New York Yankees’ outfielder Brett Gardner has seen his fair share of ups and downs, but it seems as though he is channeling his All-Star form yet again in this young season.
By Christian Kouroupakis
2015 could be described as a tale of two halves for New York Yankees‘ left fielder Brett Gardner.
The speedster’s sensational skills at the plate and remarkable defensive abilities helped make the Bombers one of the most dangerous teams in all of Major League Baseball during the first half.
Prior to last year’s midsummer classic invite, Gardner had a slash line of .302/.377/.484 with the second-most stolen bases among outfielders in the American League (15) and had the sixth greatest WAR (2.9).
Gardner’s .861 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) was ranked ninth among all outfielders in baseball and was ahead of some of the finest in the sport like Alex Gordon (.852), Yoenis Cespedes (.821) and Carlos Gonzalez (.766).
Along with being one of the best outfielder’s in the game, he was arguably the best hitter for the New York Yankees.
Gardner had the highest batting average, the most runs scored (62), and although he’s not considered a power guy, he had the third-highest slugging percentage among Yankee hitters with at least 200 at-bats.
RELATED: Gardner Cranks Walk-Off Home Run (Video)
Despite being a world-class performer at the plate and in the field, Gardner hit a brick wall after going 0-for-2 with two strikeouts in his first All-Star appearance at the Great American Ball Park.
Gardner’s offense completely fell off in dramatic fashion during the second half of the season as he had an OPS of just .592, batted an anemic .202, and stole only five bases.
As much as people like to blame the injury of Mark Teixeira and the fatigued Alex Rodriguez for the Yankees’ 30-33 second half record, the disappearance of Gardner’s production was arguably the most devastating.
Entering 2016, a campaign that would put last year’s second half in the rearview mirror seemed unlikely.
It seemed even more unlikely when it was announced that Gardner would miss the first three weeks of spring training due to a wrist injury he sustained in the American League Wild Card game.
That injury doesn’t seem to be affecting the 32-year old, as he is surely looking like his All-Star self.
“I think the big thing for me is to stay consistent in my work and make sure I’m on time,” Gardner told Justin Tasch of NY Daily News. “I’m doing a good job of staying balanced and swinging at my pitches and not theirs.”
I love when ballplayers honestly express their struggles. Take a look at Gardner’s whiff rate (pitches he swings and misses on) for the first half of 2015 (via BrooksBaseball.net):
What this simply shows us is, when he’s on, Gardner naturally swings at strikes and doesn’t chase pitches outside of the strike zone. Following his All-Star appearance, his whiff rate looked a tad different:
The one noticeable change is, Gardner was swinging at a ton pitches outside the zone in the second half justifying that he was indeed swinging at “their pitches” and not “his.”
So far in 2016? It looks like he has reverted back to swinging at his pitches and not expanding the zone:
Yes, the tables above visualize which pitches he swings and misses at, but if you notice the number underneath the percentages, you’ll see that he was expanding the strike zone in his appalling second half (44%) more than he was in his extravagant first half (38%).
Here in 2016, the percent of pitches Gardner swings at outside the zone (33%) has returned back to the number in the first half of 2015. Simply put: he is swinging at pitches he can hit rather than ones that he can’t.
Now we can turn to his standard batting statistics to demonstrate that his plate discipline is helping him provide like the All-Star he was a year ago.
In the series loss against the Seattle Mariners last week, Gardner batted .583 (7-for-12) with a home run, two RBI and provided a .643 on-base percentage.
Entering play on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Rays, Gardner is batting .314 with two home runs and four RBI including a walk-off home run on this nine-game homestand.
On this young season, Gardner has a .313/.441/.479 slash line with a .920 OPS. Gardner is also on pace to steal 34 bases, which would be the most since setting his career high with 49 back in 2011.
He’s also coming through when his team needs him the most. Turning back to last week’s series against Seattle, he ripped an RBI double in Sunday’s victory to snap the Yankees disheartening 0-for-30 streak with runners in scoring position.
On Saturday’s victory, along with hitting the walk-off home run, Gardner drove in the game-tying run with an infield single, giving his team an opportunity to win the contest.
Additionally, his walk-off home run can provide a much-needed spark to a Yankee offense that has scored three or fewer runs in nine of their past 11 games.
ESPN projects that if Gardner stays on his current pace, he could potentially be a 20-20-20 guy who can help put the talk of his last year struggles to rest.
It would be ignorant not to mention that we’re only 14 games into 2016 and a lot can change throughout a 162 game season. In fact, Gardner’s second half fall-off last season is a prime example of it.
Nevertheless, Gardner was voted to his first all-star game last year and he very well may be heading towards his second straight appearance if this plate discipline and stellar play continues.