What a difference a month makes. Brett Gardner didn’t just stumble out of the gate to start the 2018 season, he fell flat on his face. He posted a slugging percentage of just .270 in April, and finished the month with a wRC+ of 73. Many wondered if the soon-to-be 35-year-old Gardner, who is in the final year of his contract with the Yankees, was running out of gas.
Then came the month of May, and a brand new Gardner. The bat has looked quicker. The ball sounds better coming off the lumber. After thumping three home runs in four games earlier in the week, Gardner has elevated his May wRC+ to 151, more than double what it was in April.
So, what has been different for Gardner in the calendar month? Did he just have to shake the rust off and settle in for the long season? Looking at his career numbers, Gardner usually fades out at the end of the year instead of taking time to get going at the beginning of the season. Perhaps this season is an exception. Whatever the reason for his early struggles, they have been solved for the time being, thanks to improved plate coverage by Gardner, who is putting the bat on the ball at a much higher rate than he was last month.
In 26 April contests, Gardner struck out 27 times, good for a 21.8 strikeout percentage. After his monster two dinger game against the Astros, he had struck out just 13 times in 21 games, resulting in an eight percent decrease in his strikeout percentage. As the team’s leadoff hitter, the Yankees rely on Gardner to make contact and set the table for the big boppers that linger behind him. It took a month, but Gardner is starting to do his job. In fact, he’s starting to excel at it.
One of the biggest catalysts behind Gardner’s resurgence has been his ability to cover the entire strike zone, and eliminate holes in his swing. We’ve seen Gardner lace outside fastballs into the opposite gap, or pull an inside fastball into the upper deck, like he did on Sunday against the Angels. It shows in the numbers. Take a look at what Gardner’s contact percentage was around the strike zone prior to his breakout performance against the Red Sox in early May, when he smacked a go-ahead triple in the eighth inning:
Now, take a look at the percentages since that 3-for-5 performance against Boston:
There’s still a minor hole on high and tight pitches, but Gardner has been much better covering the plate in the past few weeks. Evidence of this could be seen when he launched the game-tying home run against the Astros on Tuesday night, using his improved bat speed to get to a 97 mph fastball at the letters to take Chris Devenski deep.
Gardner wasn’t getting to that pitch in April, but he has since found his groove, which is huge for a Yankees team that has a few of their usual contributors stuck in slumps (Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius have been struggling of late). With those big bats looking to find their way, continued production from Gardner would be a major boost for the Yanks as they continue their quest to take over first place in the AL East.