One of my concerns about Brett Gardner this spring was how patient he would truly be. He was exceptionally patient last season. As I wrote in this year’s Baseball Prospectus book, in the short history of recording how many pitches a batter saw per plate appearance, no hitter has taken as many pitches as Gardner did last year. He was patient before that, but hadn’t reached the level of pathological taking that he reached after getting hurt last fall. I worried that the injury was the only thing making him so picky, and that once he felt better he would walk less. As much as I love players who walk, more of an ability to hit would probably do Gardner and the Yankees some good, as he hit only .232/.363/.340 with that approach as opposed to .321/.403/.418 before. In an ideal world, he would maintain the obsessively persnickety approach while also regaining the ability to drive the ball for hits. Then he would be a true superman.
That’s probably too much to hope for, given that Gardner didn’t profile as the rare high-average/high walk player at any other time in his career. There aren’t too many hitters who match this description, and in the modern era almost all of them are power hitters, not Gardner types. There are exceptions, like Lenny Dykstra in 1990, Brett Butler in 1991, or Roberto Alomar in 1992. Butler might ultimately prove to be the best comp for Gardner, and not just because they share the same first name. Both were short centerfielders with speed who didn’t get a chance to play regularly until they were 26. Butler was just a league-average guy at 27, but broke out as a championship-quality player at 28 and proceeded to put together a ten-year run of quality seasons, hitting .298/.387/.388 and walking over 80 times a year. I’m not saying that Gardner will do that; I see it as a picture of the upside should he somehow manage to combine the two versions of him we saw last season. More likely he doesn’t take the same leap forward, or fails to stay healthy, and has a long run as a fourth outfielder type.
It’s dangerous taking too much from the windblown hits of Florida, but this spring we’ve seen yet a third Gardner. The walk rate is even higher—post-injury, Gardner walked once every six plate appearances. Now it’s once every five. He’s also piling up more extra-base hits. Last season, he slugged just .379 overall, slugging a double, triple, or home run in just seven percent of his at-bats. He’s slugging .459 this spring, and already has five doubles and a triple in just 37 at-bats, which is sixteen percent. He’s only averaging .270, but when you reach base and move around them as well as he has, the average isn’t going to hurt you.
Again, there is no guarantee that Gardner is going to play at this level or in this style once the regular season comes and pitchers start working him with his best stuff and the bruises begin wearing on him. The omens look favorable though, that health has not robbed him of the best aspects of his approach. That would have been a bitter irony.
Last Appearance Reminder: Princeton, NJ Tonight
Due to remodeling, we didn't get to make our annual pilgrimage to the Yogi this year, so Princeton is standing in. Come see Jay, Cliff, and myself as well as BPers Ben Lindbergh, Matt Swartz, and Tommy Bennett at
Princeton, NJ, Wednesday, March 23, 7 PM
Barnes & Noble, Marketfair
3535 Us Route 1, Princeton, NJ