This is why you don't make rash personnel decisions based upon three weeks of baseball.
On April 19, Brett Gardner, starting left fielder for the New York Yankees, was batting .128, the lowest batting average of any regular Major League player at that early point in the season.
In 15 games, Gardner went to the plate 53 times, reaching base only 10 times in that stretch. Along with his miserable average, he sported a .196 on-base percentage, and a meager slugging percentage of .191. Those two combined accounted for his embarrassing .388 OPS.
To put it succinctly, Gardner was looking over-matched at the Major League level. He was trying to employ a patient approach at the plate, but it wasn't working well, since pitchers were not afraid to throw him strikes. He quickly got himself into pitchers' counts in nearly every at-bat, suddenly finding himself staring at an 0-2 count in a large portion of his trips to the plate.
While attempting to replicate the on-base machine that he was during the 2010 season, Gardner couldn't get it going, and struck out far more often than he earned bases on balls. In addition to the uninspiring percentages he had early on, he had a 14 strikeouts to four walks ratio in 15 games.
It was quickly beginning to look like 2010 was a fluke and the Yankees were suddenly in need of a replacement in left field. Brett the Jet, one of the fastest players in the entire league, was even having trouble stealing bases. In six attempts, he was caught three times, a shocking development for a speed demon with an 86 percent success rate prior to 2011.
Critics jumped on Gardner, lambasting the Yankees for not pursuing a more established player like Carl Crawford, whom the Red Sox signed to a 7-year, $142 million deal during the off-season.
Gardner never appeared in sync at the plate, seemingly finding himself in an 0-2 count before even settling into the batters' box. His slap-style swing resulted in a bunch of frustrating pop-outs and worthless choppers to second, hits that even his speed couldn't salvage.
After 10 games as the Yankees' lead-off hitter, Gardner was replaced by Derek Jeter atop the order, and moved nearer to the bottom of the lineup.
Suddenly Gardner began to hit.
Over the next 30 games of the Yankees' schedule, Gardner totaled 103 plate appearances, reaching base 42 times, on 31 hits and 11 bases on balls. His on-base percentage was hovering around .420, he batted .352 over that span and he even started producing extra base-hits to the tune of four doubles, two triples and three home runs.
When looking at his overall numbers, they still have room to improve, but the drastic reversal from his earlier results are worthy of our attention. Gardner has increased his triple slash line to .274/.344/.422 with an OPS of .767 and an OPS+ of 111.
He also stole two bases in the loss to the Blue Jays on Monday, increasing his early total to eight. The fleet outfielder is still only 8-of-14, much lower than his 86 percent career mark, so I would expect that to improve drastically as the season progresses.
In addition to his offensive contributions, Gardner is ranked as the third best outfielder in the AL by Fangraphs, posting a 7.4 UZR. Trailing only Denard Span and Shin-Soo Choo, his range has been spectacular, repeatedly tracking down would-be extra base-hits to deny opposing hitters.
Considering his array of skills and contributions offensively as well as defensively, Gardner is well on his way to another 4+ WAR season. Impressive for a player that many saw as only a fourth outfielder type prior to his emergence as a legitimate, multi-faceted threat with the Yankees.
If Brett Gardner continues to produce the way he did in 2010, and has over the last 30 games of 2011, he may make himself a fixture in the Yankee outfield for the next several years.
Certain segments of the Yankee fan base are still warming to him, unaccustomed to rooting for a light-hitting speedster after years of watching slugging stars aim for the short porch in right field. Hopefully Gardner can continue his inspired play and earn himself a comfort level in the Bronx that will allow him to play his game without looking over his shoulder, wondering when the next big-name free agent will be imported to supplant him as the regular left-fielder.
He may not provide the power that so many fans crave, but to me, the energy that he brings to the Yankee squad is irreplaceable and not to be taken for granted.