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The Yankees need Brett Gardner’s peskiness at the plate in the ALDS

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What is the value of being a pain in the (pitcher’s) butt?

Miami Marlins v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Brett Gardner’s at-bat during the Yankees’ ninth-inning comeback to win Game Two of the AL Wild Card Series will probably be forgotten. With the bases loaded, Gardner struck out. It sounds silly to emphasize the importance of Gardner’s strikeout at that critical moment in the game.

Because striking out isn’t the desired outcome in that situation, the role of Gardner’s at-bat in the team’s come-from-behind win won’t receive as much attention as, say, Gary Sánchez’s sacrifice fly. Still, Gardner battled and fouled off three pitches before striking out. Gardner’s at-bat is a classic example of the way he can wear down opposing pitchers when he’s in the lineup.

Gardner’s ability to grind is a signature part of his approach at the plate and it’s also a skill that is hard to represent with statistics. It’s easy to track pitches-per-plate appearance, but quantifying the way a closer feels mentally drained after a tough at-bat is obviously a bit more complicated. Gardner’s famous at-bat against Cody Allen in the 2017 ALDS demonstrates just how good Gardner is at forcing pitchers to labor.

With the ALDS being played out over five consecutive days, the depth of the Yankees’ roster will surely be tested against the Rays. No matter who starts in left field, there will be a role for Clint Frazier to play, even if it has yet to be determined. If Gardner gets the start in left over Frazier, many fans will scoff at Gardner’s middling 110 wRC+. They’ll argue that Frazier’s power is more valuable. And Frazier’s power and improved plate discipline *is* valuable (I even wrote about it!), but I’d argue that Gardner is hot right now. To beat the Rays, the Yankees need Gardner’s postseason experience. The lineup needs Gardner’s tendency to grind out long at-bats just as much as they need Clint’s youth and superior slugging power.

Blake Snell will likely start on the mound for the Rays on Monday. Naysayers will be quick to point out Gardner’s weak numbers against lefties, and while it certainly is true that Gardner has struggled to hit against lefties throughout his career, his numbers against Snell buck the trend. They’re not great—Snell is one of the best pitchers in the majors, after all—but they’re solidly decent. Against Snell Gardner’s slash line is .286/.318/.429 in 22 career plate appearances. Frazier’s numbers against Snell pale in comparison to Gardner’s, though he’s only faced Snell 11 times and the sample size is too small to draw any definitive conclusions.

Gardner’s numbers against Charlie Morton, the number three guy in the Rays’ starting rotation, are even better. He’s posted a .308/.379/.731 slash line in 29 career plate appearances against the Rays’ righty.

That Frazier has never played in San Diego’s Petco Park is also worthwhile to note.

Between Frazier’s performance in the first half of this wacky 2020 season and Gardner’s hitting streak during the Wild Card Series against Cleveland, it’s understandable why Aaron Boone told reporters that it was a tough decision to start Gardner over Frazier in the Wild Card Series.

The two outfielders bring different attributes to the table. In a way, they are foils for each other: Gardner, the longest-tenured Yankee veteran and team leader. Frazier, a great talent whose playing career is just starting to take form. Gardner, who was and is still overlooked by many. Frazier, a highly-touted first-round draft pick. Gardner, very bald. Frazier, who wishes people would stop making a big deal about his red hair. For now, Yankee fans can enjoy the intrigue and debate over which direction Boone will take tomorrow.