Brett Gardner’s great start

After a couple of lackluster offensive seasons, the Yankees are tied for 6th-best offense in baseball per wRC+. Much of the production is a credit to the resurgences of Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, but one player who perhaps the sluggers overshadow is Brett Gardner. Through 73 times to the plate, Gardner boasts a .311/.400/.410 triple-slash (131 wRC+) with one homer and six steals. Along with Jacoby Ellsbury at the top of the lineup, Gardner has been a run producing catalyst.

Last season, Gardner evolved as a hitter. He hit for more power than ever anticipated, belting a career-high 17 home runs. For a guy who never had hit more than eight in any prior season, it certainly seemed like an aberration. And if we can glean anything from the numbers in this season’s early going, that notion looks truer by the day. Gardner’s been a much different hitter in the first month of the season compared to his career norms. Is this due to the omnipresent small sample size, or is some skill involved?

When things drastically change for a player in one month, it’s easy to chalk it up to a small sample size. However, for every plate appearance, data becomes more reliable. A few years back, Russell Carleton examined the points of when certain statistics become reliable in terms of skills playing some factor rather than pure luck. For instance, he found that strikeout rate stabilizes after 60 trips to the dish. This isn’t to say that the metric means nothing at 55 plate appearances, as Dave Cameron recently noted. Rather, as the threshold inches closer, we can be more confident in said performance not being a fluke. Furthermore, just because player X’s strikeout rate is Y in 60+ plate appearances has some meaning, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will stay that way in the future and/or be considered predictive. So how does this apply to Gardner? Let’s take a look at his strikeout and ground ball percentages.

The Yankees’ left fielder has gone down on strikes 18.4% for his career, but was up to 21% in each of the past two campaigns. This year, he’s all the way down to 11%. That’s a big shift. Given that it’s been 73 plate appearances, Gardy certainly didn’t completely luck his way into this. It might not continue in the long run, but it’s worth noting that ZiPS rest-of-season projection has lowered his punch out rate to 19.3%, down from a 20.2% preseason forecast.

How has Gardner put the ball in play more often? He’s getting in a lot of hitters counts. Opponents have thrown just 43.8% first-pitch strikes, way down from 55.8% in his career. It’s pretty nice to be in a 1-0 count that often. Furthermore, Gardner’s at-bats aren’t getting too deep despite the lack of first-pitch strikes. He has seen 4.07 pitchers per at-bat after going 4.43 last season. Oddly enough, his swing rate is 33.6%, a very low mark that was at 37.6% last year and 40.4% in 2013. It seems like Gardner is being selectively aggressive, if that makes any sense. Regardless of the reason for more balls in play, it’s good to see his projection improve. With his speed, I’d prefer him to be a high-contact batter.

BABIP takes a long time to stabilize, so relying on Gardner’s .346 BABIP to hold up isn’t a good idea. He has posted BABIPs north of .340 twice in his career, but his lifetime mark sits at .321. Regardless, it’s easy to see why the metric is so high in the early going. Brett is beating the ball into the ground at a remarkably high 62.7% clip. It’s come at the expense of fly balls, which sits at a mere 17.6%. These stats don’t stabilize until approaching 80 balls in play, but seeing such a stark difference makes me wonder if Brett is making a concerted effort to hit the ball on the ground. After all, with his speed, doing so puts a lot of pressure on the infield defense. Fly balls rarely fall for hits, and considering Gardner isn’t a power hitter, it makes sense for him to swing down on the ball. There will certainly be some regression to the mean, but I wouldn’t mind Gardner staying ground ball heavy. The homers were great last season, but this type of approach fits his skillset better.

Thanks to more contact and a skewed batted ball profile, Gardner’s off to a fast start in 2015. Although his strikeout and ground ball results certainly won’t hold steady all season, it’ll be worth keeping an eye on over the next few months. If these trends continue, he could be in for a big offensive campaign. Unfortunately, we don’t really have any way of knowing if Gardner is making an effort to whiff less often and hit more grounders. That’ll become clearer as the season carries on.

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