continue to get on base even when not feeling comfortable at the plate, and that he would be more apt to get hits the other way with the third baseman having to respect the bunt.
While Gardner did improve his bunting technique, he does not have a natural knack for it and his hands are simply not soft enough, at least not yet, for him to be considered a truly gifted bunter. He's adequate, at best, but it's his speed that makes him an effective bunter at times, not the actual act of bunting.
In the end, his bunting did not have an appreciable effect on his overall offensive performance, and it certainly didn't provide any relief as he endured a truly horrible August and September to close out the 2011 season.
Combined, he averaged .223 over those two months, and his OBP was an equally anemic .324 over that span. This was quite unfortunate, as he was actually flirting with a .300 season and trending towards 50-60 stolen bases when the bottom dropped out. Heading into the playoffs, then, Yankee brass could only hope for a turnaround offensively, knowing at the very least that he would still be providing game-changing defense in left.
Much to the relief of Yankeedom, however, something happened to Gardner on the way to the bottom of the sixth inning in Game 1 of the ALDS. With the Yankees up by just a run in a still-tight game, Gardner smacked a two-out, two-strike pitch up the middle and brought home two critical runs.
Though the Yankees would benefit from a Robinson Cano grand slam later in that same inning, stealing some of Gardner's thunder, the reality is that Cano does not get a chance to go yard if Gardner doesn't extend the inning. It was the turning point of the game, and the beginning of the end for Detroit starter Doug Fister.
In Game 3 of the ALDS, with the Yankees trailing Detroit and Justin Verlander in the top of the seventh, Gardner once again delivered a huge two-out hit, this time a double to left center off of Verlander that tied the game at four. Though the Yankees went on to lose the game 5-4, Gardner's hit, against a truly dominant Verlander, was further testament to how locked-in the Yankee left fielder has been.
Gardner again delivered in Game 4, this time with a rally-extending single to left in the top of the fifth that would ultimately see him score on a Curtis Granderson two-run double. The Yankees were up by just a run at that point, with A.J. Burnett on the mound no less, and so yet again Gardner was in the middle of the most critical rally of the game for the Yankees.
All in all, Yankee careers are often made or broken as the result of postseason performance. Gardner, through four postseason games so far, has certainly done a tremendous amount to help people forget a 2011 regular season that saw him regress offensively in many regards. If the Yankees advance past Detroit, and Gardner continues to play a major role in jump-starting the offense, his 2011 regular season will disappear altogether.