New York Yankees v Detroit Tigers - Game 4

Despite injuries, looming/eternal scandals, and a May swoon, the New York Yankees are still in it. Vernon Wells and Travis Hafner plunged back to earth in May with alarming speed while Robinson Cano was merely human, but the Yanks are still just just a game-and-a-half behind Boston for the lead in the American League East. CC Sabathia‘s fastball velocity is down, but he still managed to pitch to the score yesterday as the Yankees got the 6-4 over Cleveland.

Yesterday’s victory in New York also featured a home run from, off all people, speedy-n-scrappy Brett Gardner – a three-run shot in the bottom of the second that put the Yankees up 6-0. It was Gardner’s sixth home run of the season. In May, Gardner was actually the Yankees’ best hitter. That is very, to put it mildly, surprising. After losing 2012 to injury, saber-favorite Gardner seems to be back doing his thing. But it is a bit different that his Old Thing. The speed and defense are still there, but is it the same Gardner?

It is not as if six home runs in 247 plate appearances is some fantastic number. Over a full season, that pace would not even be quite 20 if he got plenty of at-bats. But for Gardner, of course, it is a lot. To put things in perspective, Gardner’s single-season career high for home runs thus far is seven, set in 2011 over 588 plate appearances. Six home runs is as many as any Kansas City Royals regular currently has on the year, and Gardner’s .164 isolated power is higher than any Royals regular. Yeah, it’s the Royals, but still, yeah, it’s also Brett Gardner we are talking about.

Confession: I am something of a Brett Gardner partisan. Back when he was a prospect in the minors, I did not pay much attention to him even by the standards of my prospect-ignorance of those days. He just seemed like another fast dude with no power who would not make it in the majors — especially since his strikeout rates were not great for a guy who needed to utilize his legs. But during the 2009 season he began to catch my eye, as he not only was clearly very good defensively, but seemed to be at least adequate on offense, as well.

Despite the lack of power and an only-decent strikeout rate, he still managed to draw enough walks to get on base a decent amount. Combined with his speed on the bases an in the field, he looked like he could be at least an average outfielder for the Yankees. I still remember a certain well-known Yankees blogger (who shall remain nameless because I’m a nice guy) writing that Gardner just would not cut it for their center fielder, and that they Yankees should try to make a trade for Cody Ross.

My response to that blogger is lost in the old Driveline Mechanics SBNation graveyard, but prior to the 2010 season, I did write about how Gardner had the offensive and defensive skills to be at least average as a full-time outfielder, and perhaps could have a monster year in him like the one Nyjer Morgan in 2009. Of course, I was a bit naive about fielding metrics in general back then, and Morgan was probably overrated by them in 2009. But the general point was that Gardner did project to be almost average offensively, enough that with his defense he might be above-average, and that it would not take much of an “overshoot” of his offensive and defensive projections to be more.

He was more. In 2010 Gardner was the Yankees primary left fielder (sure, he was a better fielder than recently-acquired center fielder Curtis Granderson, but it did not seem to matter) making plays few left fielders could contemplate. Gardner was not only fast, but made great reads. If his arm was not strong, he still got to balls quickly enough to get into position to keep runners from taking advantage of it. His base running was also tremendous, taking the extra base constantly and going 47-for-56 when trying to steal a base.

What was perhaps the biggest pleasant surprise was Gardner’s bat. While his strikeouts rate to almost 18 percent, despite the lack of power to scare off pitchers he still managed a walk rate of almost 14 percent. He simply waited out pitchers to get a pitch he could make contact with and went for it. Drawing infielders a bit in with his ability to bunt for a hit likely also have his frequent grounders a chance to get through, and combined with his speed and handedness, that .340 BABIP did not seem to be a total fluke. It was a nice package as a whole, and Gardner finished the season at 6.0 fWAR and 7.4 rWAR.

Gardner had clearly had the season of his life in 2010, and so our old friend regression seemed due to visit, especially give how heavily Gardner’s estimated value depended on dubious fielding metrics and BABIP. The specter of Nyjer Morgan’s brutal follow-up to his 2009 season loomed. Still, leaving issues with fielding metrics aside, I thought that Gardner had good chance to avoid a Morgan-esque collapse. For one thing, Morgan canceled out most of his base running value by getting caught stealing often, a problem Gardner did not have. For another, Gardner took walks, which helped his offensive value even when the balls were not falling in. Morgan did not.

Gardner did end up regressing offensively in 2011, as his BABIP dropped to around .300 and his walks dropped a bit, too. However, he actually improved his strikeout rate, and combined with his ability to take a walk, kept his hitting at about league average (97 wRC+). And once again, that was enough, combined with great defense and base running, to make him a well above-average player.

[Yes, I am sort of honking my own horn here, but give me a break, Gardner is one of the two or three things I have been right about after scores of, um, other things, so let me have this. Please.]

But enough history. Gardner missed basically all of 2012 with an injury. Coming into 2013, there was talk of (finally) moving Gardner to center and Granderson to left, but Granderson getting hurt in Spring Training thrust Gardner directly into center field (although the word is that when/if Granderson ever gets healthy, he will go back to center since he never got time to adjust to left earlier. Or something.). So far, Gardner seems to have handled the switch back to center decently.

But it is Gardner’s bat that of special interest here, given his new found “power stroke.” Gardner’s .164 isolated power thus far in 2013 is, of course, the highest of his career. This jump isn’t completely dependent on his home runs (Gardner is also hitting doubles on hits in play at a higher rate than in the past previous seasons), it is the biggest reason for the increase in isolated power. Gardner’s 2013 rate of home runs on plate appearances ending in contact is more than twice his pre-2013 career rate, and his home runs per fly ball rate has also increased. It is a small sample from the season, but we have reached a point where it does begin to matter a bit, although the past still weights more heavily.

Yet it is worth noticing that despite the big increase in power, Gardner’s 106 wRC+ in 2013 is lower than his 112 in 2010. While Gardner only had a .103 isolated power in 2010 and slugged under .400, he also got on base at a much higher rate (.383 as opposed to this seasons’s .333). Part of that was 2010′s superior BABIP at .340, but it is not as if Gardner is getting terribly unlucky on balls in play this year at .333. There are three factors to consider here.

First, Gardner is simply not putting as many balls into play in 2013 as he did in 2010 and 2011. His strikeout rate is up to 20 percent, and back in those years it around 16 to 18 percent. While strikeout rate is its own best predictor, it is worth noting here that his contact rate (which does correlate well with strikeout rate, obviously) is also down from those seasons.

In addition, the power improvement is also offset by a decrease in Gardner’s walk rate from 14 percent in 2011 to about nine percent this year. Again, more while more granular plate discipline peripherals do not always tell the whole story, they do reflect a shift for Gardner. His 2013 swing rate (which I have found to relate to walk rates more strongly than percentage of swings outside the zone, although that has also increased a great deal for Gardner) is still better than league average, he is swinging at significantly more pitches than in the past.

Third, not only is Gardner being more aggressive while making less contact, the sort of contact he is making might also hurt his average on balls in play. Obviously, hitting for more power is a good thing. But there is a trade off. Gardner is hitting fly balls at the highest rate of his career. While thus far in 2013 his pop-ups are less frequent than 2011, at least, and his home runs per fly balls is way off, it is also true that fly balls tend to result in fewer hits in play than ground balls. Gardner also seems to be hitting more line drives, but for various reasons that is a problematic thing to lean on, statistically speaking. Moreover, for Gardner in particular, keeping the ball on the ground takes better advantage of his speed.

Now, it is an open question whether Gardner has actually taken a new approach or whether this is just random variation over one third of the season. Furthermore, it is not as if Gardner is a bad hitter now — a 106 wRC+ is more than good enough for a center fielder with good defense. But it is fair to wonder how sustainable this is for Gardner. Being a bit less reliant on his speed for his offense might help him age better. On the other hand, Gardner has never hit for this much power, even in the minors, so it seems doubtful he can keep it up. Those flies going out of the stadium for homers now are obviously better than grounders he can beat out for singles, but it seems unlikely he can keep up the rate of the former to the point of overshadowing the old benefit he got from the latter. And if he is putting balls in play less frequently, his on-base skills will suffer, as they will from his increased aggressiveness.

As Jeff Sullivan notes in a piece from yesterday, descriptively speaking, wRC+ indicates that Gardner is not really a better or worse hitter, just different. The question is, if this is the result of adjustments, whether he can keep it up.

This is also an interesting question for the Yankees as they head into Gardner’s last arbitration-eligible season before free agency. Barring disaster, the Yankees will want to keep Gardner around. But do they really want to sign him to an extension? For one, there is the big injury question — Gardner not only missed pretty much all of last season, but had other nagging injury issues (such as a thumb problem) before. For another, while his ability to take a walk makes Gardner more than one-trick on offense, his game both in the field and and the plate is predicated so heavily on his speed that once that starts to go in his 30s (Gardner turns 30 in August), he has little else to fall back on. Is is also the case Gardner is the kind of player that gets undervalued in arbitration since he does not hit for much of an average and his home run and RBI numbers are not great. Why not come to a cheap arbitration settlement rather than extend him a guaranteed contract?

This will be a more fruitful point of discussion after the season ends. For now, Gardner is playing well. But it is not as though Gardner is Carlos Gomez, a younger player with superior tools who got a contract based on future potential, a contract he seems to be living up to and then some. Whether Gardner reverts to his older, more patient and slaptastic (in a good way) form at the plate, and, either way, whether he stays at around league average or gets worse could play a big role in his future with the Yankees or elsewhere.

But even if things get worse, I guess I’ll always have 2010 and 2011.