Pulling Away: Brett Gardner’s Offensive Resurgence

At the start of 2019, thirty-five year old outfielder Brett Gardner didn’t figure to be a huge part of the Yankees’ season. With Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, and Giancarlo Stanton on the roster and prospect Clint Frazier waiting in the wings, several of the projection systems at FanGraphs pegged Gardner for fewer than 100 games played and around 350 plate appearances in 2019. Injuries to Judge, Hicks, and Stanton and Frazier’s fielding woes in the first half thrust Gardner back into his familiar starting role. He’s already played in 84 games and accumulated 323 plate appearances.

Gardner has made the most of the opportunity. His offensive production has been its best since the 2014 season. The Hitman’s been slashing .246/.328/.470 with a .336 wOBA and 109 wRC+, a notable improvement over his .305 wOBA and 90 wRC+ in 2018. That .470 slugging percentage is the highest of his career as is his .225 ISO. He’s collected 30 extra-base hits including 15 home runs, which is already his fourth highest single-season homer total behind the 21 he hit in 2017 and the 17 and 16 dingers he hit in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Gardner’s improved offense has combined with his usual solid defense (4 defensive runs saved so far in 2019 with almost 400 of his 690 innings coming in center field) for 1.8 fWAR (FanGraphs’ version of WAR) and 2.2 bWAR (Baseball Reference’s version of WAR).

The spike in Gardner’s power numbers is the most obvious difference in his performance, and there are changes in his batted ball profile that seem to support the improvement. Gardner is pulling more balls than he ever has before. According to numbers from FanGraphs, his 44.5% pull rate represents an 8.4% increase over his 2018 pull rate and a 9.8% increase over his career pull rate. At this point of the swing change revolution, it’s probably unsurprising that Gardner is hitting more fly balls in addition to pulling the ball more. His 37.3% fly ball rate also represents a career high (0.6% higher than his best offensive season in 2014) and is a 3.9% increase over 2018. Pulling more balls in the air has apparently led to a surge in Gardner’s hard hit rate, where he’s established another career high so far. His 31.8% hard hit rate is 4.3% higher than his 2018 rate and 2.9% higher than his previous career mark in 2014.

Unlike most swing changes, Gardner hasn’t sacrificed his hallmark contact ability to get there. While Gardner’s chase rate has increased by 2.2% from 2018 to 23.9% (still good for the 18th best mark in MLB in 2019), his 2019 strikeout rate is actually the lowest of his career at 15.5% (a 2.1% improvement over 2018). In addition, his contact rate, at 86.0% in 2019, remains in line with his 86.9% career number. What’s more, his 10.2% walk rate is right in step with his 10.3% career mark (though Gardner’s walk rate has been in a slow decline since the 11.0% rate he put up in 2016).

When comparing video of Gardner from 2018 and 2019, there doesn’t appear to be a major change in his set up. Given his drastic increase in pull rate, it’s likely that Gardner is contacting the ball farther out in front of the plate on a more consistent basis, allowing him to unlock greater offensive production.

Pulled balls lead to better outcomes for hitters. According to Statcast data, all batters in 2019 hit for a .447 wOBA when pulling the ball and a .342 wOBA when hitting to either center or the opposite field. The trend continues dating back to 2015, the first year Statcast data became publicly available: hitters have a .443 wOBA on batted balls to their pull side and a .327 wOBA on all others. Gardner’s results are no different. In fact, they’re even more exaggerated: he boasts a .471 wOBA on pulled balls and a .275 wOBA on all others in 2019; dating back to 2015, he’s hit for a .444 wOBA on pulled balls but only a .300 wOBA when hitting to center and left. Given that pulled batted balls do more damage and that he’s pulling the ball more frequently, Gardner’s boost in offensive production is a sustainable one that he should be able to carry into the second half.

At the start of 2019, Giancarlo Stanton was projected to play in 140 to 150 games, see 600 to 650 plate appearances, and generate between 4 and 5 fWAR. So far, Stanton has played in 9 games, come to the plate 38 times, and contributed 0.2 fWAR. Winning organizations in Major League Baseball today get the most out of every single player on their rosters. While stepping in for Stanton (and others), Gardner’s adjustment has helped him reverse the offensive decline that typically comes with age, and his surge in offensive performance combined with his fielding and baserunning prowess has unexpectedly made up for Stanton’s absence. Whatever the impetus was for Gardner’s change, the Yankees have extracted every bit of value out of their longest-tenured player in the first half of 2019, helping propel them to the AL’s best record over that span.

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