Gardner Is Swinging at Nothing

Last year I wrote an article about Luis Castillo‘s extreme approach at the plate. His no-power swing rarely missed, so he could take a large number of pitches with under two strikes, because, if he got to two strikes, he had little chance of whiffing on strike three. The upshot was that he extended at-bats hoping to accumulate enough balls to get a walk or find a pitch he really liked to hit. It is an intriguing approach for low-power guys who have the contact skills and plate discipline to pull it off.

So far this year the new poster boy for such an approach is Brett Gardner. He has always employed it to some extent but this year taken it to new levels with his league-lowest 30% swing rate and 40% Z-swing rate. Gardner does not have quite the contact skills of Castillo — though has more power — but so far this year he has shown an amazing ability to make contact with pitches in the zone. Here are all the pitches Gardner has seen so far this year, color coded by pitch type. Pitches he took are in a light color and pitches he whiffed are encircled.

At least according to pitchf/x he has whiffed on nothing unequivocally in the zone (the plate discipline section on the player pages is based on BIS data). He has whiffed on some breaking and off-speed stuff below the zone and on a couple of fastballs above the zone, but not much. You can also see the huge number of pitches he has taken in the strike zone.

Gardner is not going to keep up his .419 wOBA — buoyed by a .380 BABIP and 13 steals on 14 attempts — and probably will not have more walks than strikeouts at the end of the year. But even before this year he was an above-average offensive player and these first 94 PAs suggest he will be even better this year.

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Dave Allen's other baseball work can be found at Baseball Analysts.

25 Responses to “Gardner Is Swinging at Nothing”

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  1. Evan in NYC says:

    Gotta love Gritt Grittner. He’s a pleasure to watch this year. Not only his ABs but when he is on the bases. 13 for 14 in stolen base attempts this year! At this point in the season he has to be all over pitchers minds both in the box and on the bases.

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  2. Bob Dylan says:

    I don’t like how hitters with low power are categorized as fringe players by most analysts. I mean sure home runs are sexy and productive, but speed and contact skills are also a part of the game. Those two skills can help produce runs too.

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    • Jimbo says:

      What Bob said.

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    • Paul says:

      Yep. He’s Willie Wilson with plate discipline. In 1982 Willie had a .380 BABIP and 4.2% walk rate. The comp actually works better by taking into account all pitches Willie saw. He wasn’t a particularly patient hitter, but I’ll bet no hitter fouled off more pitches in history. His contact rate was in the ballpark of Gardner, and of course there’s the speed. I’m kicking myself for believing the media hype on Grandy and thinking Gardner might not get to play. He was available in my very deep league for a while.

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  3. Walter Guest says:

    I wonder how Richie Ashburn would be evaluated today.

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  4. Jackman says:

    Jacoby Ellsbury lite.

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    • snapper says:

      I think pretty soon you may be calling Ellsbury Brett Gardner-lite.

      I wouldn’t trade Gardner straight up for Ellsbury right now. I’m much more convinced he’s a well above average defensive CF.

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      • Rich says:

        I’m much more convinced Garner is an above average defensive fielder, but I’m much more convinced that Ellsbury is an above average hitter.

        Gardner, despite the great last 90 ABs, still has a .700 career OPS

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      • Jackman says:

        I was more talking from a fantasy standpoint, because Ellsbury would get way more ABs as a leadoff hitter with no real threat to him on the roster, that he’d put up better stats this year (obviously thats derailed somewhat by his injury now). But skills wise, they are very similar, and I even made a point of it in some fantasy threads in the offseason.

        But in real life, I agree. Gardner had a better WAR than Ellsbury last year, playing nearly 1/3rd the time. If you extrapolate his offensive stats to the amount of ABs Ellsbury got, they were very similar last year, and now Gardner is going ahead of him. And they are the same age as well. Now part of it is that he plays exceptional defense as well, which makes him more valuable than Ellsbury when they had similar offensive stats (based on extrapolating stats to equal ABs- yes I know its unscientific, lol).

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      • Jackman says:

        To Rich:

        I don’t think OPS is really the best stat to use, because of his lack of power.

        Last year, Ellsbury put up .770 OPS while Gardner put up .724.

        But he beat Ellsbury in the speed score by nearly 2 full points.

        If you take his stats per AB and look at Ellsbury, there are very similar.

        Here is a thread from RW that I made, that talks about fantasy purposes (obviously this only concerns the offensive output)

        They came out pretty similar, and this year Gardner has been better (by utilizing his speed more and hitting more ground balls) and has a pretty full time job. This year’s comparisons will be skewed by Ellsbury getting hurt and how he recovers from it, and how it affects him for this year, but talent wise they are very similar on offense, while Gardner has been better on defense.

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    • vivaelpujols says:

      Jacoby Ellsbury is not a good hitter.

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  5. Paul says:


    Since when is 2.2>2.7? Ellsbury had a 2.7 WAR last year. Last time I checked, 2.7 is a higher number than 2.2.

    As for the claims of Gardner’s defense being superior to Ellsbury’s, as everybody knows Fenway park is one of baseball’s most convoluted fields to play defense in and as a result, disproportionately affects the UZR of a player. And although I love sabermetrics, they are not the be-all-end-all in terms of defense; UZR is hardly perfect. Fielding percentage is not a good stat either but must be looked at as well, just pointing out that Ellsbury has a much better fielding percentage than Gardner.

    And vivaelpujols….Ellsbury had a Batting value of 11.8 last year to Garnder’s 2.4.

    Ellsbury’s OWn% (offensive winning percentage–a measure of what percentage of games a team would win with nine of this player batting. By the way it’s independent of ABs, so don’t try that route) last year was .545. Gardner’s was .497.

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    • snapper says:

      I’m not going by UZR on defense.

      The scouting on Ellsbury from Sox fans is mixed. Everyone I hear from thinks Garner is a plus, or a plus plus CF.

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    • vivaelpujols says:

      Fielding percentage is already included in UZR… it adds nothing to the discussion. Not saying UZR is the be all and end all, just fielding percentage is worthless.

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    • Hank says:

      Ellsbery played CF last year…. weren’t most of the big issues around UZR corrections related to left field? And to bring up a statistic which you say is a poor stat (fielding %) reads as you are desperate to sell people on his defense….similar to mixing the what is mainly a LF Fenway issue with “Fenway park is one of the most convoluted fields in general”…. he did also play roughly 1/2 of his games out of Fenway, no?

      If you are going to talk about a convoluted park… take a look at his offense #’s last year:
      OPS was 67points higher at home
      ISO was 47 points higher at home
      wOBA was 24 points higher at home

      Did that (and of course playing time) impact the WAR #’s just a bit?

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  6. Jackman says:

    Oh My bad, I misread the WAR graph, atleast its close. And if Gardner got the same playing time, he would’ve blown by him as well.

    I didn’t say Gardner was better than Ellsbury on offense last year, I said they were very similar. wOBA of .337 to .354, wRAA of 2 to 2.3. wRC when multiplied to equalize the ABs (2.4 X Gardner’s AB) its 86 to 97. They look close enough to me.

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  7. lalala says:

    Gardner’s rise might be a reason carl crawford is gonna lose quite a bit of money in the off season.

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    • Jon says:

      I’m really hoping Gardner finishes the year batting .280 with at least a .340 or .350 obp. To be honest, Gardner could probably steal 40-50 if he played full time, he plays very good defense, and has an excellent eye at the plate. It’s just been a matter of him making contact.

      As nice of a player that Crawford is, if Gardner can provide some similar offensive stats with a good obp, we can save that money and put it toward a Jorge De La Rosa or a Cliff Lee. Crawford hasn’t proved to me he can take a walk despite his good obp last year. For his career, he’s only been about .40 points above his avg in obp. If a guy is hitting above .300 and you want him stealing bags for you, his obp should be more like .370 to start.

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  8. Smallball Tony says:

    Jorge de la Rosa or Cliff Lee???
    Saying them in the same breathe should be a bannable offense.

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  9. Franco says:

    370 minimum OBP or you don’t want him… man it must be great to be a Yankees fan.

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  10. LibertyBoy says:

    Key to understanding Gardner owning the zone is probably in his spray chart, he is hitting through the SS hole and into left field with more consistency than ever. This ability to take the outside pitch to the opposite field gives him options with two strikes, which is where he consistently found himself last year early in the count.

    You’ll know when Gardner has cooled by how many more 4-3’s are written into the book vs. his current tear.

    Don’t have numbers to back this up, if anyone cares to look be my guest, just eyes on the field here.

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  11. jimn says:

    i’ve been noticing this trend all year, watching gardner for fantasy purposes, figured i’d see this article sooner or later.

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  12. Jason says:

    For what its worth, Gardner doesn’t throw too bad, while Ellsbury would have a tough time beating Johnny Damon in a throwing competition.

    They are similar players. Ellsbury is hyped because he is needed by the Red Sox. Gardner is deprecated because a) everyone knows the Yankees don’t develop players and b) Gardner is thought of as a role player for the Yankees.

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    • Ronnie says:

      People also get confused by big #’s… when you look at Ellsbury’s steals, you almost forget his OBP is not very good for a guy who hits .300 (Nick Swisher had as good an OBP last year and he hit ~.250). There’s also a Fenway factor (as there is with many of the Sox) – he has a wOBA 40points higher at home and an OPS ~90points higher foe his career.

      And when you see how fast Ellsbury is and the need for him to dive (whether or not he actually has to dive), he comes across to some as a very good fielder. He gets bad jumps on balls, takes “interesting” routes to get to the ball and I won’t even talk about his arm.

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