February 2, 2011
The Constant Gardner
Brett Gardner has a plan. It’s a simple one, and it was rather effective for him in 2010. The plan is this: he waits until he gets a pitch to hit. Hey, I told you it was simple. Last year he swung at the first pitch he saw in just seven percent of all plate appearances. No batter in baseball watched the first pitch go by more often than Gardner. The top five in that regard, as well as the league average that Gardner was miles away from, are below:
Gardner applied that first pitch patience to the remainder of his plate appearances, swinging at just 31 percent of all pitches. Again, that was the lowest rate in baseball and well below the league average of 45 percent. Since he’s swinging so infrequently, it would follow that Gardner is seeing a ton of pitches in each plate appearance. He doesn’t disappoint; here are the five batters who saw the most pitches per plate appearance last summer.
In 2010, Gardner, on average, saw almost one full pitch more per plate appearance than the “average” major league hitter. Not only did he outpace the league average by an astounding margin, his 4.62 pitches per plate appearance was the highest among qualified batters since at least 1988 (which is as far back as the data at Baseball Reference goes). It was quite the historic season for Gardner, and he didn’t even need to take the bat off his shoulder to achieve it.
While patience may be a virtue, I’m not so sure this is the case for Gardner. Over 48 percent of all strikes that he sees are called by the umpires. Again, that’s the highest rate in the majors by far and exceeds the major league average of 28 percent. Home plate umpires in Yankee games have a bunch of issues to deal with anyway (at least according to Joe West); they should be eligible for overtime for each Gardner plate appearance.
Gardner’s strikeout rate may be a bit on the high side, but don’t discount his patience at the plate playing a major role. Gardner gets punched out by the home plate ump in 43 percent of all strikeouts, the third highest rate in the majors (Boston’s Marco Scutaro was called out on strikes in 58 percent of all his strikeouts, a rate that just boggles the mind). Because Gardner is looking for that perfect pitch, apparently no matter the count, the called third strikes, and by extension the high strikeout rate, are just something that is going to happen.
Only Gardner knows this for sure, but it’s certainly possible the tendinitis in his wrist he played with for most of the season may have had something to do with his extreme patience at the plate. He also experienced a grade one sprain of his left thumb in early June. The thinking along those lines says that it hurt so much to swing, that Gardner made sure that every swing counted. Like a cagy base stealer picking his spots to run, Gardner took the same approach at the plate. He’s always exhibited patience at the plate, but never like he did in 2010.
Gardner came out of the gate with bats blazing, hitting .326/.405/.415 through his first 155 plate appearances, along with 17 walks and 19 strikeouts. Part of that liftoff was fueled by a 92 percent contact rate and an extreme .368 BABIP. Gardner’s contact rate fell ever so slightly during the season (he finished at a still-healthy 90 percent) but his batting average on balls in play regressed a little closer to the mean. Over his final 415 plate appearances, Gardner posted a .327 BABIP, yet hit just .257 over that span. The culprit was the strikeouts. While his overall contact rate remained high, his proclivity to keep the bat on his shoulder, particularly with two strikes, effectively negated his above average BABIP.
From May 20 to the end of the season (the time frame I referenced above), Gardner’s most likely outcome of a plate appearance was a strikeout, which occurred in just over 20 percent of all his plate appearances. One has to wonder what his final totals would have been if he had just swung the bat a little more frequently.
Gardner underwent wrist surgery in early December and is expected to be ready for baseball activity when camps open at the end of the month. Since Gardner has limited power potential (he owns a career .100 Isolated Power and posted an ISO of .103 last year thanks to a career-best five home runs) the surgery shouldn’t have the same kind of effect it would on say, a slugging 1B/DH type. Gardner’s game is based on speed and the ability to reach base. He finished with a strong .383 OBP, and his 47 steals were the third best tally in the AL, so even with the injury that may have led to an adjustment in approach, in the overall picture, he did exactly what was asked.
However, his hot start inflated his overall numbers (particularly BA) in 2010 and has likely elevated his value as we head into the upcoming draft season. Gardner’s maximum fantasy value lies in leagues—like Scoresheet—where OBP matters. His high contact rate and ability to work the count make him an ideal leadoff man, but there’s the matter of Derek Jeter clogging the top of the order. Should Gardner be fortunate enough to move to the head of the Yankee lineup card, his value in traditional roto leagues (where runs count) would increase.
If Gardner is on your draft (or auction) day radar, pay attention to the noise and the numbers coming from the Yankee camp. If there is talk about Gardner being behind because of his recovery from surgery, or if it appears he’s keeping his patient approach from last summer, I would move in another direction. At any rate, in traditional roto for what is essentially a one dimensional player, be careful that you don’t jump too early or pay too much. There are much more versatile fish in the outfield universe, even if the shine of those steals makes him look like an attractive catch.