Throughout his career, Brett Gardner has carried around a label that described him as a left-handed slap hitter who will provide exceptional defense. Gardner could hit like a replacement level scrub and still be an above average Major League player because his defense is generationally good: 3.2 dWAR, 25.8 UZR in 2011. Let that sink in for a moment.
Because everything he does with his glove is so incredible, everything that he provides with his bat is just gravy on top. And since it seems like I haven't heard Gardner's name very often this offseason, I thought I'd take a look at his offense.Upon his arrival in 2008, Gardner seemed overmatched and overwhelmed while facing Major League pitching, as he hit just .228/.283/.299 over 141 plate appearances. His line drive percentage (LD%) was just 17%, and for a player whose game revolved around speed, his fly ball percentage (FB%) was far too high at 35.1%. This is significant because flyballs fall in for hits far less often than line drives and ground balls do, and more ground balls means Gardner has more opportunities for infield hits. He also walked just 5.7% of the time and struck out at a 21.3% clip.
In 2009, Gardner improved his triple slash line to .270/.345/.379, which included a very average 99 wRC+. Looking deeper, however, shows that Gardner walked more, at 9.2%, struck out less, at 14.1%, showed more power, and improved his LD% to 18.1%. His GB% increased to 49% and his FB% decreased to 32.8%, good for a 1.49 GB/FB ratio.
In 2010, Gardner blossomed during his first opportunity as a full-time starter, hitting .277/.383/.379, which included 47 stolen bases and a 120 wRC+. His power output remained steady with an ISO just over .100, while again improving his LD% to 18.6% and, again, increasing his GB% to 53.4% while watching his FB% decrease to 27.9%. He also walked a career high 13.9% of the time. Gardner had found a system that worked very well - walk a lot, hit line drives and grounders in order to maximize his speed, avoid fly balls, and steal bases. A 6.1 WAR season proved that this was a great way to maximize his skill-set.
2011 was a bit of a different story for Gardner, as he seemed to regress for the first time. He hit .259/.345/.369, including a 103 wRC+. He didn't walk as much, as his BB% dropped from 13.9% to 10.2%, and for the first time of his short career, his GB% dropped from the season prior and his FB% increased from the year before. However, the drops in his GB and FB percentages were not too significant, as his GB/FB ratio slipped from 1.91 to 1.85. On the other hand, Gardner showed the highest LD% of his career at 19.4%. So why the drop in production?
The biggest difference between 2011 and 2010 for Gardner was that his infield flyball percentage more than doubled, increasing from 8.8% to 19.6%. This would seem to explain why his BABIP dropped from .340 in 2010 to .303 in 2011, a low number when considering that Gardner is really fast and hit a lot of line drives and grounders.
If Gardner can get back to not popping out while walking more and continuing the trend of an increasing LD% with a high GB/FB ratio, we could see Gardner have a year even better than his 2010. When combined with, arguably, the best defense in the sport, we'd be looking at one hell of a year.
All statistics from fangraphs.com and baseball-reference.com.