The two sides of making contact

Yankees recall Golson, option Melancon
The unnecessariness of a 12-man bullpen

Over the winter we showed that it was essential for pitchers to strike batters out if they want to be successful long-term, but that batters could get away with high strikeout rates because they could make up for it in other ways. A pitcher with a low strikeout rate is at the mercy of his defense and the BABIP gods, while hitters with high strikeout rates can hit the ball with power and get on base in exchange. None of us like watching a Yankee strike out, but it happens.

At the root of strikeout rates are contact rates. The more contact a hitter makes, the less they’ll strike out. It’s that simple. For some batters, the speedy guys that can’t threaten a pitcher with power, it’s imperative to put the ball in play to make stuff happen. For others, the kinds of players that trade strikeouts for extra base hits, the need to make consistent contact is a bit more relaxed.

Photo Credit: Gail Burton, AP

One of the surprises in the first month of the season has been Brett Gardner, who woke up this morning sporting a .415 wOBA and eleven steals, good for second in all the land. The reason Gardner has been so successful is simple: he’s putting the ball in play on the ground more than he ever has before, and is using his top of the line speed to turn bouncers into hits. We all saw that game against the Rangers a few weeks ago when he beat out three infield hits and nearly a fourth. It’s not something Yankee fans are used to.

Despite that moonshot off Mark Buehrle, Gardner’s not ever going to hit for power and needs to play the slash-and-dash game. His minor league career featured a particularly high 19.8 K%, but he made up for it by hitting ground balls 55% of the time and taking advantage of neophyte minor league defenders. Gardner continued to strike out once he got the big leagues (23.6% in 2008, 16.1% in 2009), but he wasn’t hitting the ball on the ground as frequently (47.9% in ’08, 49% in ’09). You can see the slight upward trend, and that’s something that has continued into this season.

Through 25 games, Gardner has struck out in just 12% of his at-bats and put the ball on the ground 56.9% of the time. He’s not striking out as much because he’s simply making much more contact. Believe it or not, Gardner has yet to swing and miss at the pitch in the strike zone this season, and he’s the only player in the game that can make that claim. Marco Scutaro is second in baseball with a 99.1% contact rate in the zone. If the ball was over the plate and Gardner hacked at it, he’s gotten at least a piece of the ball every single time. His overall contact rate is 91.7% (73.5% contact rate on pitches out of the zone), which is tied with Ichiro for the tenth best in the game. A player like Gardner can’t make up for strikeouts by hitting for power, so he needs to slap the ball around the infield to be successful. So far this year, he’s done exactly that.

Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP

On the other side of the coin you have Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod is off to a slow (.334 wOBA) start even though he’s made more contact than he ever has before. After making contact on about 75% of his swings from 2002-2009, Alex is up to 86.5% this year thanks to a 97.5% contact rate on pitches in the zone, well above the ~83% he posted from ’02-’09. It’s not like he swinging at more pitches either, actually quite the opposite. A-Rod offered at close to 44% of the pitches he saw from ’02-’09, but this year that’s down to 40.9%.

For a guy like Alex, you’d think the more contact the better because of what usually happens when he connects with a pitch. However, his batted ball rates are a little off kilter this season, particularly his line drive (17.3% in ’10 vs. 18.2% career) and fly ball (37% in ’10 vs. 40% career) percentages. The more balls he sends to the outfield, the better. Those LD and FB decreases have resulted in more ground balls (45.7% in ’10 vs. 41.8% career), and Alex isn’t a speedy guy like Gardner, who thrives on that stuff.

Is it possible A-Rod is making too much contact? He’s offering at a few more pitches off the plate than he usually does (22.7% in ’10 vs. 20.5% career), but because he’s putting the bat on the ball more than usual, it’s resulting in more weak contact. That would explain the uptick in groundballs. It might also have something to do with his newfound knee issue: perhaps it’s preventing him from really driving through the ball with his lower half. Either way, A-Rod’s not going to maintain a 6.7% HR/FB rate all year (23.4% career), and at some point (hopefully soon) he’ll go on a Mike Stanton-esque binge and club ten homers in ten games.

So far this year we’ve seen two Yankees making a whole lot of contact with the ball at the plate, but they’ve gotten different results. Their vastly different skill sets are the primary reason why it’s working for Gardner and not A-Rod, but there’s no cause for concern. Brett the Jet can keep it up for as long as he wants, and Alex is too talented to hit .258-.336-.430 over 162 games.

Yankees recall Golson, option Melancon
The unnecessariness of a 12-man bullpen
  • mike c

    gardner’s going to be the reason the yankees don’t get crawford next year

    • JMK the Overshare’s Mystique and Aura

      While I certainly hope so, it’s May 4th. Let’s give it a bit more time before we make such bold statements.

      • Matt Imbrogno

        That; it’d be nice to save the money, but let’s see how Gardner finishes the year.

    • A.D.

      That would be nice, and this hot of a start allows him to hit more towards expectations for the next 5 months and still have a real nice line & anticipated room for improvement.

    • JobaWockeeZ

      And Javy has a 9 ERA! DFA him! Teix is awful! Johnson is awful!

      See how SSS skew stuff? Yeah wait like at least til the ASB.

  • Dan Novick

    The link for the words “stanton-esque binge” goes to the Gardner home run.

    • Mike Axisa


      • Evan NYC

        Giancarlo Cruz-Michael Stanton. He must have consumed Giancarlo Cruz and absorbed his powers.

  • CS Yankee

    If Gardner continues at this OBP and NJ continues to struggle, I would hope that they make a change.

    In having Gardner as the leadoff hitter he will likely stay selective and put more pressure on the pitcher than the free-swinging SS. When Gardner is on 1B, tell Jeet to take the first pitch so the GGBG can steal.

    If Jeter goes opposite field, Gardner scores…if Jeter hits a groundball to a MIF, Gardner is at 3B. Plus Jeter has better power numbers for the two spot.

    I think (and hope) that NJ improves but (even if he does) we shouldn’t pigeon hole the typical strategy of having a leadoff guy who takes a lot of pitches, gets on base at a high rate and who owns the bases.


    • Evan NYC

      Jeter grounds into too many double plays out of the two hole. Plus part of the advantage hitting Jeter second would be the first basemen holding Garner on when he was on base, to open that hole between 1st and 2nd so Jeter can put the ball through there. Jeter is hitting .321 out of the leadoff slot and hit .334 last year. I don’t think he is moving anywhere.

      • CS Yankee

        Jeter will hit over .300 wherever he hits in the lineup. As Jeter says, leadoff only means that you bat first to start the game.

        The majority of his .317 lifetime average has been in the second spot of the order; Damon had better SLG & less DP against so that move made sense. If Gardner continues this pace (or anything close to it) they should take another look.

        Fun fact: 4 of the top 10 AL leaders in BA (Cano, Gardner, Ajax & Jeet’) are from that Yankee farm that always trails that preferred farm king called Theo-ville.

  • bexarama

    and Alex is too talented to hit .258-.336-.430 over 162 games.

    Oh, really?

    Wally Matthews

  • larryf

    I notice Gardy goes in hard with his left hand on his headfirst steals. He injured it last year and does wear a guard on it. Let’s hope that doesn’t get injured for the man who could steal ?????

    I say 60……

  • Cult of Basebaal

    Just wanted to say this was great work. That Gardner stat is pretty amazing.

  • Neil

    Really wasn’t a big believer in Gardner but he’s making me change. Amazing how he sees so many pitches in his at bats.