August 23, 2010

Business As Usual for Joe Gardner

Aug. 23, 2010

Indians Prospect Insider

With two weeks left in the minor league regular season, when talk starts to come up about the Pitcher of the Year in the Indians' farm system there will be no shortage of candidates to talk about.

One of those names who most certainly will be near the top of the list - if not on top - will be High-A Kinston right-handed pitcher Joe Gardner, a former Gaucho and a 2009 All-Big West First Team pick.

Gardner, 22, is having about as big a season a pitcher can have and has burst onto the prospect scene for the Indians. As a 3rd round pick out of UC Santa Barbara last year, he certainly came with the draft pedigree considering where he was taken, but his performance to date and how well he has adapted professionally was not expected, at least to this degree. His excellent season will have him knocking on the door to be on many of the offseason Top 10 prospect listings for the Indians, and deservedly so when you look at his numbers this season.

In a combined 25 starts this year between Low-A Lake County and Kinston, Gardner is 11-5 with a 2.93 ERA. He's been a workhorse logging 132.0 innings and baffled hitters to the tune of a .195 batting average against him. He has allowed just 6 home runs, has a 9.0 K/9 (132 strikeouts), and has been a groundball machine with a sensational 3.34 GO/AO. Those are some impressive numbers, and really are only rivaled by Double-A Akron duo right-handed pitcher Alex White and left-handed pitcher Matt Packer.

Since being promoted to Kinston in early May, Gardner has continued to pitch well. Usually there is an adjustment period a pitcher or hitter has to go through when moving up to a tougher league, but Gardner has settled in so quickly and well that he could add to his hardware collection and be named the Carolina League Pitcher of the Year if he finishes strong in his final couple of starts for the K-Tribe. Currently he ranks tied for 2nd in the league for wins (10), 4th in ERA (2.86), 8th in strikeouts (94), and 4th in WHIP (1.08). He also leads the league in hit batters (17), which is six more than the next pitcher.

With his performance to date, Gardner is satisfied with how he has done in his first full season and really his introduction to pro ball as he did not play last year after being drafted because of an oblique issue which sidelined him all summer. He dominated in the Fall Instructional League, and it has been business as usual all season for him this year.

"I feel great," said Gardner in a recent interview for the IPI. "I can't ask for much more. You just have to keep the ball down especially being a sinkerballer, and basically that is what I have been trying to do every start."

Gardner is a big, strong, physical pitcher who throws a 91-93 MPH fastball that touches 94 MPH with late heavy sink and excellent movement down in the zone that produces a ton of groundball outs. He complements the fastball with a solid-average slider that gets up to 80 MPH, and has a feel for an average changeup that shows decent fade.

Gardner relies on his sinker heavily, throwing it over 80% of the time, so it is the development of his slider and changeup which are really going to be the key in making him a more complete pitcher and also help him stay in the rotation as he continues to move up in the system.

"I have been really working on my changeup, especially to righties and being able to throw it to both sides of the plate," said Gardner. "It is developing really well, and I believe I can throw it 3-2 or 2-0 to a righty if I want instead of just throwing it straight to a lefty. I feel really comfortable and have gotten some strikeouts to righties, and obviously to lefties because it helps my sinker a little bit. My slider is going well too. I tightened it up a little bit in the offseason and it has probably been one of my out pitches all year."

Seeing how Gardner did not pitch professionally last season - though threw a lot in college and made up some innings in Fall Instructional League - one has to wonder how his body has held up over the duration of his first full season and logging so many innings. According to him his body has never felt any better, and he is in tip top shape and feeling strong as the season rounds third and is heading for home.

"My body is feeling good," said Gardner. "I have done a great job with the strength and conditioning and staying within myself and not trying to do too much and maintaining and staying in shape. I have lost quite a few pounds. At the beginning of the spring I was about 225 and now I am about 210 and maybe even a little lighter than that. I just try to eat healthy and stay away from all the fast food."

Over the course of the season there have been few if any changes to Gardner's mechanics and approach. He has been so consistent all season long from outing to outing that it has been more about just keeping things in line with his routine and adjusting to the daily day-to-day grind of being a professional baseball player.

"I just try to stay ready every five days and do the steps I have to do with my preparation for my next start so I can go out there and perform at the highest level," said Gardner. "I just pitch to contact and get some groundballs. I just try to not do too much and stay within myself."

Always the consummate teammate, at the moment Gardner is 100% focused on team goals more than his own personal goals as the season winds up. With Kinston right in the thick of the playoff chase in the Carolina League, his highest priority at the moment is to get in the playoffs and win the league championship.

"I would like to win the league, as that would be real nice," said Gardner about his year end goals. "I think we have a great team. We are pretty solid everywhere now as the lineup is good and our pitchers are great. So I think we should be able to win it."

With Gardner anchoring the top of the Kinston rotation, they have a great shot.

Follow Tony and the Indians Prospect Insider on Twitter @TonyIPI. His new book the 2010 Cleveland Indians Top 100 Prospects & More is also available for purchase on Amazon.com or indiansprospectinsider.com.