Brett Gardner has never been a power hitter. His slugging percentage topped out at .422 in 2014, and he has just 63 home runs across his ten-year career. He's a fast, patient hitter who knows the best way for him to help the Yankees on offense is to simply get on base.
Gardner seemed to take that strategy to the limit last year. His slugging mark of .361 was his lowest such figure in a full season, and his OBP (.351) was at its highest level since 2010. Rather than swinging for the fences, much like the rest of baseball, he was extremely patient at the plate, posting one of the lowest swing rates in the league.
This year, however, Gardner has been even more extreme with his patient hitting approach. It is, of course, very early in the season, and what Gardner has done for the first few weeks is not at all a sure predictor of what he will do in the coming weeks, but at this early junction, Gardner has been nearly the most patient hitter in the game.
Through Tuesday's games, Gardner has swung at just 30% of the pitches he has seen, with only Dodgers second baseman Logan Forsythe having swung less often (plate discipline data courtesy of FanGraphs). Gardner also has the second-lowest swing rate on pitches in the strike zone at 47%, and has swung at pitches outside of the zone only 19% of the time. He has taken seven called strikes in the heart of the strike zone, second-most in the majors according to Baseball Savant.
Somewhat curious is that pitchers haven't adjusted to Gardner's passive approach, at least not yet. At this point, opposing teams' advance scouts surely note that Gardner is one of the least free-swinging hitters in the game, but opposing pitchers haven't challenged him. Only 39% of the pitches Gardner has seen this year have been in the zone, well below the league average of about 45%. Opposing pitchers also start Gardner with a first-pitch strike only 49% of the time, compared to the league average of 60%, even though they're surely armed with the knowledge that Gardner is unlikely to swing.
Obviously, Gardner's selectivity at the plate should lead to a plenty of walks, and Gardner has already drawn nine bases on balls in just 53 plate appearances. His current walk rate of 17%, if sustained for the whole season, would be a career high.
However, there's a limit to how valuable a hitter can be if he simply never tries to hit the ball with authority. Last year's version of Gardner, the one that popped just seven homers during a year in which the ball was flying over fences league-wide, was still basically a league-average hitter thanks to his on-base skills. If Gardner's power continues to atrophy, however, his OBP can only carry him so far. Gardner's OBP this year is about the same as it was last year, but coupled with a .250 slugging, his 2017 wRC+ is 79. It's so early that that figure means very little, but it illustrates what Gardner's offensive floor could be if his power declines further than it did last season.
What's slightly worrisome, though, is that Gardner's selectivity hasn't helped him strike the ball with any more authority. Intuitively, one would think that a batter that was ultra-selective about what he swung at would generally swing at a higher rate of good pitches to hit and thus would make more and better contact. In this small sample, Gardner hasn't.
Gardner actually swung at a similarly low rate of pitches last April, and he posted a minuscule swinging strike rate of 3.5% and an excellent overall contact rate of 89%. Again, small samples here, but Gardner's swinging strike rate and contact rates are 4.8% and 84%, respectively, this year, both worse than his career averages. Since the season is so young, this isn't yet a concern, but it's not exactly a good sign that Gardner’s patient approach hasn't yielded more good contact.
In fact, to say he hasn't produced quality contact would be an understatement. His groundball rate of 55% is sky-high, and his average exit velocity of 78 mph is very poor compared to the league average of about 88 mph.
I can't emphasize enough that the sample in which this has occurred is much too small to make this a concern. Rather, Gardner's approach is just something to keep an eye on moving forward. Gardner has generally been a patient hitter during his career, and he's simply taken it to the extreme so far this year. That doesn't mean this approach will persist through the summer. It might not even persist through Memorial Day. It has persisted for a few weeks, though, which has been just enough to warrant a raised eyebrow.