Gardner's Approach At the Plate

Brien Jackson over at IIATMS took a look at Brett Gardner‘s approach at the plate, and reached an interesting conclusion. After noting that Gardner does poorly when behind in the count and pointing out that he swings at less than half the strikes he sees, Brien says:

So far this season Gardner has gone to an 0-1 count in 11 of his 14 plate appearances, and bunted on the first pitch in another one. He’s gotten a first pitch ball just twice in the teams first three games. Patience may be a virtue, but there’s a fine line between patience and passivity, and Gardner may be walking on the wrong side of that line. If opposing pitchers are going to feed Gardner fastballs in the zone early in his at bats, Gardner is going to have to start taking advantage of that at some point. Especially if he’s going to be hitting at the top of this Yankees’ lineup.

This conclusion sounded intuitively correct to me, in that you would assume that pitchers would start throwing more strikes to a player who is prone to let them pass by. However, something that I wrote prior to last season led me to believe that my intuition may be mistaken:

Gardner does not like to swing the bat. I think some of his walk rate is artificial because he often just keeps the bat on his shoulders. If the pitcher throws strikes, Gardner is almost certain to be in a tough count, and as pitchers learn this, he will walk less frequently.[…] Gardner has more plate patience than he has discipline. As a fairly weak hitter who cannot make pitchers pay when they groove one over, Gardner may begin to see a ton of strikes early in the count. If that means he will trade some walks for hits, that would be fine. But if some of those walks begin turning into outs, Brett will lose some value.

You will note that this conclusion tracks very closely to Brien’s, as it suggests that pitchers will begin to throw him more strikes and he will be forced to adjust his approach to remain effective. This assumption led me to be wary about installing Gardner as an everyday player, and I will admit that I have always been something of a doubter when it comes to Brett Gardner.

So how does this contradict the idea that Brett may be forced to alter his approach? Well, I shared my concerns prior to the 2010 season, and I was far from the only writer to comment during that offseason regarding Gardner’s approach. You have to assume that if bloggers were aware of this issue and potential flaw, opposing teams had picked up on it as well. Advanced scouting has become incredibly detailed, and most teams have statisticians on hand who can utilize the same data that the bloggers were using. Yet Gardner went out in 2010 and notched a .383 OBP, surpassing the expectations of even the most optimistic Yankees fans. Furthermore, pitchers threw Gardner no more first pitch strikes in 2010 than they did in 2009 (57.4% to 56.2%), and actually threw fewer pitches in the strike zone than they had in the previous season (50.2% to 48.3%), despite the fact that Brett actually swung less than he had in 2009 (34.2% to 31%).

The data clearly shows that pitchers did not try and take advantage of Gardner’s passivity last season. While it is possible that they caught on over this offseason, it would represent a sudden reversal of course by the entire league to a hitter who has been in the league for two seasons. Furthermore, even if pitchers do alter course in attacking Gardner, I am not so certain that this would represent a problem for Brett. As Joe Pawlikowski of RAB said to me:

It’s not as though pitchers can just choose to throw him more strikes without facing other consequences. If they’re going to consciously throw him more strikes, it increases the chances that they’re going to make mistakes within the zone. That’s going to create other opportunities for Gardner.

Gardner is a high contact, high BABIP hitter, and more pitches thrown in the strike zone should result in an increased hit total that should replace the walks he had been drawing under the old approach. Putting this all together, I do not think there is any evidence to suggest that pitchers are inclined to throw Brett more strikes than they did in the past, and if they do, I doubt it greatly impacts his effectiveness.