You know how if you repeat a word enough times, it loses all meaning to you? That’s the way I feel about the word consistency coming from baseball circles. That seems the solution to everything: Player A just needs to be more consistent (with the optional addendum, “in his approach”). Problem is, consistency is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in a game as complex as baseball. At least, consistentcy as we commonly understand it.
No player will get a hit exactly three times in each set of 10 at-bats. No player hits a home run once every 17 plate appearances. Baseball is a game of streaks and slumps. Players help their teams immensely when they’re hot, and they hurt them when they slump. Even the best players aren’t immune to periodic slumps. It’s just the nature of the game.
Still, it seems as though some players are more prone to streaks and slumps than others. Take Nick Swisher for example. When you watch every game, it seems clear that he goes through periods of extraordinary production, followed by periods where he makes outs almost every at-bat. Last year it was easy to get the impression that Brett Gardner was likewise prone to streakiness. In an article on MLB.com, Bryan Hoch gets quotes from Joe Girardi, Kevin Long, and Gardner himself seemingly admitting that Gardner’s streakiness is a problem. But was that really the issue in 2012?
Again, it’s hard to determine exactly what everyone means by consistency. But a glance at Gardner’s 2011 game log makes it appear that streakiness was something of an issue. To start the season Gardner went 9 for 62 (.145) with four walks. He was also caught stealing in half of his six attempts. But after a 3 for 4 performance in a 12-3 rout of the White Sox Gardner broke out. From that point, April 28th, through mid-August he hit .314/.397/.429 in 374 PA. Again, look at his game logs during that period. it lingers in the .330 and .340 levels through May, mostly because he had to compensate for his poor start. But then it starts to creep up.
From June through mid-August he was consistently in the .350 to .360 OBP range. Yes, his numbers spiked and dipped a bit, but again, all ballplayers experience those little peaks and valleys. It seemed that Gardner was, indeed, rather consistent throughout this period. He was even more consistent on the base paths, successfully stealing a base in 80 percent of his 41 attempts. Unfortunately, he then slumped his way to the finish line, hitting .175/.281/.246 through his final 146 PA. He claims that he felt fine as the season wore on — “the best I’ve ever felt at the end of a season,” he said — but that didn’t translate into performance.
That brings us back to the idea of consistency, which seems no easier to define after examining Gardner’s 2011. His poor performances seem to come in the form of bookends, but does that mean he’s more consistent than we perceived? I don’t think so. Timing is an odd concept in baseball, and it often affects our perception. Two guys could have the same numbers during the course of a month, but we’ll view the guy who had a hot first half in a different light than we do the guy who had a hot second half. Yet they contributed roughly equally to their teams performances.
It’s difficult to work on an abstract concept such as consistency, especially in a game that is chock full of randomness. It sounds great, and makes for attention-grabbing headlines. But chances are Gardner has more specific, concrete things to work on: bunting, offering at pitches he can slap past infielders, and other things an undersized outfielder must do to succeed. If that makes him more consistent, all the better.