Excuse me for starting out on a philosophical note, but one slightly ironic certainty in life is that we have no idea why some things happen. That’s even truer in baseball, and a clear example of that is Brett Gardner. His success as an outfielder for the Yankees is one of the more pleasant surprises I’ve experienced in the last decade or so as fan. When he first came up, I liked his batting eye and I liked his defense, as did everyone else. However, I thought that his lack of power at the beginning would come back to bite him eventually; pitchers would challenge him in the zone, thus negating his good eye and patience, exploiting his lack of power. I’m glad I was wrong.
Taking the more micro view of things, I thought there would be a difference in performance from Gardner after Jacoby Ellsbury went down with an injury, but there really hasn’t been. Ellsbury last appeared in a game for the Yankees on May 19; at that time, Gardner was hitting .291/.366/.433, mostly out of the second spot of the lineup. Since then, through Friday’s game against the Tigers, Gardner has hit .259/.331/.454. There’s been a drop off in average and OBP, but nothing too significant, and that drop is balanced out by a boost in power.
Again borrowing from cliche philosophy, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Gardner moved up a spot in the order to the leadoff spot, a role he’s more than suited for; after all, he and Taco Bellsbury are fairly similar hitters. Going into writing this piece, I was expecting to find some differences in the way pitchers approached Gardner thanks to the new lineup spot, specifically the fact that there’d be no one on in front of him for his first time up which would be a change from the Ellsbury/Gardner configuration. During the opening stretch of the season before Gardner got hurt, Ellsbury was on base quite a bit–his OBP before going down was .412. In turn, Gardner came up to the plate with men on base in 55 of 127 at bats, 43%. Moving to the leadoff position lowered that to 33.33%, which is expected; you’ll always be starting with no men on in your first trip to the plate. Given that difference, though, and the move to the higher lineup spot, pitchers haven’t treated Gardner much differently than they did when he was a two hitter.
He has seen more ‘hard’ stuff since moving up in the order than he did to start the year, but the differences in results aren’t all that drastic, except for the increase in power on breaking pitches, moving from an ISO of .057 to an ISO of .333. His increased power against both hard and offspeed stuff as well just mirrors the overall increase in power noted earlier.
While the Yankees have struggled in Ellsbury’s absence, Gardner’s been a more consistent presence than realized. The team’s been up and down all year, but he’s been steady, which is exactly what a team needs at the top of the lineup.