Brett Gardner’s walk-off hit in yesterday’s game was a nice exclamation point to a recent stretch of strong performance. After getting off to an atrocious start to the season (.289 WOBA) in March and April) Gardner has largely rebounded to put up similar numbers to his strong 2010 season (where he was worth 6.2 WAR (according to Fangraphs). In May, Gardner posted a .340 WOBA, and he has posted a ridiculous .444 WOBA so far in June. After concerns that the league may have adjusted to him, Gardner showed that he was capable of adjusting back.
Overall, Gardner’s season line (.279/.358/.421) is quite similar to 2010 (.277/.383/.379), except that the OBP is lower (a consequence of a decrease of 3.5% in his walk rate) and a slight improvement in the power department. Through 65 games this year, Gardner has more than half the number of extra base hits he had over 150 games in 2010. Gardner’s decreased plate discipline and increased power can likely be explained by some slight changes in approach, as he is swinging the bat more frequently in all categories (in and out of the zone) than he did in 2010. He went to swinging at 31 percent of pitches in 2010 to almost 36 percent in 2011, not a huge difference. I wonder if the increased aggressiveness at the plate (which is still fairly disciplined compared to most hitters) is a conscious attempt at hitting for more power, or else a recognition that pitchers are going to throw him a lot of early strikes as long as he does not remain much of a power threat. Despite the extra swinging, Gardner’s strikeout rate is actually almost identical to last year, just .1% lower. This indicates that Gardner’s additional swings have mostly resulted in contact, and not too many have been at balls out of the zone.
Even while he was struggling at the beginning of the season, Gardner remained a valuable asset on defense. He has continued to be a sure-handed gloveman in left field, and has continued to demonstrate tremendous range. Gardner has yet to make an error on the season, is posting a UZR/150 of 26.6 (quite impressive, though slightly down from the 31.8 he posted in 2010), and is second in all of baseball in fielding runs above average (behind Minnesota’s Denard Span). I would be curious to see the fielding numbers Gardner could post in centerfield, as his value (measured in WAR) would be even higher if he were able to post similar numbers. The Yankees basically have an excellent centerfielder playing in left field, which is a huge luxury.
Gardner has done a lot of things well in 2010, but there are some definite areas for improvement. He has showed significant platoon splits, with a .299 WOBA against lefties and a .356 WOBA against righties. However, Gardner has only 30 at bats against lefty pitchers this season, as manager Joe Girardi has often benched him in favor of Andruw Jones. There is certainly reason to hope that Gardner will improve against lefties if given more reps (he posted a .332 WOBA against them in 2010), but at his current level of hitting lefties, I understand Girardi’s desire to get Jones in the lineup when a southpaw is on the mound.
Gardner’s base-stealing has been a source of frustration to many fans. In 2010, Gardner stole 47 bases and was only caught 9 times, but many fans were frustrated that he wasn’t more aggressive (going earlier in counts, stealing more often, etc.). In 2011, Gardner has 14 steals, but has already been caught stealing as many times as he was in 2010. I am not sure if he is getting worse jumps or bad luck due to running against pitchouts, but regardless, Gardner’s current success rate is actually detracting from his value. If he were to keep getting caught twice for every 3 stolen bases, he would be better off not running. That said, Gardner’s speed and ability to steal bases are an important part of what he brings to the table, so hopefully he can get his problem ironed out.
Another area of improvement for Gardner is bunting. Poorly informed announcers tend to assume that Gardner is a great bunter because he is small, fast, and white, but this is not the case. He has attempted to bunt 12 times, and has completed a successful sacrifice 5 times, legged 2 hits, and has been retired 5 times. Considering that bunting is not always the optimal decision in the abstract (according to win probability, run expectancy, etc), the fact that Gardner’s success rate is 58 percent (5 sacrifices+2 hits/12 attempts) is indicative that he is not a good bunter, and should probably not be called on to bunt as often as he has. I don’t think Gardner should stop bunting altogether, as his ability to beat out a drag bunt once in a while is useful for keeping defenses honest. While the bunt should be in his repertoire, it should be used a little more sparingly (and definitely not on a full count).
Additionally, Gardner could probably use some improvement in his performance against lefties, though this is not a huge problem. His WOBA is about 20 points lower against lefties (albeit in only 31 AB’s), but he probably needs to get more chances to show what he can do against lefties. I imagine he’ll be benched less for Andruw Jones going forward than he has in the past, but still will on occasion to keep Jones fresh and ready to contribute.
Gardner is likely at his peak this season, at age 27, but that peak performance is still quite valuable. Gardner’s speed, defense, and plate discipline are elite, and he combines those skills with good contact ability and the ability to be a pest on the basepaths. He’s never going to be a star caliber player, but to get 5+ WAR production out of a cost-controlled young player is incredible value. It will be interesting to see how he sustains his hot streak going forward, but one thing is for certain: The armchair managers on Twitter who were predicting Gardner’s demise were a little premature with that projection.
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