Gardner’s a different hitter this year
During Brett Gardner‘s career, he has always displayed the perfect approach and skill set for a leadoff hitter. He takes a lot of pitches, draws walks, slaps the ball on the ground and runs like the wind. However, because of the Yankees loaded offense and the presence of Derek Jeter, Brett never settled into the leadoff spot for the Yankees until this year. Finally getting the opportunity to lead off everyday, for the first time in his career Gardner has not produced like a typical leadoff hitter. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but Brett is definitely getting different results.
He is still doing a fine job of working pitchers as he is 12th in the A.L. with 4.17 Pitches per Plate Appearance. However, he is swinging at more of those pitches, putting more of those pitches into play and Walking less. His Walk Rate is a career low 8.9% which has led to a semi-disappointing .333 OBP which is about 20 points below his career average. Per this Fangraphs article, he has is swinging at 42% of pitches this year which is a 8.3% jump from his previous 4 seasons – a bigger jump than anyone in MLB over the same period of time. He is also swinging at the 1st pitch more than twice as much as before and hitting the ball on the Ground less (from 51% to 40%).
But the results of this change in approach isn’t just a reduce in Walks and OBP%, Brett is driving the ball with much more authority this year. His 6 HRs are just 1 below his career-high and he’s also on pace for career-highs in Doubles and Triples. His .429 SLG% is 4th on the team behind only Cano, Hafner & Overbay and he is behind only the same 3 players for the team lead in RBIs with 26. For a leadoff man in a weak lineup to drive in that any runs is impressive and means he’s getting a lot of big hits. 15 of those RBIs have come on 2-out hits when he has done most of his damage this year hitting .322/.365/.525/.891.
Watching the games it’s evident Brett is more comfortable with his swing and driving the ball with more authority than any time in his career. Although his .265 Batting Average this yr is the same as his career mark, the type of hits he’s getting has changed. In his last 2 full yrs of 2010-11, he had 48 infield hits which made up 18.2% of all his base hits. This yr, he has legged out just 4 hits which is just 6.9% of all his hits. Speaking of legging it out, Brett has not had a great year on the bases with just 9 steals in 14 attempts – a far cry from the 49 and 46 SBs he had in 2011 & 10, respectively. I think there are 3 main reasons for this, the first being less chances. His SB opportunities have decreased because of the drop in OBP% and the increase in extra base hits. He’s simply been on First base less. The other reason is Robinson Cano has been batting 2nd most of the year. Cano is a free swinger and Girardi doesn’t want to send the runner too often with his best hitter at the plate. The last reason is he hasn’t been good leading off in the 1st inning with just a .208 BA and .296 OBP. That is the only time he’s assured of batting with no one in front of him but he’s struggled for whatever reason. I think that will level out and he’ll steal more as the season progresses.
Are these changes in Gardner’s game a good thing? I think they are. I’ve always thought that Gardner could put up better power numbers and a higher average because he has shown the ability in the past for spurts. But he always seemed conflicted between being the hitter he is now and the slap-hitting ground ball machine he often was. While I’d like to see him getting on base more often out of the leadoff spot, I like the confidence and more aggressive approach at the plate. The Yanks have been starving for run production this year and Gardner has stepped it up. If he can begin to incorporate the power gains with the Walks & SBs of previous years, he will really be something special. He’s also providing his offense out of CF now, where he should have been years ago. His defense has not slipped a bit moving from LF to CF and he’s truly one of the game’s best defensive OFs.