Brett Gardner’s Just Doing What He’s Been Dared to Do

Several weeks ago, Drew Fairservice talked to Marcus Stroman about a pretty lousy start. There’s a lot in there that’s stuck with me, but in particular it was interesting to see what Stroman said about facing Brett Gardner. An excerpt:

A guy like Gardner, he battles. He’ll battle whatever pitch you’re throwing in there, he’ll foul off. He’s almost the guy you want to force him to put the ball in the play and whatever happens, happens.
You don’t want to be too “nitpicky” with him. He’s a great hitter but he’s not a guy you want to pitch around. If he gets a hit, he gets a hit. You don’t want to waste pitches.

The numbers have always suggested as much, but Stroman confirmed it from a pitcher’s perspective: the idea with Gardner is to make him put the ball in play early, because he’s only so much of a threat. He’s not a guy you want to be too careful with. He was just ranked the second-best bunter in the American League, and he didn’t get that good by chance. Gardner’s perceived as a pesky, disciplined slap hitter, and pitchers always try to be aggressive around the zone so as to not get unnecessarily fatigued.

As I write this, Gardner’s tied in home runs with Carlos Gomez and Adrian Beltre. He’s ahead of Yasiel Puig and Buster Posey. Gardner’s hit as many home runs as he hit in the majors between 2008 – 2012 combined. For years, Gardner was pitched to like he was one thing. That much remains true, but he’s not that one thing any longer.

So, we’ve got PITCHf/x data stretching back to 2008, which conveniently means we can cover Gardner’s whole career. Over that span, 422 players have batted at least 1,000 times. From that pool, 72 players have seen fastball rates at least one standard deviation higher than average. From that pool, 43 players have also seen zone rates at least one standard deviation higher than average. The average ISO of that group: .082. The highest mark is .126. Brett Gardner’s a member of the group, the group consisting of light-hitting players pitchers haven’t been afraid to challenge. Picking some other names, to demonstrate: Scott Podsednik, Placido Polanco, Maicer Izturis.

This season, 390 players have batted at least 100 times. There are presently 28 members of the not-really-feared-that-much group, Gardner included. The average ISO of the group: .082. The highest mark is Gardner’s .182. The next-highest mark belongs to Billy Hamilton, to give you some idea of the separation between Gardner’s power and the best power of the rest of the guys. Gardner’s still being pitched ultra-aggressively, but now he’s changed his approach to punish pitchers for their boldness.

Pitchers over the years have dared Gardner to hit for power. They’ve all but let him hit the ball fair, because they haven’t been concerned about the potential results. The risk of giving up a long hit was outweighed by the preference to not waste too many pitches, and only now has Gardner made a shift to take better advantage of the chances he’s steadily getting. Pitchers still throw Gardner a lot of hittable strikes and hittable fastballs. Gardner’s learning to deposit them in the seats.

Unsurprisingly, according to Brooks Baseball, Gardner’s hit 11 of his home runs this year off fastballs. He’s hit three off breaking balls, and one other homer is missing. Gardner doesn’t describe himself as a power hitter, nor should he, really, but he’s become a guy who has power as an option. At least, it’s an option for as long as pitchers continue to bet against his strength. From certain indications, Gardner started trying to make this transition last season, but only this season has he really settled in.

I say that because, last season, Gardner increased his swing rate at strikes. That’s carried over into 2014, and that’s a change from Gardner earlier in his career. Also, last season, Gardner started hitting more baseballs into the air. Through 2012, according to Brooks, Gardner’s groundball rate on strikes was 52%. The last two years, it’s 37%. So, clearly, Gardner was changing over time, and last year he did post a career-high ISO, despite ending with just eight dingers.

Yet now Gardner’s taken it to another level. He’s nearly doubled last year’s homer total, and here are his rates of balls hit in the air that have been pulled:

2008: 22% air balls pulled
2009: 22%
2010: 21%
2011: 26%
2012: injured (basically all year)
2013: 24%
2014: 34%

Through last year, Gardner pulled 24% of his balls hit in the air. This year he’s up ten percentage points, a sure sign of an altered approach. So where last year, Gardner hit for a little more power, now he’s hitting for more power still, and it hasn’t cost him elsewhere on the stat page. He’s still drawing plenty of walks, because he isn’t prone to chasing. He’s still running a high BABIP, because he can run and because he can hit the ball on a line. Gardner’s offense to the pull side is reaching new heights, but he’s still finding success up the middle and the other way. I’m not sure how much further Gardner can go in this direction, but it’s hard to ignore when a one-time slap hitter is slugging closer to .500 than .400.

For Gardner, this is a good development — not just because power is good, but also because Gardner’s greatest skill has been his athleticism, and that’s not going to improve in his 30s. As he loses some speed and range, more power can help to offset that and then some, so maybe Gardner won’t just burn out before his contract is up. He’s running a WAR of three and a half.

But the thing we do still have to see is what Gardner hits like in the event that pitchers ever change the way they pitch to him. The current approach is outdated, because now Gardner can hurt you, and now Gardner is worth being a little nitpicky. At this point he should be seeing so many fastballs and so many pitches in the zone, because he’s not a hitter of the Denard Span variety. Sometimes I wonder, what would happen if Elvis Andrus were pitched like Josh Hamilton? What if Josh Hamilton were pitched like Elvis Andrus? Gardner should see a different pitch mix, and if that ever happens — if pitchers don’t remain too stubborn — then we’ll see how much of the power sticks around. Adjustments. Baseball’s a never-ending sequence of adjustments in button-up pajamas.

But Gardner, finally, is taking advantage of the opportunities that pitchers have made no secret of providing to him. Pitchers have challenged Brett Gardner because they haven’t been worried about the pain. In 2014, now more than ever, Brett Gardner is bringing the pain. There’s no question of what’s going on. It’s now a question of what the opponents might do about it. So far the answer’s been pretty much nothing.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Francis C
9 years ago

This reminds me of the article you wrote on May 1, titled “It might be time to adjust to Anthony Rendon”. Pretty much the same thing happened there and the pitchers did adjust, as Rendon had a pretty terrible May, but then Rendon adjusted back and now he is somewhere in between his crazy April and terrible May. I would expect pitchers to adjust to Gardner and it will be interesting to see how he adjusts back.

Well-Beered Englishman
9 years ago
Reply to  Francis C

Fun fact: Anthony Rendon’s June was even better than his April. 160 wRC+. August isn’t looking to shabby, either, but it’s still early days.