One of the major storylines during the second half of the 2015 season was the disappearing production of Brett Gardner, who mashed his way onto the American League All-Star team. After the break, Gardner had a meager .206/.300/.292 slash line. Hitting coach Alan Cockrell said Gardner's struggles at the plate might have had to do with a wrist injury that just never went away.
In the Wild Card game against the Astros, Gardner definitely hurt his wrist while making a leaping catch, according to Ryan Hatch at NJ.com. In some less than reassuring news, the wrist was still bothering Gardner when he arrived to spring training. With Opening Day around the corner, there are a few things to look for when trying to decide whether Gardner is back to being his old self.
A large part of Gardner's offensive decline was due to his inability to pull the ball with authority. In the second half, his flyball percentage climbed to an uncharacteristically high 37.4%. Unfortunately, his Pull% remained the same. Of Gardner's 56 career home runs, 51 have been hit to right field. While he is a deceptively big guy, there is only so much opposite field power that a 5'10", 185 lbs. hitter can produce, especially with his relatively level swing.
Hitting more flyballs sapped his BABIP, and he wasn't able to add the power that usually justifies a flyball-centric approach. Early in the season, look for the selective aggression that helped him make the transition from a speed and defense oriented centerfielder to an above average corner outfielder.
More specifically, a good way to tell where Gardner is at is by watching his approach at home versus his strategy away from the Bronx. In 2014, his batted ball rates were pretty similar, especially when compared to his 2015 season:
|Season (Home/Away)||Pull%||Center%||Opposite%||Home Run/Flyball%|
It is tough to speculate on what was going on in Gardner's mind, but the stats can help us make an educated guess. In 2014, he pulled the ball more than ever before in his career, both at home and on the road. Fans might remember when he terrorized Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish in Texas, only to earn the ace's everlasting respect.
Gardner carried his new approach into 2015, but only at home. Away from Yankee Stadium, he may have opted for an up the middle approach, knowing he didn't have the benefit of the short porch in right field. However, it didn't work in his potentially compromised state, as he put up a .650 OPS on the road, compared to an .838 OPS at home.
A more subtle difference between Gardner's first half and second half is that he didn't steal bases as often. However, this appeared to be more of a team-wide phenomenon. It is possible that sliding headfirst would have aggravated his alleged wrist injury more, but there is no way to tell if that is why he became less aggressive on the basepaths.
Brett Gardner's story is well-documented among Yankee fans. A common theme during his career has been the complete maximization of his potential as a player. He walked on to his college baseball team and dominated, forcing his way into the third round of the MLB Draft. In the big leagues, he used his blazing speed to wreak havoc on the basepaths. After he began to lose his prolific speed, he used his tremendous contact ability and plate discipline to reinvent himself as a hitter, adding power with a selectively aggressive approach.
If he is really back to normal, he will be able to confidently drive the ball to right field again, instead of hitting lazy flyballs to the biggest part of the ballpark. Even if it doesn't immediately show in the home run column, seeing Gardner hit to the pull side more would suggest that he is back. Hopefully a much-needed offseason will have been just what the doctor ordered for Gardner. If he and Jacoby Ellsbury can produce like they did during the first half of last season, it will be a long year for pitchers in the AL East.
Data is courtesy of FanGraphs.