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Is Brett Gardner really too patient at the plate?

Brett Gardner will occasionally annoy fans by looking at a called third strike. Is it really something he should change?

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Atlanta Braves Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Patience is supposedly a virtue. But in some hitters’ cases, it might actually be a liability. For the Cincinnati Reds, the question of whether Joey Votto was drawing too many walks has been explored in the past. Even though he is very good at making contact, Mike Trout will rack up his fair share of strikeouts, simply because he goes deep into the count so often.

For the Yankees, the same has occasionally been asked about left fielder Brett Gardner. Gardner loves to see a lot of pitches, and is one of the most discerning hitters in all of baseball. One of the inevitable consequences of such a patient approach are plays like these:

In 2016, Gardner struck out looking 32 times, which was tied for 46th place. In case anyone is wondering, Trout and Votto were rung up 46 and 36 times, respectively. Avoiding called third strikes probably shouldn’t be Gardner’s sole reason for being more aggressive at the plate, especially looking at his heat maps, courtesy of Fangraphs:

Gardner is especially good at laying off of pitches that are down and away, which is certainly a useful skill to have. Most pitchers try to bury their breaking balls and offspeed pitches down and away to put hitters away, so it is important to have the discipline to avoid pulling the trigger.

However, Gardner might still stand to benefit from being more aggressive at the plate. Earlier, I found that more patient hitters actually see less first pitch strikes, meaning they are ahead in the count more often. Gardner is no exception to the rule. In 2016, he was ahead in the count for 27.13% of the pitches he saw, which was 13th among the 302 hitters who saw more than 1,000 total pitches.

His production when ahead in the count leaves a something to be missed. In 2016, hitters across the league had a .271/.384/.454 slash line when ahead in the count, which is good for a wRC+ of 126. Here is how Gardner did when ahead in the count, compared to the rest of the league:

Ahead In Count (min. 100 PA, 337 qualified hitters)

Statistic Gardner MLB Gardner Rank
Statistic Gardner MLB Gardner Rank
BA 0.292 0.271 116
OBP 0.426 0.384 68
SLG 0.415 0.454 242
ISO 0.123 0.183 280
wRC+ 137 126 135

He was especially passive when he was ahead in the count. According to Baseball Savant, when Gardner was ahead in the count and pitchers threw something in the strike zone, he swung just 47.1% of the time. Out of 310 qualified hitters, Gardner had the sixth-lowest swing rate under these circumstances.

Still, swinging versus not swinging might not be Gardner’s only issue. The heat map shown above suggests that Gardner likes his pitches on the middle to inner half of the plate, something pitchers are well aware of. Even if he is ahead in the count, there is little sense in forcing the issue on pitches he does not to as well against.

Brett Gardner will always be a patient hitter. As the old saying goes, a leopard can’t change its spots. But if a pitcher makes the mistake of leaving one in the middle of the plate, especially at Yankee Stadium, he should know what to do:

Data is courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant.

h/t to commenters USMCYanks28 and McCann’t, who inspired this post while responding to an older one.