Brett Gardner’s New Life

Fairly ordinary business on Wednesday. The Yankees beat the Indians, in New York. Makes sense. CC Sabathia beat Corey Kluber. You’d expect that to happen. Sabathia went the distance. Sure, all right, his decline is overstated. Travis Hafner clubbed a two-run dinger. Sounds like ol’ Pronk! Brett Gardner mashed a three-run dinger of his own. Well, not unheard of. It was Gardner’s sixth dinger of the season. Okay, stop right there.

Pretty much every day, I scan pretty much every box score. It’s a way to compensate for not being able to watch all of the actual action. Box scores can help generate ideas, and failing that, they can at least keep one updated. Seldom am I surprised when I look at a box score, because I think I have a pretty good awareness of the state of the numbers. But somehow this escaped me. I only learned today that Gardner’s more than halfway to double-digit dingers. Granted, he’s only more than halfway as of today, but you know what I mean. This isn’t the Brett Gardner I’ve been aware of.

Last year, the Yankees led baseball in home runs by outfielders. This spring, much was made of the power absence, what with Curtis Granderson’s injury and the departures of Nick Swisher and Raul Ibanez. The Yankees were left with Gardner, Ichiro Suzuki, and Vernon Wells, with some kind of fourth guy, and things didn’t look promising. By no means has the Yankees’ outfield been powerful to date, but it hasn’t been weak. Wells began the year with a hot streak before cooling off. And now Gardner’s supplying some power out of nowhere. Used to be he was a patient, speedy, on-base sort who’d hit only the occasional dong. The current leaderboards are funny.

You know isolated slugging percentage. It’s SLG – BA. Simple! Gardner’s running an ISO of .164, after Wednesday’s performance. The league average is .150. We find Matt Holliday at .169. There’s Josh Hamilton at .166. Andrew McCutchen at .165. Alfonso Soriano at .155. The fact that Coco Crisp has an ISO of .201 tells you all you need to know about trusting the numbers at this stage, but we might as well linger for a minute over Gardner to see what might be going on, if anything.

Previously, 24% of Gardner’s hits went for extra bases. This year, he’s up to 34%, so this isn’t just a matter of doubles and triples slipping over the fence. It turns out this is a matter of a complete batting overhaul. Maybe that exaggerates things, maybe I’m being dramatic, but you can judge for yourself. There’s reason to believe this is kind of deliberate.

We’re going to compare 2013 Gardner to 2008-2012 Gardner. Conveniently, that spans the entire trustworthy PITCHf/x Era. A table of informativeness:

Split ISO GB% Fastball% O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% Contact% Zone% 1stSwing%
Old Gardner 0.103 51% 69% 19% 45% 33% 91% 55% 10%
New Gardner 0.164 40% 68% 25% 57% 42% 87% 52% 21%

I don’t even have to point the changes out. Gardner’s hitting way more balls in the air. He’s swinging a lot more aggressively, and that’s basically the whole of it. More swings at balls out of the zone, more swings at balls in the zone, more swings at first pitches. Gardner hasn’t seen a dip in fastballs, nor has he seen a marked dip in in-zone pitches. He’s generating completely different results.

Gardner, of course, still qualifies as patient. His O-Swing% is below-average, and his Z-Swing% is below average, and they aren’t below average by just a little. But, between 2008-2012, 507 players batted at least 500 times. Only Luis Castillo swung less often than Gardner did. This year, 219 players have batted at least 150 times. Gardner’s swing rate ranks 168th, around Drew Stubbs and David Murphy. Gardner isn’t a free swinger, but he’s a more free swinger, and that makes a difference since everything’s relative.

I did another comparison, between all 2013 players and those same players between 2008-2012, provided they had plate-appearance samples of 150 and 500, respectively. As you’d expect, there are very strong correlations between the two groups in groundball rate and the various swing rates. These are identifying characteristics, numbers that tend to stabilize pretty quickly if there aren’t changes being made. This is not new knowledge for you!

Compared to his 2008-2012 self, Gardner’s groundball rate is down 11 percentage points. Only Ian Desmond’s groundball rate is down more. Only seven players have seen bigger increases in O-Swing%. Only one player — McCutchen — has seen a bigger increase in Z-Swing%. No one has seen a bigger increase in overall swing rate. The top five:

It certainly doesn’t seem like a coincidence. Gardner was a slap hitter who seldom ever swung. Now he’s swinging more, and driving the ball more, and it’s hard to pretend like this is a fluke. Gardner’s batted nearly 250 times, facing more than a thousand pitches.

And Gardner’s wRC+ is 106. Before, it was 98. So it’s not like he’s conclusively improved, in that he’s still within the error bars. But there are changes, curious changes, changes I can’t seem to research. I dug around for articles about Gardner and Kevin Long for a while and couldn’t pull anything worthwhile up. There was talk of making Gardner more aggressive, but that was years ago. This year, it’s just a thing that’s been quietly happening.

What’ll be interesting is to see where this goes henceforth. There are strong negative correlations between ISO and Fastball%, and ISO and Zone%. The more powerful you are, the fewer fastballs you’ll tend to see, and the fewer strikes you’ll tend to see, too. Only Marco Scutaro and Ben Revere have seen more fastballs this season. Gardner’s Zone% is also well above average. Gardner’s being attacked like he was attacked before, when opponents assumed he was the same old Brett Gardner. Now he’s different, which might cause opponents to act different, which might cause Gardner to act different, which might cause opponents to act different, and I could go on but I won’t. Gardner might be responding to the way he was aggressively approached. So he might be approached more conservatively, and then we’d see how Gardner might adjust.

Ultimately it isn’t that important, because Brett Gardner isn’t any better or worse. His walks are a little down, and his strikeouts are a little up. You’d figure his BABIP will go down a bit on account of him hitting fewer grounders. Gardner remains a quality everyday player, a guy who doesn’t get enough credit for driving the Yankees forward. But adjustments like the one Gardner has made are rare, and worth identifying. Brett Gardner, at one time, made an impression on you. Impressions tend to last. This one should be tweaked. Brett Gardner isn’t the Brett Gardner you envision when you read the name Brett Garner.

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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9 years ago

Well he was injured for most of last year and 2011 was rough. I am pulling this out of my rear but I’m pretty sure the % of at bats he had that reached 0-2 without a swing was among the league leaders. Think Adam Dunn but not actually looking for a pitch to hit. He seemed to be content being that guy that walks and steals bases.

Of course now he isn’t that successful in stolen bases (9/14 so far) and I get the feeling he was being stranded more often after walks (weaker lineup around him, less success stealing). After 2010, it seems pitchers realized they could just throw two fast balls over the plate and immediately be up 0-2. I’ve always maintained that he needed to start swinging at those to keep them honest. I guess he finally has realized that.