Swisher and Gardner adjusting their approaches

Yanks sweep O's, improve to 19-8
Yanks return to Boston with one thing in mind

How does a team go 19-8 when their two best hitters have mostly struggled most of that time? By getting production from some unexpected places. Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher, and Brett Gardner have carried the Yankees’ offense, compensating for the slow start by Mark Teixeira and the recent woes for Alex Rodriguez. All three appear in the AL wOBA leader board, with Cano ranking fourth, Gardner ninth, and Swisher 12th. They’ll eventually cool off, but by that time Rodriguez and Teixeira could be back to their baseball bashing ways. Teixeira is already mostly there.

The high production from Gardner and Swisher won’t stay at this level all season — .380 and .378 BABIPs are hard to maintain — but both have displayed approaches that could portend future success. Gardner has continued his selective ways, taking even more pitches than he did last season. Conversely, Swisher is swinging the bat far more often than ever before in his career. Both approaches, by their current results, have worked.

Photo credit: Bill Kostroun/AP

The most striking of Swisher’s 2009 numbers is his strikeout percentage. At 18.9 percent, it represents his lowest rate since his 71-PA debut in 2004. He’s actually chasing more pitches out of the zone, 28.1 percent against 17.4 percent last year, but is also swinging at more pitches in the zone, 69.3 percent against 56.7 percent. All those extra swings have led to him making more contact, 83.3 percent of his swings. This has led to more solid contact, which shows up in his batted ball numbers. Of the 74 balls Swisher has put in play, 18 have been line drives, 24.3 percent.

The trade-off for Swisher has been noticeable. In 2009 he saw 4.27 pitches per plate appearance, which ranked second in the American League. That led to the highest walk rate in his career, 16 percent. This year Swisher has seen 4.06 pitches per plate appearance. While that’s still a solid number, it ranks just 25th in the AL. Strangely, the only hitter who saw more pitches last season, Kevin Youkilis, again ranks directly above Swisher (though has the same P/PA number). The approach has helped with men on base. While Swisher hit a respectable .246/.403/.453 with men on in 2009, he’s hit .340/.415/.596 in those situations this year. The extra hits mean more RBI and more advanced runners, which has boosted the Yanks offense.

Photo credit: Henry Ray Abrams/AP

Gardner has made up for Swisher’s reduced number of pitches seen. He has seen 4.5 pitches per plate appearances, second in the AL. This is an improvement of nearly half a pitch per plate appearance over last season. This has led to a higher walk rate, 11.7 percent, compared to 9.2 percent last season. Yet it doesn’t appear Gardner is being more selective. He has swung at 19.2 percent of pitches outside the zone against 17.2 percent last season. The main difference comes on pitches inside the zone. He has swung at 40.3 percent of those, against 50.7 percent last season. In other words, he sees more pitches, but also takes more strikes.

What has allowed Gardner to stay productive this year is his success when swinging in the zone. Not only does he mostly avoid swinging at pitches out of the zone, but he also apparently lays off pitches in the zone that he knows he can’t handle. To that end, he has made contact with 98.8 percent of pitches he has swung at inside the zone. In fact, his first miss of the season came yesterday. This has boosted his contact rate, which is excellent for a hitter of Gardner’s style. He has also performed superbly with two strikes. He has seen such a count in 62 of his 94 PA, and has hit .339/.403/.393.

I have no idea if Gardner and Swisher can sustain anything resembling the success they’ve realized in the first month. What we can see, though, is that they’re both taking a definite approach at the plate. Swisher is swinging earlier in counts and is making a ton more contact, leading to a higher batting average and more power. Gardner is taking everything he doesn’t like, even if the ump calls it a strike. That has worked, though, because he’s able to compensate by hitting well with two strikes. It has worked so far, and I don’t think we’ll see a shift in strategy any time soon.

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Yanks sweep O's, improve to 19-8
Yanks return to Boston with one thing in mind
  • http://twitter.com/Stephen_R Stephen R – formerly tafka (sic)

    This is an improvement of nearly half a pitch per plate appearance over last season. This has led to a higher walk rate, 11.7 percent, compared to 9.2 percent last season.

    I just wanted to note that when I wrote a similar piece on The Yankee U last weekend, Gardner’s walk rate was 9.5%, or 0.3% higher than 2009. So, his walk rate is now 2% higher than 2009, and the reason is that between May 1st and today, Gardner has walked 4 additional times. Just putting some perspective on the increase.

  • larryf

    Bret Gardner-the Yankee least likey to strike out or hit into a double play.

    Nice.

    • larryf

      I likey him alot :-) spellcheck fail

  • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

    Any idea what Gardner’s BABIP in the minors was? I certainly don’t expect him to maintain a .380 BABIP (but A-Jax at .532 will…..), but is .340 reasonable for a guy with his speed and ability to hit the ball on the ground?

    • http://twitter.com/Stephen_R Stephen R – formerly tafka (sic)

      .324, .341, .326, .370

      I’ve wondered the same thing, if his speed will allow him to maintain a very high BABIP like Ichiro.

      • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

        So the average (non weighted) is .340. I like.

    • A.D.

      BABIP was never lower than .324 in any real minor league stop, was as high as .414 (A+) and .370 (AAA in ’08)

      So one would see him as a higher BABIP guy, and .340 could be possible

    • Chris

      His BABIP was:
      2006 (High-A): .414 in 278 PA
      2006 (AA): .324 in 251 PA
      2007 (AA): .341 in 234 PA
      2007 (AAA): .336 in 207 PA
      2008 (AAA): .370 in 426 PA

      He only had 16 PA in AAA in 2009 (but his BABIP was .100).

    • http://twitter.com/JamalG_BB Jamal G.

      I understand the reasoning behind your question, but minor-league BABIP rates are extremely suspect in an analytical sense because of the quality of both the fields and fielders down on the farm.

      • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

        Good point. He definitely didn’t face the Pitching and Defense Red Sox in the minors.

        On average, do you know if there is a significant difference in the average BABIP minors vs. majors? I’m guessing it’s close, but for guys like Gardner who can take advantage of a choppier infield or a little bit worse of a defender, I’d guess he’d have a higher milb BABIP.

  • Mike HC

    These are some of my favorite type of articles. I love to see the breakdown of what hitters are swinging at and what they are staying away from.

    Excellent work as usual on these. I think Joe is the only one who writes them (could be wrong), so specific props to Joe for these.

  • http://dontbringinthelefty.blogspot.com Lucas AA, aka don’t_bring_in_the_lefty

    I know it was mentioned here a few days ago, but I think it warrants repeating that Gardner is still the only player (qualified player, that is) to not swing and miss at a pitch in the strike zone this year.

    • Sweet Dick Willie

      From the post:

      To that end, he has made contact with 98.8 percent of pitches he has swung at inside the zone. In fact, his first miss of the season came yesterday.

      • http://dontbringinthelefty.blogspot.com Lucas AA, aka don’t_bring_in_the_lefty

        …. oops. Well, that’s still pretty impressive.

  • SodaPopinski

    This blog is great. Go Yanks. Go Gardner!

  • Brian

    I don’t see Gardner being quite level that Ichiro reached in his prime, but I think having a player in that mold could definitely help the Yanks. If Gardner could eventually (best case scenario) come close to that, although I don’t think he can match Ichiro’s arm, then he could be a useful player for the yankees for a while.