Thursday, October 22, 2009

Red Light, Green Light

At about the one third mark of this season, I became very vocal here with my belief that Brett Gardner deserved the lion's share of the playing time as the Yankees' centerfielder. His broken thumb in late July pretty much derailed any chance of that becoming a reality.

There was never any doubt that Melky Cabrera would be the starting centerfielder in the post-season, and buoyed by the strength of his ALCS Game Four, Cabrera's small sample size post-season numbers have been good. While some have suggested that Gardner start in place of the slumping Nick Swisher, that shouldn't happen, and I highly doubt it will.

Outside of it flying in the face of conventional wisdom, Joe Girardi seems to be infatuated with the idea of having Brett Gardner available as a pinch running option off the bench. While Hideki Matsui, and to a lesser extent Jorge Posada, make that a desirable option to have, I think the underlying thought process is faulty in something of the same way that the Joba to the bullpen argument is: it doesn't matter how good your late game options are if your early game options don't put you in a place to leverage them. That is, Gardner's speed shouldn't count against him. Don't hold him back because he's fast; if he belongs in the starting line up put him there.

That aside, something unexpected has happened in Gardner's last two pinch running appearances. After being successful in 26 of 31 attempts this year and 39 of 45 in his brief MLB career, Gardner has been caught stealing as a pinch runner in both of the last two games.

At the risk of blowing a small sampling out of proportion, I'm curious about this. Generally speedsters like Gardner have permanent green lights; they're free to go whenever they want so long as they're not given an explicit red light. I would assume that Gardner's operating under those conditions, but the situations in which he's decided to run in the last two games have made me wonder.

In Game Three, Gardner pinch ran for Hideki Matsui in the eighth. He was on first base, with no one out, trailing by a run. After a throw to first, on a 0-1 pitch, Gardner took off for second. Given the situation it was a risky move to begin with, given the count, it was even riskier. The Angels pitched out, Gardner was gunned down at second, and the potential tying run went from on base to the batters box. The Yankees lost 14.3% of win probability in the process, the most costly Yankee out of the game.

In Game Four, Gardner entered again in the eight, again at first, again with no one out. This time at least, the Yankees were up 5-1. After two throws to first, Gardner took off on a 2-0 pitch and got caught again. At least there was no risk of a pitch out that time. Because of the score, this time it only cost the Yankees 1.1% of win probability.

I'm wondering what exactly the thought process is here. Is Gardner perma-greenlighted and going on his own? Is he under express orders to go? As a pinch runner, does he feel like he has to run? In a situation like Game Three's, why is he not given a explicit red light?

I'm not anti-stolen base. In the right situation it is a calculated risk well worth taking. Gardner's SB in the tenth inning of Game Two of the ALDS was a good one. It put him in scoring position as the potential winning run, and his speed later forced an errant pick off throw that put him on third base with just one out. But I'm dubious of the two latest attempts, and not just because of the negative outcomes. I wonder if Gardner's becoming entrenched in his role as pinch runner/defensive replacement and trying to make something happen in each of his limited opportunities.


  1. I don't know for sure, but I think getting caught in a double-play after he DIDN'T try to advance from first earlier in the series has left him (or Girardi) feeling an obligation to run.

  2. Stultus Magnus10/22/09, 1:10 PM

    I was hoping that Gardner would get more playing time but after Melky's big night in Game 4, I doubt it will happen. I also agree that Gardner's speed is clouding Girardi's judgement as far as whether or not he should start.