Earlier this season, Brett Gardner looked finished. His offense was lifeless. While the rest of the Yankees feasted on opposing pitchers, Gardner rarely lifted the bat off his shoulder. His anemic play left many wondering if he even belonged in the lineup. At Pinstripe Alley, we felt he deserved a longer leash, but apprehension was understandable.
Shortly after we ran that story, Gardner kicked his game into gear. Since April 29th, the Yankees left fielder has hit .375/.432/.875 with six home runs and two doubles. That includes a pair of multi-home run games. He also launched the game-winning shot against the Cubs at Wrigley Field on Friday, the one with the 80-grade baserunning.
After that home run, I asked myself: “What got into Gardner?” How did he go from a blackhole at the plate to a power threat? Were there adjustments, and if so, when did they occur? We know that something changed. The interesting questions, however, are what and why? Upon some research, a few notable trends emerged.
First, he’s actually swinging the bat. Gardner took plate discipline to extreme levels early in the season. He displayed passivity instead of patience at the plate. By April 20th, Gardner had swung at just 30% of all pitches he saw. He didn’t even take many swings at pitches in the zone. For nearly a month, Gardner was annoyingly passive. This trend, however, appears to be reversing.
Gardner is swinging at more pithes across the board. The yellow line in the above chart stands out as the key. That represents how often he swings at pitches in the zone. If you want to hit for power, you have to take good swings. That means taking chances on pithes in the zone, namely the mistakes and other hittable offerings. You can’t put up power numbers if you let the ball sail on by.
Location proves another key to Gardner’s power surge. This goes part-in-parcel with his plate discipline. He’s identified his sweet spot, particularly pitches down in the zone. Through April 28th, Gardner primarily turned on pitches right down the middle. He made few attempts on any other offering.
After April 29th, however, he began to connect on pitches in the lower-half of the zone.
Gardner has shown the ability to take a pitch down at his knees and golf if out for extra bases. He’s not just swinging more frequently, he’s also hitting the ball with authority. Particularly, he’s tattooing pitches low in the zone.
One of the most important, and often understated, aspects of Gardner’s power surge is health. On April 12th, in a game at Yankee Stadium, he collided with Rays first baseman Rickie Weeks Jr. Gardner was diagnosed with a strained neck and bruised jaw, but luckily escaped further damage. Upon returning to the lineup two days later, he fell into a dreadful 10 game spell. He hit just .121/.293/.152 with only one double.
“You often wonder if that collision affected him,” Yankees Manager Joe Girardi told the New York Post. “You want to say no, but sometimes soreness in some spots may cause you to swing a little bit different and it just messes you up.”
While Gardner hasn’t admitted as much, the numbers indicate that the injury took a toll on his batting. The further he moves away from the collision, however, the more impressive his at-bats become. Health, in concert with a relaxed plate discipline, appears to account for Gardner’s power surge.
The Yankees have established themselves as the American League’s premier power hitting team. They lead the league in both ISO and home runs, with marks of .189 and 50, respectively. Although he arrived late, Gardner is in on the party. He appears to have found his home run stroke, and there are reasons to believe it’s sustainable. He won’t continue to hit at a Ruthian level of production, but even if he regresses to his career rates, he’ll fit into the Yankees’ lineup nicely.