The 2013 iteration of Brett Gardner has looked quite a bit different than the version of years past. Prior to this season, Gardner was arguably the game's most selective hitter, swinging at roughly one third of pitches thrown to him. This season excluded, he's never shown much ability to hit the ball with authority, so it made sense for him to shift his attention towards drawing walks, enabling him to use his plus-plus speed to wreak havoc on the bases. Gardner's made it work, as evidenced by his roughly league-average offensive performance, but he's taken another step forward since the calendar turned to 2013.
While Gardner's skill set is well suited for a relatively disciplined approach, it appeared he had gone too far in that regard. This year, he's adopted a more aggressive strategy at the plate and he's hitting for more power than ever before. The change in approach is the direct result of his working with Kevin Long prior to the season, stemming from Gardner's feeling like he was missing out on too many hittable pitches. Judging by his swinging tendencies, he was almost certainly correct. He had swung at just 33.8% of pitches thrown to him in his career-- the lowest total of any hitter with 30(!) or more PA's since 2002, when plate discipline stats were first recorded. He also watched an astounding 89.5% of first pitches go by, 15% higher than the league average. One more fun fact: Up until this year, he had never swung at a first pitch curveball despite having 85 thrown to him.
This year has been different for Gardner. With a 42.2% clip, he's swinging significantly more often than in years past, and twice as often on the first pitch he sees. Although it's still a relatively small sample, the change looks to be paying off. He's currently in the midst of his best offensive season to date as evidenced by his 116 wRC+ and has already matched his career high in homeruns with seven. He's also hitting doubles more frequently than in years past. Unsurprisingly, the increased aggressiveness has resulted in fewer walks, but he has still managed to walk at a rate higher than league average. In a season where the Yankees offense has been one of the worst in baseball, Gardner has been one of the few bright spots in the lineup. Coupled with his gold-glove caliber defense and great baserunning, he's performed like one of baseball's premier outfielders this year-- Fangraphs WAR pegs him as the 10th best outfielder this season.
New approach aside, Gardner's not going to keep hitting for the type of power that he has. It would absurd to assume a guy with little history of hitting for power can maintain an ISO north of .160 when .113 is his career mark. It's also worth noting that he has batted in front of Robinson Cano in roughly half of his games, which may have played a role in him seeing a few more pitches in the strike zone. Still, it's certainly reasonable to expect him to end the season with at least 11 or 12 homeruns, pretty impressive considering that he had just 15 career homers heading into the year. On the surface, Gardner's power surge looks a little fluky, given his track record, but his new strategy at the plate gives us at least some reason to believe that the new Brett Gardner is here to stay.
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