At the start of the 2013 season, Brett Gardner adopted a new, more aggressive approach at the plate in the hopes of barreling more hittable pitches. Up to that point, the slap-hitting outfielder had been one of the most patient hitters in baseball. Gardner sat out most of 2012 due to injury, but swung at just 32.7% of all pitches seen between 2010 and 2011, the fewest of any player with at least 300 plate appearances. Last year, his swing rate jumped to 40.1%, with most of his new-found aggressiveness focused on pitches located within the strike zone. While his zone swing rate rose by 13 percentage points from 2010 to 2013, his rate for pitches out of the zone only increased by seven.
The change seemed to pay off. Gardner posted a career high .143 ISO last season — much better than his career mark of .103 — on his way to a very respectable 108 wRC+. He’s carried that success over to this season as well. With 16 homers, he’s doubled his total from last season — which was already a career high — and with a 119 wRC+, he’s developed into one of the better-hitting outfielders in all of baseball.
But unlike last season, he’s no longer sporting a swing percentage north of 40%. Instead, it’s fallen back to 36.6%, just a tad higher than his 35% mark from 2011. So if Gardner’s back to his old ways of watching two thirds of all pitches go by, how has he managed to keep hitting for power? The answer has everything to do with plate discipline. Gardner’s continued to take advantage of hittable pitches, but has also gotten much better at laying off pitches outside of the strike zone. First lets look at how often he’s swung at pitches inside of the strike zone.
Since adopting his more aggressive approach two springs ago, Gardner’s behavior on pitches in the zone hasn’t changed much. Maybe he’s gotten a little less aggressive over the past couple of years, but for the most part, his swing rates have been pretty consistent. It’s probably safe to say that Gardner’s a guy who swings at about 50-55% of pitches in the strike zone. We see a different story, however, when it comes to pitches outside of the zone.
At least initially, Gardner’s swing rate on balls out of the zone also spiked. He seemingly became more aggressive on all pitches, without discriminating based on location. But that’s changed over the past couple of seasons, as he’s swung at fewer and fewer pitches out of the zone. His O-Swing% dipped below 18% in both July and August — down from around 25% in early 2013 — putting him on par with what he was doing back in 2010 and 2011. Today, Gardner’s been nearly three times more likely to swing at a strike than a ball, up from two times as likely in April of 2013.
Gardner’s improved plate discipline is nothing new. Although his change in approach puts a kink in the trend, Gardner’s been getting better at deciding whether or not to swing since his first days in the big leagues, and probably even longer. Even before he re-evaluated his approach before the 2013 season, he was already starting to transition from a “guy who doesn’t swing at anything” to a “guy who doesn’t swing at balls”.
Coming up through the minors, Gardner didn’t impress many scouts with his tools, and barely even made his college team as a walk-on. Sure, he’s always had plus-plus speed, but that only gets you so far when you’re an outfielder with little power to speak of. Rather than relying on his pure hitting skills, Gardner makes it work with his zen-like plate discipline. By swinging at so few balls out of the zone, Gardner practically forces pitchers to leave the occasional pitch over the heart of the plate, and has just enough pop in his bat to make them pay for it. But most importantly, he’s learned how to take advantage of those mistake pitches, while simultaneously laying off of the bad ones.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.
This article originally appeared on Fangraphs.