Brett Gardner Has Been a Completely Different Hitter in 2017
When the New York Yankees dealt away Aroldis Chapman, Carlos Beltran and Andrew Miller at last season's trade deadline, it looked like the team was heading into a rebuild. With a restocked farm system, the organization could cultivate their own talent and wait for the future to arrive, all while suffering through a bit of of mediocrity at the big-league level.
The future arrived quickly, however. The Pinstripes wound up contending for the playoffs until the final week of last season, and the Yankees are in first place in the American League East this year on the backs of young players such as Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez.
But the young guns are not the only Yankees who are having great seasons -- veterans are, as well. Brett Gardner is one of those veterans. The outfielder is having a career year at the age of 33, and he is doing it as a completely different hitter than he's been in years past.
Brett Gardner: Power Threat?
One of the most notable differences in Gardner this year compared to the rest of his career is his power numbers. A speedster, Gardner was never known for being a power threat prior to this year, but he's swinging a big stick in 2017.
The nine home runs he's hit this year are already his third-most in a single season, and he is more than halfway to topping his previous career high of 17. He has a .247 ISO, significantly above his career number of .129. In turn, he has a slash line of .281/.373/.527 with a wRC+ of 145 -- all of which are above his career marks of .264/.347/.393 with a 105 wRC+.
He's done this while maintaining a BABIP of .311 that is actually lower than his career clip of .317. That shows he is not benefiting from luck.
So, what has changed for Gardner? After not hitting for much power in 1,067 games, how has he become a power threat in the twilight of his career?
Making Better Contact
The main reason why Gardner has gone from a solid-but-uninspiring offensive player to 22nd among all qualified players and 8th among all qualified outfielders in wRC+ is because of the kind of contact he is making.
|Year||Ground-Ball Rate||Fly-Ball Rate||Pull-Rate||Hard-Hit Rate||Soft-Hit Rate|
He is making better contact than he has over his career, and it has been a big help in improving his offensive game. His hard-hit rate is up over 10% compared to his career average, and his soft-hit rate is down -- that alone will make his offense more appealing (and could lead to a rise in BABIP later in the season, if it continues).
While he still hits the ball on the ground a lot, he is doing it far less than usual, and in turn, he is putting more balls in the air. With the league-wide rise in home runs coupled with a desire to hit the ball in the air as much as humanly possible, there is a new mantra for hitters, and Gardner seems to be falling into that line of thinking.
According to Statcast, his launch angles are a little different, as well. In 2017, launch angles are closer to 15 and 20 degrees, whereas in 2016 and 2015, his launch angles were more commonly placed in between zero and 15 degrees. While it sounds like a small difference, his ability to stay in between 15 and 20 degrees more often than not is keeping the ball in the air and off the ground, and more fly balls -- especially hard-hit ones -- means more power.
Pulling the Ball and Home Runs
Gardner is an interesting home run hitter, and his significant rise in pull rate listed in the table above is key to his developing power.
Below are his home run scatter points from his 2014, 2015 and 2017 seasons (his three highest home run totals in his career), respectively, with an overlay of Yankee Stadium's dimensions.
As you can see, Gardner loves to pull the ball out of the ballpark. The closest he got to an opposite field home run was a shot to near-dead center in 2015 -- besides that, every other home run is safely pulled.
He's followed the directions on the back of the "How to Become a Power Hitter?" box very well -- increase the hard-hit rate, hit more fly balls and pull the ball more often. Check, check and check.
Can He Sustain It?
He has increased both his hard-hit rate and is pulling the ball at a career-high rate (save for his 16-game season in 2012, which was interrupted by a season-ending elbow injury). Couple that with a newfound ability to hit the ball in the air, and his early season uptick in power looks like something that may last.
Gardner also plays in a stadium that is perfect for him -- Yankee Stadium is a tiny ballpark, and home runs are there in spades. Six of his nine home runs have been hit at home, and it is certainly a consideration in talking about his rise in power. If he can continue to hit the ball hard and in the air as often as he is, especially playing his home games in arguably the best place for home runs for lefties, we could see the 33-year-old set a career-high in dingers.
While it is rare for someone with his age and experience at the big-league level makes a significant adjustment in their mechanics or approach, it is far from impossible (see: Daniel Murphy).
While Gardner may not maintain his home-run-to-fly-ball ratio of 23.7% (good for 25th best in baseball), his promising batted-ball numbers and perfect stadium situation show that a career-high power output is not unrealistic.