It is no secret that Brett Gardner sees a lot of pitches. He has always demonstrated a good knowledge of the strike zone and can make contact with the best of them. In 2016, he had an overall contact rate of 86%, which was 18th among qualified hitters. He also saw 4.09 pitches per plate appearance, which was the 16th highest total in baseball.
The interesting thing about the latter stat is that Gardner actually had a down year in terms of seeing pitches. From 2013-2015, Gardner finished sixth, second, and fourth respectively in pitches per plate appearance, a true testament to his patience at the plate. One theory among baseball fans is that Gardner’s ability to draw out at-bats helps the team as a whole, since other players in the lineup get the chance to see the opposing pitcher’s stuff. Going deeper into an at-bat would force pitchers to use their breaking and offspeed stuff, giving the hitter in the on-deck circle an extended look.
It makes sense in theory, but whether it actually happens in practice is a different story. In 2016, Gardner spent most of the first half hitting in the two hole. In early July, Joe Girardi switched him and Jacoby Ellsbury around. At the time, Gardner had a slightly higher on base percentage, but Ellsbury was hitting for a bit more power and was not striking out as much. The demotion was not kind to Ellsbury, who hit.250/.316/.333 when batting second in the lineup in 2016. When leading off, he had a .264/.330/.384 slash line.
But perhaps the Gardner effect might have impacted the production of hitters in the three hole, right? It would follow that production among three hitters dipped after Gardner moved up to the leadoff spot. Unfortunately, once Gary Sanchez made his big league debut in the second half, he forever skewed the data with his video game-like performance.
Going back to 2015 doesn’t provide substantial evidence either. In 2015, Gardner hit second for most of the season, except for a short stretch which saw Jacoby Ellsbury land on the DL from May to July. Alex Rodriguez hit third for most of 2015 and had a .907 OPS on May 19, 2015, when Ellsbury went down. Over his next 44 games, his OPS dipped to .878, suggesting that he might have missed having Gardner ahead of him. But after Gardner slid back down to the two hole, A-Rod’s OPS fell to .786.
Furthermore, when Ellsbury was injured in 2015, third baseman Chase Headley took most of the at-bats in the vacated two spot, putting up a .267/.319/.335 slash line when hitting second. Headley did most of his damage while hitting sixth, where he had a .287/.377/.487 slash line.
If there is a quantifiable benefit to hitting behind Brett Gardner, the last two years of data don’t show it. However, this kind of analysis makes some very strong assumptions, and should be taken with a grain of salt. For example, A-Rod’s second half decline in 2015 probably had much more to do with his BABIP taking a nosedive than who was hitting in front of him. In any case, Gardner figures to be leading off in 2017. Hopefully, whoever is hitting behind him will reap the benefits of having him work the count.
Data is courtesy of Fangraphs and ESPN.