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Digging into Brett Gardner’s recent surge

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The veteran seems to have a new approach to support and old skill.

MLB: JUL 05 Yankees at Rays Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Yankees have overcome numerous obstacles during the first half of the 2019 season, to currently lead the American League East has been an great accomplishment considering how gravely their roster was depleted. Fans have fallen in love DJ LeMahieu, Domingo German has emerged as a legitimate starter, and Luke Voit has proven himself to be the future first baseman for the organization.

One player that has gone under the radar at times is Brett Gardner. Signed right after last season ended, Gardner has been consistently penciled in the lineup since the season began. A veteran hitter who was supposed to be the fourth outfielder for the Yankees has been one of four Yankees to record more than 300 plate appearances thus far.

Gardner has seen increased playing because of the Yankees’ littany of injuries, most recently that of Giancarlo Stanton. When Stanton landed on the injured, I made a quick observation of how Gardner had been pulling the ball more than usual, and it was starting to bring him some success. To break down Gardner and his approach of pulling the ball, we’ll split things before and after May 7th. This is when Gardner started showing trends of pulling the ball at an abnormal rate compared to the start of his season and even his career. From May 7th until June 8th, he pulled the ball 50 percent of the time, but the results weren’t in has favor with a wRC+ of 51.

After one whole month of well below average production from Gardner, things started to look brighter, while his 50 percent pull rate became the only constant. The most notable difference is Gardner’s HR/FB rate. Since June 9th, Gardner has watched 30 percent of his fly balls leave the park, while during his slump the rate was eight percent. With more and more players putting the ball in the air, Gardner hasn’t exactly joined the trend fully, as his fly ball percentage has actually dropped, but the times in which he has hit fly balls the results have been positive. According to Statcast, Gardner has pulled four fly balls since June 9th at an average exit velocity of 99.8 mph, and all four fly balls have been home runs.

Another difference for Gardner during this span has been the frequency in which he’s hit line drives. He hit line drives 12 percent of the time during his slump, increasing that rate to 22 percent since June 9th. Gardner is best known as a slap-hitter, not elevating the ball as much but still producing high exit velocity to create hits. As a slap-hitter, Gardner’s approach lends itself to line drives more than high flies. From 2013 through 2017, he hit for a line drive rate over 20%. Gardner has never pulled the ball so often in his career, but if this approach provides him with the ability to hit line drives once again, it’s safe to assume Gardner will keep pulling the ball like he has since May 7th.

Its hard to discuss Gardner and not mention his plate discipline. Comparing the 93 plate appearances from May 7th to June 8th, versus the 87 plate appearances since, the glaring change has been Gardner’s contact percentage against pitches outside the zone. Gardner has been able to avoid swings and misses on bad pitches, bumping his contact rate on balls up by 13.5 percent. That seems like a high number but the effect isn’t seen until looking at the differences in both walk and strikeout rates.

Gardner’s change in O-Contact%

Dates Plate Appearances O-Contact% BB% K%
Dates Plate Appearances O-Contact% BB% K%
5/7-6/8 93 63.00% 5.40% 21.50%
6/9-7/6 87 76.50% 13.80% 16.10%
FanGraphs

It would have been difficult to believe when the season started that Gardner could once again have a chance at reaching 500 plate appearances. His durability has been a staple since breaking into the Yankees lineup during the end of the 2008 season, but the initial idea after his re-signing was that Gardner would fill more of a bench role. Combined with above average defense, Gardner has been able to produce a WAR of 1.6 per FanGraphs, tied with Luke Voit. Since June 9th, Gardner is tied with Gleyber Torres for third place on the team with a wRC+ of 165, while only Aaron Judge has a higher isolated power mark.

So many success stories will define the Yankees’ first half and Gardner might go unnoticed. Even though he might not have taken a lead role, the presumed clubhouse co-leader has performed as a strong supporting cast member. The second half will bring with it more opportunities for Gardner until the return of Stanton and perhaps Cameron Maybin. Until then, the veteran outfielder will be out to prove there is still something left in the plate-disciplined-slap-hitting approach he’s showed for so many years.