The forever raging battle between a hitter and pitcher is one of the most interesting parts of baseball. Regardless of how talented or productive a batter may be, a pitcher will always be looking to get one step ahead by exposing weaknesses. And, even if it’s Mike Trout at the plate, there will be holes in his swing that can be taken advantage of. In the same way a pitcher will always be tweaking their plan of attack, the hitter will be tasked with evolving their game to keep up.
Adjusting during and between seasons is far easier said than done, though, which is why it isn’t very easy to find consistently productive position players. Although many have a stretch of two or three years of success, a decade of good play is challenging to find, and reserved for only the best in the game. One can find evidence of evolving styles of play throughout the league, but one player on the Yankees is as good an example as any.
Although the consensus scouting report on Brett Gardner was quite clear in the early days of his career, he has grown into an entirely different player since. Initially described as a “slashy, powerless left-handed bat who draws walks and runs like the wind” by Kevin Goldstein, then a writer at Baseball Prospectus, Gardner’s most recent stats paint a different picture. Still, Goldstein’s report held true for quite a while—it took Gardner 912 professional plate appearances to hit his first home run, and he had just 15 home runs over his first four major league seasons.
Still, Gardner was remarkably productive and far exceeded the expectations attached to a third-round pick. Gardner averaged 42 stolen bases through three years in the big leagues, chipping in elite defense and solid on-base skills. It looked like the Yankees knew who they had, but after missing most of 2012 due to injury, Gardner hit a bit of a crossroads in his career in 2013.
It appeared the then-29-year-old had lost a step, as his centerfield defense regressed to well below-average and he only stole 24 bases. With the speed diminished and defense suddenly a liability, Gardner would have to do something different if he wanted to remain a starting outfielder. So, he did. Gardner added some pop (mostly in the form of doubles) with a career-high .143 isolated power mark and .416 slugging percentage, allowing him to remain a very solid regular.
The next season, Gardner continued his transformation. He exploded with 17 home runs by taking on a pull-heavy approach with more flyballs and an increased aggression on pitches inside the strike zone. Although it came at the sacrifice of more strikeouts and a lower batting average, the increased power (along with 21 stolen bases) allowed the new-look Gardner to have another very nice season. He looked to continue that plan last season, but was hindered by wrist injuries that sapped power in the second half. Despite chipping in 16 home runs and 20 steals, his slugging percentage fell short of .400 and it was the most unproductive year of Gardner’s career.
After the disappointing finish to 2015, we naturally got a new Brett Gardner last season. He chose to sacrifice some of the power from the previous two years for contact, so despite a career low isolated power mark and just seven home runs, the 33-year-old walked more and struck out less. Although his overall offensive output was a bit disappointing, Gardner recorded his highest on-base percentage since 2010 and whiffed less than the year before. Perhaps most importantly, Gardner stayed healthy the whole season, which may have cost his stolen base total (career-low 16), but greatly benefited his play in the outfield. Now stationed in left, Gardner experienced a huge resurgence with his defense, even winning his first career Gold Glove award. His WARP was the second highest since 2011, and while his overall numbers weren’t all that flashy, it was another very solid season for Gardner.
You may be checking out Gardner’s WARP (or fWAR) marks for each season and noticing a gradual decrease on the whole, but don’t let that distract you on Gardner’s achievements. As an oft-banged up speedster who has lost a couple steps, the chances of him aging well and remaining a plus regular were incredibly slim. Gardner’s avoided this rapid decline by constantly adjusting his game, evolving into a number of different profiles but all the while remaining productive. Maybe 2016 lacked the near-20 home runs or near-50 stolen bases we’ve seen in the past from Gardner, but the Yankees were still glad to have him in the lineup and on the field every day. Given this impressive track record, there’s no reason not to expect him to continue to hone his game to highlight his strengths and minimize his weaknesses in the future.