Wednesday, Chad Jennings wrote an article about Brett Gardner and how he has the “inside track” for the centerfield job. We’ve already discussed that quite a bit, so I wanted to talk about something else that caught my eye.
But those numbers hide two things Gardner has done better than any other outfield candidate in Tampa: He’s walked twice as often as he’s struck out, and two of his three hits were bunt singles. Dropping bunts and avoiding strikeouts have been two of the necessary adjustments to Gardner’s game.
I will not argue with the latter part. Gardner avoiding strikeouts is crucial. In both his Major League (.352 SLG, .096 IsoP) and Minor League (.383 SLG, .094 IsoP), Brett Gardner has not hit for nearly enough power to justify the amount of strikeouts he’s had. He made up for it in the minors with a walk rate that pushed 14%, but that wild success hasn’t followed to the majors. His walk rate is still okay at 8% in the bigs, but with his lack of power, we shouldn’t be expecting the walks to keep coming.
Gardner has not shown any power ability at the Major League level and once pitchers start getting hip to that, they will challenge him in the zone. They may think, “What’s the worst that could happen? This guy’s not going to take me deep. And, he may even get himself out with a strikeout.” The less power Gardner has, the more he’s going to be challenged. If he’s going to be challenged in the zone more, the walks will definitely decrease. There are two ways he can combat this. Well, there’s really only one. Developing power just isn’t going to happen for Gardner, so instead, he must improve his eye and put more swings on balls in the zone.
In 2009, he displayed a good eye. He swung at only only 17.2% of pitches outside of the strike zone, while the average hitter swung at 25.1% of balls out of the zone. Laying off of bad pitches isn’t Gardner’s problem. His problem is laying off of pitches in the zone. His zone swing percentage was only 50.7, 15.2 points behind the league average of 65.9%. This is something that could have contributed to Gardner’s relatively high strikeout numbers. While his K% (16.1) was lower than the league average (20.3), it’s a bit much for a guy who hits for as little power as Gardner does. Brett has to do a better job of recognizing good pitches and turning them into singles, with the occasional double.
The part of Jennings’ article I disagree with is the part about Gardner improving his bunting. While it’s good for a bottom of the order hitter to be skilled at bunting, I’m not sure how much sense it makes for Gardner. While he does have the speed to beat out good drag bunts, how often will that happen? A good part of Gardner’s offensive contribution is his speed on the basepaths. If he’s giving himself up through bunts, he won’t be able to get on base as much as when he’s swinging away or working a walk. A sporadic sac bunt out of Gardner will be a good thing since he’s not exactly a big bopper, but the more he works on bunting, the less he works on actual hitting (see above paragraphs). I’d much rather Gardner work on turning good pitches into singles than see him work on turning good pitches into bunts–be they sacrifices, drags, or foul balls.
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