At the end of the Yankees’ three-game series with Toronto on July 4th, Brett Gardner was looking pretty good. He had hit home runs on two consecutive days, a grand slam and an inside-the-park homer, and was sporting a glorious .319/.401/.434 line. There was great rejoicing. There was the toasting of Brett Gardner. There was was the toasting of Brian Cashman. There was the toasting of the lack of need for signing Carl Crawford. There was the toasting of using the extra money to sign Cliff Lee and invest in the 2016 Justin Upton Fund. And no one called him gritty or gutty. It was wonderful. Since then, though, things haven’t been so rosy. Since July 4th, Gardner is 14 for 77, with 10 singles, 4 doubles, 0 triples and, obviously, 0 home runs. This amounts to a batting line of .182/.330/.234, an OPS of .564. So what’s up with Brett?
There are a few obvious culprits. The first one is the easiest one: sample size. Yes, it’s been a solid month of exceptionally poor performance. At the same time, it’s only been a month of exceptionally poor performance, and Gardner has only racked up 95 plate appearances. 95 plate appearances aren’t enough to draw firm conclusions about anything. Further, it’s possible that we’re seeing a bit of authorial bias by yours truly. After all, I was the one that decided that 7/5 would be the cutoff date for Good Brett and Bad Brett. It does make sense to try to draw lines to determine where a slump started and evaluate how bad it actually is. However, running the data back to, say, 6/19 would yield a batting line of .248/.367/.333. Changing the parameters might lessen our perception of how bad the slump actually is.
Another explanation for his struggles would be his batted ball data. As I’ve examined before, Gardner seems to be the type that relies on a high BABIP, particularly on ground balls. When I calculated his expected BABIP several weeks ago, his BABIP was an sky-high .360. I concluded the following:
xBABIP doesn’t see the high fluctuation in BABIP to be completely anomalous, and gives him a score of 0.336…Of course, it’s entirely possible that his BABIP could stay in the .350-.360 range for the entirety of the season…But ultimately we don’t know what to expect from Brett Gardner going forward. Name me another player in the major leagues who has built a career off .390 OBPs, high BABIPs, little power and tons of speed, who refuses to swing at pitches outside or inside the zone and who doesn’t play RF for the Mariners. They’re certainly out there, but they’re few and far between.”
Since July 5th, Gardner’s BABIP is .264, which brings his total BABIP down to 0.338, almost exactly what his xBABIP predicted weeks ago. So, it’s possible that this is simply regression back to his predicted norm.
There’s another explanation, though. On Tuesday, July 8th, Gardner “dinged” his thumb during his third inning an at-bat against Kevin Millwood in the 12-7 victory over the Orioles. At the time, Gardner said the following:
“There’s nothing going on in there like last year…Hopefully, it’s nothing and I’ll just be day to day…There’s definitely a little bit of discomfort, so first things first, let’s get an X-ray.”
Girardi sounded a bit more worried, saying “It’s probably happened to him 20 or 30 times since the injury, and it always comes back the next day…This time, it didn’t come back, and that is a concern”.
It is a concern. The thumb injury could be preventing him from gripping the bat properly, hindering his ability to drive the ball with power. But if this isn’t the result of the injury, and if Gardner’s reasonable baseline expectation is a .320-.330 BABIP with a 0.280/0.375/0.380 line, what do the Yankees do in the outfield in 2011? Do they try to sell high on him and deal him? Do they keep him and Granderson, and hope for Granderson to improve? Or do they attempt to unload Curtis Granderson and his OPS of 0.765 since the start of 2009? Granderson is due to earn $8.25M in 2011 and $10M in 2012, so if they were able to find a taker for his salary, they might free up enough cash to be able to sign Carl Crawford and move Gardner to center. Regardless, whether it’s the result of a wild variation in a small sample, regression back to an expected norm or the result of a thumb injury preventing him from gripping the bat the way he would like, Gardner is struggling. Thankfully the Yankees have good playoff odds and should have time to rest him down the stretch if necessary.
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