The Yankees are two games over .500, and hitting home runs, despite the absence of several major stars. By now the tale is a familiar one; boo-hoo the Yankees are missing several bats that represented 200 of their 245 total home runs last season.
“Deal with it,” fans of other ball clubs probably yelled. Well, they are actually. The Yankees are tied with the Oakland Athletics for first in the American League in home runs (20), and rank second in batting average (.276) and fourth in runs scored (68). They are also second in OPS (.814). But we covered last week how the balls are flying out of the park for the Bronx Bombers, despite an drastically different lineup.
Today, it’s time to highlight the play of Brett Gardner, who only appeared in 16 games last season. Gardner’s offensive performance has been passable thus far—he’s batting .240 with two home runs, six RBI and eight runs scored. He has no stolen bases, which is surprising, but he’s reaching base at a .321 clip and rocking a .741 OPS, which isn’t impressive in a vacuum but is three points away from doubling his career average.
He’s been useful at the plate, but elite with the glove. Gardner’s UZR is a 2.9 right now, which cannot be understated with the aging duo of Vernon Wells and Ichiro Suzuki flanking him most nights in the outfield. In addition, he’s replacing Curtis Granderson in center field, who cost the Yankees 18.1 runs with his defense last season according to Fangraphs.com.
Gardner has already made 10 plays outside of his zone and is currently sporting a 44.8 UZR/150 rating, as opposed to Granderson’s -18.5 in 2012. Wells has been a slightly above average left fielder thus far, and Ichiro has actually been a very, very slight negative in the field. Combined with his batting woes, Ichiro has had to cede time to Brennan Boesch, who has been a negative impact defensively for his entire career.
Well that’s all fine and dandy you might say. Great glove but doesn’t he still have to hit? Yes, he does. But take heart, the .240 average is likely to give way to bigger and better things. Let’s start with Gardner’s BABIP, which is at .263 right now or 54 points below his career norm. His fly ball percentage is at 43.2 percent, up 13.2 percent from his average. For some that might be an encouraging indication of ascending power, but in Gardner’s case he’s better off hitting the ball on the ground and wreaking havoc with his legs. Expect the fly balls to come down a bit.
Those numbers say a lot, but one number sticks out that will do more to determine what his hitting looks like as the year progresses. Gardner’s swinging at 30 percent of pitches thrown to him outside of the strike zone, an increase of nearly 10 percent from 2011. That has, in turn, caused a 3.3 percent spike in his swinging strike percentage. Gardner’s chief value to the lineup, whether he was leading off or batting ninth, was his penchant for seeing tons of pitches and making opposing starters work to get him out. His two home runs might seem nice on the surface, but he’d be wise to not become intoxicated with Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch.
With Ichiro scuffling badly Gardner is going to be at the top of the lineup often. If he can return to his pitch-count inflating self atop the order, and distract pitchers and defenses alike on the base paths, Brett “The Hitman” Gardner could make himself one of the Yankees’ most indispensable assets.