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April 18, 2013

Overthinking It

Brett Gardner Gets Aggressive

by Ben Lindbergh

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Brett Gardner’s approach at the plate used to be simple: bend at the knees, let lots of balls (and strikes) go by, and wait until he walked. Pitchers can’t always throw strikes, even when they’re trying to, especially when the batter doesn’t have a big zone. Gardner consistently made pitchers pay for poor control with plate appearances like this one, from April 29, 2011:

Show bunt a couple times, take a couple pitches over the plate, watch a borderline ball four. It was a formula Gardner practiced to perfection. The quintessential Gardner game was on September 4, 2011, when he reached base four times, three times via the walk and once with a hit by pitch. In those four plate appearances, he saw 17 pitches without swinging once (save for one bunt attempt, which went foul). From 2010-2011, Gardner averaged 4.40 pitches per plate appearance, more than anyone else in baseball. And he swung at only 33.7 percent of those pitches, fewer than anyone but Bobby Abreu.

Gardner’s skills beyond the batter’s box complemented his ability to get on base; once he worked his way on, Gardner got even more dangerous. Over the same two seasons, he led the American League with 96 stolen bases (to go with an 81.4 percent success rate), and his 16.4 BRR trailed only Juan Pierre, who made almost 300 more plate appearances. Between his knack for avoiding outs, his talent for taking the extra base, and his defense in left and center (his 2010-11 total of 20 FRAA ranked 11th overall), the homegrown Gardner gave the Yankees—a team accustomed to paying through the nose for free agents—almost eight wins for under $1 million.

Gardner missed almost all of 2012 with an inflamed elbow that led to bone spur surgery last July. Now he’s back at full strength, and one of the few under-30 staples of an ancient Yankees lineup. But so far this season, Gardner has looked like a different guy. Entering last night’s game, he’d hit more fly balls than ground balls, stolen zero bases, and offered at 47.1 percent of pitches, above the big-league average of 45.2 percent and 33rd among the 119 batters who’d seen at least 200 pitches. On Wednesday afternoon, I spoke to Gardner and Yankees batting coach Kevin Long to find out whether we can expect those three trends to persist all season. Let’s take them one by one, in order of importance.

More Fly Balls
Verdict: Not real

From 2010-11, Gardner had a 52.8 percent groundball rate, 10th-highest among qualified hitters, and the third-highest infield hit rate behind Ichiro Suzuki and Austin Jackson. But his spate of fly balls to start the season didn't mean much. Unlike Willie Mays Hayes, Gardner hasn’t fallen in love with the long ball and lost sight of how he reached base before. He hasn’t made any mechanical adjustments to his swing, and he’s not trying to elevate.

“I hit several balls in the air when we were in Detroit, but I haven’t been trying to hit more balls in the air or anything like that,” Gardner said. “My job is, especially when I’m trying to hit the ball opposite field, trying to hit the ball on the ground and get on base. That’s my goal.”

Long echoed the same sentiments.

“We really haven’t talked about hitting the ball in the air, you don’t want a speed guy to make his outs in the air,” he said. “A lot of his outs in the air have been line drives or hit fairly decent. I don’t want fly balls. Certainly a live drive or in between a fly ball and line drive—those will work as well. But I think that’s just a matter of him getting the head out a bit more and being a bit more aggressive and saying, “I’m not going to be late.” And any time you do make your contact point out further, you’ll hit some more fly balls.”

Three of Gardner’s four batted balls on Wednesday were on the ground. Expect more of the same ahead.

Fewer Steals
Verdict: Real, but probably temporary

Gardner has attempted only two steals thus far. Both attempts were unsuccessful. And there’s a reason why he hasn’t been in motion more.

“My job is to get on base, especially with the way our lineup is right now,” Gardner said. "[Robinson] Cano’s hitting behind me, so I need to get on first base, and stay right there. It’s not a case of me trying to get on and steal second and leave first base open. I’m trying to leave that hole open for him.”

With the Yankees short-handed, Gardner is trying not to take the bat out of their best hitter’s hands. If you drafted him for your fantasy team expecting lots of steals, you’re probably not pleased. But you can expect this to change next month, when the anticipated returns of Curtis Granderson, Derek Jeter, and Mark Teixeira should lengthen the Yankees’ lineup and provide more protection for Cano. Gardner’s legs are too good to be underutilized all season.

More Swings
Verdict: Real

How often a player swings is one of the most significant statistics in a small sample. According to Russell Carleton’s original research, swing rate stabilizes in under 40 plate appearances. Calling a statistic “stable” is a little misleading, since that word suggests that it won’t change; what that threshold really represents, according to Carleton, is the point at which the stat “can be considered to be saying something about an individual player.” Gardner’s swing rate, before last night (when he swung at only five of the 20 pitches he saw), had risen by 11 percentage points compared to 2011, and also compared to his small-sample 2012. That’s a big difference. Odds are the difference won’t be as big by the end of the year, but if it were, it would qualify as the biggest full-season increase of the PITCHf/x era, and the second-biggest change in either direction. (Jonny Gomes went from swinging at roughly half of all pitches in 2010 to swinging about as often as Gardner in 2011.)

Maybe some visuals will drive the difference home. Here are Gardner’s swing rates by zone in 2010 (left) and 2011 (right). (Click to expand.) Even in 2011, when he swung a bit more often, he still took every other pitch over the heart of the plate.

And here’s 2013. Unless you're completely colorblind, you'll notice that it's no longer almost entirely blue:

Unlike the increase in fly balls, the increase in swings is the result of a conscious effort by Gardner to adjust his approach at the plate.

“I’m trying to be a little more aggressive and getting good pitches to hit earlier in the count,” he confirmed.

I asked him if he felt that his old, ultra-selective strategy had caused him too miss out on too many hittable pitches.

“Of course, that’s part of it,” he said. “It’s kind of an uphill battle. It makes for a long season, if every count you’re 1-2, 0-2.”

But Gardner still wants to avoid making too many quick outs. And he still doesn’t want to swing just for the sake of swinging. He wants to swing only when it’s likely to lead to good contact.

“That’s still a big part of my game, working the count and seeing a lot of pitches,” he said. “I saw a lot of pitches [on Tuesday], and I was aggressive and that’s good—fouling pitches off instead of putting balls in play weakly.”

According to Long, this is something that’s been in the works for a while.

“We’ve talked about it in years past, but I think that was one of our focal points coming in, to attack early and a bit more than he has in the past,” the batting coach said. And so far, Long likes what he sees. “It’s something we’ve discussed that could be an advantage to him, and thus far, he’s done a good job. He’s taken advantage of some guys coming at him.”

Like Gardner, though, Long emphasized that the lefty’s new look would work best in moderation.

“One of his strengths is his strike zone discipline, and work in deep counts,” Long said. “You don’t want to get too far away from that, but certainly, to pick his spots.”

Okay, so Gardner has decided to swing more. How does he decide when to do it? Long explained that it depends on the pitcher.

Tough lefty the other night, [Wei-Yin] Chen—why not take a shot? … There’s going to be guys where it’s not going to be a good idea to do that, and there’s certain guys—yeah, go ahead and take a shot. A lot of times before he goes up to bat, he’ll ask, ‘Is this a guy?’ And we’ll say, ‘Yeah, this is a good guy to do it on,’ or ‘No, this isn’t the guy.’

Whether a pitcher is suitable for early swings comes down to what he’s likely to throw and how susceptible he is to Gardner’s grinding, death-by-a-thousand-balls tactics from past seasons.

You kind of look at the matchup and think about how this guy’s going to pitch him. If I think he’s going to come at him and his command is good? Does he tend to come at guys with fastballs, or is he a finesse-type pitcher? Those guys work deeper in the count.

We’re only a couple weeks into the aggressive Gardner experiment, so both Gardner and Long are still in exploratory mode. “It’s all a work in progress,” Gardner said. “If it goes the other way, we’ll have a little sit down and discuss that, but right now, he’s doing a good job,” Long added. “We’ll continue to monitor and make sure it’s going in the right direction.”

Ultimately, the change in swing rate comes down to the cat-and-mouse, game theory-influenced mental battle between batter and pitcher. If Gardner takes a ton of pitches, he’ll walk a lot, which would be good. But if pitchers become accustomed to never seeing him take the bat off his shoulder, they won’t be afraid to throw the ball over the plate, especially in light of his subpar power. And if Gardner doesn’t counter and keep pitchers honest with occasional hard contact, those walks will turn into strikeouts looking, which would be bad.

Still, there’s some risk that more contact could be counterproductive. For someone with his speed, Gardner doesn’t have that high a BABIP, and he’s maxed out at 34 extra-base hits, even with several triples a season. His best offensive season remains the one in which he swung the least, although not swinging now might not work as well as it once did. Long hopes that the new Gardner can be as selective as the old one when it pays to be, but better able to capitalize on opponents’ mistakes in the zone.

I’m hoping we see some more hits, and the walks stay close to what they were. You might see a little more strikeouts here and there, but I don’t think it’s going to be alarming. I think what we’re trying to do is add a little more threat to him—doubles or triples—where they just give him a cookie down the middle and he’s able to do a little bit more with it.

In the short term, at least, this could be good for Gardner, assuming he can stay disciplined and make wise decisions about when to swing. (Thus far, his chase rate has risen along with his rate of swings inside the zone.) Pitchers take time to adjust to batter tendencies; they’re still throwing inside the strike zone to Gardner about 55 percent of the time, one of the highest rates in the majors and virtually identical to the way they pitched him in 2010-11 (although they have thrown him fewer fastballs). His current .167 ISO is well above his career average, but it might last longer than two weeks if he keeps punishing pitches he once would have let pass. So far, though, his walk rate has suffered slightly.

Earlier, I mentioned Jonny Gomes’ dramatic reduction in swing rate from 2010 to 2011. In the span of a single season, Gomes went from being on the less selective side to one of the batters least likely to swing. And yet the rate of pitches he saw inside the strike zone actually fell, from 46.6 percent to 45.9 percent. At the end of the 2011 season, he’d walked more and struck out more than he had previously, but the overall package was almost the same: his TAv had shifted only three points, from .273 to .276. It’s possible that Gardner, too, could reengineer his approach at the plate and finish the year about as productive as he was before. He’ll just look different doing it.

Thanks to Colin Wyers for research assistance and Andrew Koo for transcription assistance.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Yankees,  Brett Gardner,  Hitting,  Kevin Long

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