What Went Wrong: Brett Gardner

What Went Right: Brett Gardner
Time for a Randy Choate reunion?
Gardner likes to flip his bat after striking out (Paul Sancya/AP)

Mike set the stage in his post on what went right with Brett Gardner:

Gardner showed up to Dodger Stadium the proud owner of a .321/.401/.408 (.373 wOBA) batting line on the morning of June 27th, but he took a Clayton Kershaw fastball off his right wrist in his second plate appearance of the game.

In reaching that .373 wOBA, Gardner had pulled off a fantastic month of June. In his 72 PA he hit .383/.472/.533, by far the best month in his short career. The hit by pitch ended that month a few days early, but he was back in the starting lineup on July 1, ready to continue his assault on opponents’ pitch counts.

When a player sustains a wrist injury we often fear for his power. So many players have seen their power completely sapped because of wrist troubles. The Yankees’ very own Nick Johnson presented such a case. He underwent season-ending wrist surgery in 2008 and came back in 2009 to produce a mere .114 ISO; his career mark to that point was .187. Gardner appeared to put those fears to rest in just his third game back from the injury. He hit a grand slam off Toronto’s Ricky Romero. The next day he hit another homer, though that was of the inside-the-park variety.

One home run by itself, even from a player who does not normally hit them, does not necessarily signal something about a player’s condition. Those two homers — one of which should have been a caught ball — represented Gardner’s only extra base hits in his first 68 PA back from the injury. During that time he hit just .185/.353/.296. The next eight games saved his month; in those 29 PA Gardner hit three doubles, which improved his month-long ISO to .117, which ended up being his second highest of the season. He also produced a .141 ISO in September. So much for the wrist injury effect.

While a power dip might not have coincided with the wrist injury, a heightened strikeout rate did. Gardner did strike out in 20 percent of his AB in June, a jump from his 14.7 percent rate in the first two months, but given his other numbers that was fine. He was making fewer outs and hitting for more power. You trade that for strikeouts without hesitation. But from July through September Gardner lost those power and on-base gains while seeing a significant uptick in his strikeout rate, 26.3 percent. That’s not a good thing for a guy who can create favorable situations when he puts the ball in play.

Still, it’s tough to pin the causation of Gardner’s rising K rate on the wrist injury. As you can see, it had been a rising trend all season long:

Gardner's strikeout rate

Might pitchers have figured out to start throwing him more strikes, since he can’t do much damage with them? Conventional wisdom might suggest that, but Gardner’s walk rate says something else:

Gardner's walk rate

I’m not sure what this says about how pitchers approached Gardner. It might appear as though he got a lot less aggressive. Fewer pitches swung at could lead to more looking strikeouts and more walks at the same time. But that wasn’t necessarily the case with Gardner. Prior to June 27 Gardner saw 1,227 pitches. He swung at 391 of them, about 32 percent. After June 27 he saw 1,355 pitches and swung at 423 of them, 31.2 percent. The biggest difference is in his swing and miss percentage, which went from 2.4 percent before the injury to 3.5 percent afterward.

Gardner’s spray chart changed around the same time as the injury as well. We’re dealing with half-season samples, so there’s nothing definitive in what we’re seeing. But it does appear suspicious that Gardner stopped hitting as many balls to shallow center and right, spots at which he got hits in the first half.

First half spray chart
Second half spray chart

We can still see that patch in left where Gardner slaps the ball for base hits, but we don’t see that shallow belt that led to so many hits in the first half. What we do see, though, is a number of balls fielded deeper in the outfield. While the focus of this post is on the negatives of Gardner’s second half, the deeper hit balls has to be taken as a positive.

Again, while we’re looking at the wrongs of Gardner’s season, we need to put them in perspective. Part of his second half woes stem from a diving BABIP. As you can see:

Gardner's BABIP

I’m not sure exactly what caused the dip in BABIP. Maybe Gardner was swinging at poorer pitches — his whiff rate does suggest that. Maybe he was getting unlucky — the subsequent rise towards the end of the season does point in that direction. My best guess is that he just went through a normal slump, exacerbated by the wrist injury. Thankfully, towards the end of the season he started to look more like he did in April.

The title of this article is What Went Wrong, but that isn’t to say Gardner’s season went wrong. It actually went great on the whole. But there were some issues during the season that perhaps prevented him from performing to the best of his abilities. There is a sentiment among some fans — I’m not sure how widespread — that Gardner is nothing more than a fourth outfielder and that he hit over his head in 2010. I beg to differ. During the off-season I ranked among the “you can’t count on Gardner” crowd, but after watching him for a full season and examining him closely I feel differently. I think Gardner can be a solid option both in the lineup and in the field.

That isn’t to say that his season went perfectly. It obviously didn’t. In the second half he swung and missed more often, which led to more and more strikeouts. A guy with Gardner’s speed, and lack of power, needs to put the ball in play more often. But even as he faltered he ended up with a spectacular season. I don’t see any reason, barring injury, why we can’t expect him to improve in 2011.

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What Went Right: Brett Gardner
Time for a Randy Choate reunion?
  • Dick Whitman

    My eyes are bleeding.

  • David in Cal

    Obviously Gardner had a great 2010 season compared to what anyone would have predicted. In fact, when you look at his 5.4 WAR, he had a darn good season, period.

    It makes my mouth water to think that he might be substantially better in 2011 if his wrist is healthy, if better reading of pitchers leads to more SBs, and better bunting for base hits. If all these things fall into place, Gardner could be an All Star.

    Even though the logic is there, I can’t quite believe Gardner will be that good. Hope I’m wrong, though.

  • Dick Whitman

    The post itself was great. I prefer the title “What Was More Awesome Than Say Incredible”. But that’s just personal word choice preference.

    • Dick Whitman

      Ugh. Reply fail.

  • Mike HC

    Based on the spray charts, it seems like pitchers started pitching him outside more. I don’t know if you can look up where the pitches he saw were located, but that is my theory based on these numbers.

    Gardner does have a very quick, whip like swing, allowing him to get around on the inside pitches. He would have more trouble lining and driving outside pitches. He is not a typical slap hitter. He actually has a power hitting mentality at the plate, without the power obviously. Gardner was quite unique this year. Who is his closest comparison for the season he just had? I don’t know, but I would be interested if anybody has a good comparable.

    • Mike HC

      Very informative post too. Very nice job.

  • Eric

    Gardner needs to hit more balls back up the middle and pulling the ball and less weak ground outs to the left side of the infield.

    I don’t think he necessarily have to bunt more. Like others have said, him bunting more frequently just means less chances for him to get a ball on a line to the gaps and walks.

  • Dick Whitman

    Using arbitrary endpoints, month to month, Gardner’s worst month (3 of the same actually) was a .336 wOBA (May, August, Sept/Oct). Using fuzzy math and fuzzy logic, that translates to about a 8-9 wRAA. Keeping his UZR and positional adjustments constant that’s about a 44.5 RAR – 45.5 RAR which then translates into about 4.7 WAR.

    Even when he was slightly less than awesome offensively, Brett Gardner was worth over 4.5 wins.

    I’ll take that over Melky Cabrera. For 500k, I’ll take that over Jayson Werth. I’ll also take it over Carl Crawford. I could go all day, people.

    • http://danielslifka.wordpress.com Jerome S

      For dollars per Win above Replacement, Brett here might be the MVP.

  • Yank the Frank

    Bunt, baby bunt.

  • Chris

    Gardner’s struggles in the second half came predominantly from a bad 10 game stretch at the beginning of August.

    July 1 – July 30: .230 .387 .351 .738
    July 31 – Aug 10: .069 .069 .103 .172
    Aug 11 – Oct 3: .268 .400 .384 .784

    Obviously, you can break up the season in tons of different ways, but you can clearly see the impact of that bad stretch in the BABIP, BB and K charts.

    One thing I’ve asked and haven’t gotten a clear answer on is what does each point in those K rate charts represent?

  • larryf

    The hit by pitch was the right wrist. The cortisone shot was for a thumb injury. Was this the left or right? Was it a sliding injury? I hope sliding into first base is something we will only see in the post season.

    BTW, who is the Yankee “stolen base” coach?

  • http://danielslifka.wordpress.com Jerome S

    I’m going to sound like Michael Kay here, but Gardner really does need to know how to lay down some better bunts.
    Line drives are nice too, Brett.

    • http://twitter.com/cephster Ross in Jersey

      He does need to be a better bunter, yes. I’m not sure I agree with the whole “if he could bunt he’d raise his batting average 50 points!” narrative, though. I’d rather see him grind out at-bats than drop a bunt on the first pitch that’ll only work 25% of the time.

      • Accent Shallow

        But, if he were a better bunter, that forces the infield into less than optimal positioning if he hits the ball solidly.

        • http://twitter.com/cephster Ross in Jersey

          I can buy that. If he drops down a few bunts it’ll make the defense respect it and possibly open up the left side of the field. As long as he doesn’t bunt too much, I’m fine with it.

          • OldYanksFan

            Yup…. as a lead off batter, I have always liked a 1st AB bunt. The fielders aren’t warmed up yet and it’s a good time to catch the 3rd baseman back on his heels a bit.

            It also sets the stage for a shallower INF for the succeeding ABs.

  • MikeD

    He’s not the .320 hitter he was at the end of June, a month in which he hit .380. He was simply a player on a hot streak, and a regression was to be expected.

    In the end, he was a .277/.383/.379 hitter, which is right in line with his minor league numbers. It’s also not too far off from his 2009 numbers, although he did have a higher OBP in 2010, which was to be expected based on the type of hitter he is. Breaking his season into smaller parts doesn’t really make sense. He wasn’t the .320 hitter he showed in the first half, and he wasn’t the .230 he showed in the second half. He was the .277/.383 hitter he produced over the course of the entire year.

    I’d expect similar in 2011, with some chance for more upside as he’s gained experience. It’ll be only be his third season in the majors and second full season as a starter, and it will also be his age 27 year. Prime time. His last season at AAA also suggests he can give a little more than we’ve seen so far.

  • larryf

    Hit by pitch on wrist on June 27th and cortisone shot on September 3rd. That’s a long time to play with a hand injury.

  • dalelama

    At the end of 2009 I was in the Gardner sucks camp after his horrible 2009 post season. Brett had me believing I was wrong after his strong 2010 start. After a horrible second half of 2010 and even worse post season I am now in the undecided camp. I think either his injury hampered him or pitchers came to the realization that if you throw the guy a strike he can’t really hurt you. Is it just a coincidence he disappears in the post season when the pitching and the pitchers’ control is better? I don’t know I guess we will find out more in 2011. His habit of watching third strikes go by really does irritate me though, especially in the post season. I would definitely consider moving him to help get a good cost controlled pitcher if we don’t sign Cliff Lee as I personally don’t believe he is going to get any better as pitchers realize all they have to do is throw the guy strikes.

  • Jonathan

    My biggest beef with Gardner (and I want him to be our LF for many years to come, UNLESS we get some absurd trade offer for him) is his refusal to steal in situations where it would be a great place to run, such as 1st and 3rd or him on 1st to lead off an inning or pinch running late in the game down 1 run. He seems to freeze and have trouble reading the pitchers in these scenarios. I don’t know if he’s a little gun shy because he wasn’t very good late in 2009 in these situations or what.

    As with any fan, I don’t have all the information. They may have told him not to run or he was nursing some small leg injury. As we all know, the ability to steal 40+ bases isn’t as valuable as being able to steal one when you really need it and everyone knows you’re going. I believe in his ability to do so, and I would hope to see more of it next year.

  • mike

    I have a theory why Brett seams to hesitate on stealing quickly…Remember its just a theory… he had an almost .400 OBP and always had jeter up next with jeter shooting the ball to the right side of the feild if Brett goes on the first or even second pitch the first baseman does not have to hold him and they close the hole on that side(Maybe joe tells him give Jeter a chance to do “his thing”) also Jeters going to see a lot of fastballs because everyone knows Bretts going.

  • Edelpeddle

    I could see him regressing next year without the benefit of 2010’s .340 BABIP.