The Yankees have scuffled a bit with a sub-.500 record in the early goings of the 2016 season, and the offense has come under fire. The team's overall slash line of .241/.316/.379 through Monday's game certainly leaves something to be desired. Still, even with the offense underperforming, there have been a fair share of bright spots. Brett Gardner, he of the Yankees' first walk-off of 2016, easily qualifies.
Gardner, coming off a dismal finish to 2015, has opened the 2016 season with a strong offensive showing. He has hit .268/.397/.411, good for a 139 wRC+, which ranks second on the team to Brian McCann. He has also been more active on the base paths, stealing three bases in four attempts. Four attempts may not seem like much, but his current stolen base attempt rate prorates to 36 attempts across a full season, a figure that Gardner has not approached since his 49 stolen base campaign in 2011.
He has also sported an excellent strikeout to walk ratio, striking out just 11 times compared to 10 walks. In totality, this April has essentially been vintage Gardner, providing excitement on the bases and in the field, while combining a quality walk rate with usable power at the plate. But how can he sustain this strong start?
For one, he has hit the ball with authority. Per FanGraphs' batted ball metrics, a third of Gardner's batted balls have been hard hit, a rate that's above league average. He has also been pulling the ball with greater frequency, hitting the ball to his pull side 44.4% of the time, up from his career average of 35.1%. That would seem to be a fine development for Gardner, who owns a 164 career wRC+ when pulling the ball.
Statcast's new data also purports that Gardner is striking the ball well. He has struck fly balls and line drives at an average velocity of 93.83 mph, up from 91.59 in 2015, and has struck ground balls at an average velocity of 90.67 mph, up from 87.17 mph.
While Gardner has generally been regarded as a disciplined hitter, he has taken his plate discipline to another level thus far in 2016. This April, Gardner has been one of the most patient hitters in the game. Here's how Gardner ranks among qualified hitters as far as swing rates:
|2016 League Avg||Gardner||Rank|
As he ranks in the bottom five in O-Swing% (percentage of pitches swung at outside the zone) and in Z-Swing% (percentage of pitches swung at inside the zone), Gardner has posted the lowest overall Swing% in all of baseball. This surely has helped contribute to his 14.7% walk rate, which would be a career high, as well as his 16.2% strikeout rate, which would be his lowest since 2011.
Walking more and striking out less is great, but the fact that Gardner isn't swinging at nearly half of pitches thrown in the zone suggests he's watching a few too many strikes go by. However, when he does swing, he makes it count. In 2016, Gardner has made contact with 97.0% of the balls in the zone that he has swung at, ranking 4th in MLB. He also owns the 3rd lowest swinging strike rate in the majors, at just 2.8%.
Is this evidence of a new approach? Most of his drop in Swing% is due to his decrease in O-Swing%, as his 2016 O-Swing% is nearly nine points lower than his career mark of 22.5%, while his 2016 Z-Swing% is barely off of his 52.0% career figure. It could just be small sample noise, but it is certainly possible that Gardner is making a concerted effort to draw more walks and make better contact simply by swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone.
Perhaps a more pertinent question is this: would a new approach help Gardner hold up as the season wears on? Gardner's late season troubles are well-documented. He hit .302/.377/.484 in the first half last year, compared to .206/.300/.292 in the second half. His career second half wRC+ of 88 is 28 points lower than his career first half wRC+.
Gardner's second half declines have historically stemmed from a drop in power and BABIP. For his career in the first half, Gardner owns a .138 ISO mark and a .340 BABIP, compared to second half figures of .114 and .287. His strike out and walk rates, however, remain the same over a full season (10.0 BB% to 10.4 BB%, 18.8% to 19.1%), suggesting that Gardner has faded not faded late in the year for lack of better plate discipline.
If Gardner's power and ball-in-play numbers are destined to fall as the season progresses, perhaps the best way for him to combat late season struggles is through enhanced plate discipline. It seems possible that as the months pass and as Gardner (along with the rest of the Yankees' veteran lineup) physically erodes, he could maintain value with the bat by continuing to sport an excellent eye.
Either way, Gardner has continued his tradition of starting strong, and has been one of the main reasons the Yankees have stayed afloat thus far. It remains to be seen if his league-leading plate discipline will sustain throughout the year, however, if Gardner is trying out a new, more patient approach, it could help him continue to produce at the plate late in the year.