It feels like we tell the same story about Brett Gardner year in and year out. He gets off to a hot start, but fades during the dog days of summer. Last year exemplified this, though the acquisition of Andrew McCutchen gave Gardner a bit of a reprieve toward the season’s end. In all likelihood, the Yankees wanted to handle Gardner similarly this year. Instead, Gardner has played nearly every day because Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton have spent significant time on the injured list.
Gardner has appeared in 62 of the team’s 66 games this season. That’s actually only four more than last year over the same amount of team games. The big difference this year compared to last? Gardner isn’t off to a fast start. After the Yankees played their 66th game last year, Gardy owned a 106 wRC+. This year, he’s sits at a 95 wRC+*.
*He had an 85 wRC+ when I started writing this yesterday. So of course, I reverse jinxed him. He went on to have a very productive doubleheader against the Mets. Nonetheless, I think my point still stands.
Should Gardner play on a daily basis down the stretch, things probably will get ugly. His career second half wRC+ is 89, much lower than his 110 wRC+ for the first half split. Last year’s second half was particularly ugly: 66 wRC+.
The good news is that the cavalry is coming. Hicks is back, Stanton is in the midst of rehab games, and Judge is going to begin his minor league assignment soon. With Clint Frazier hitting well to boot, there’s little room for Gardner in the lineup. Perhaps Gardner will be in a better position to contribute when he does play thanks to extra rest.
Now, it’s nice to think that Gardner would benefit from less playing time. However, it would more convincing if he had better underlying numbers. Unfortunately, they aren’t.
Yikes. He’s not hitting the ball hard and his expected stats are near the bottom of the league. Amazingly, his actual wOBA (.304) is higher than his xwOBA (.279). That means Gardner’s been fortunate to have a .228/.302/.443 line.
To be fair, Gardner not making strong contact isn’t necessarily anything new. Rather, he’s been successful because of his speed and ability to reach base. He’s had some years with more power than usual, but it’s not typically big part of his game.
This season, Gardner looks a lot different than what we’re accustomed to. He’s not getting on base very often, primarily due to a walk rate down roughly two percent from his norm. To compensate, his power is way up: he has 10 dingers already after 12 last season. Even with added power, his exit velocity, hard hit percentage, and xwOBA aren’t very far off from recent seasons. What is noticeably different, however, are the type of batted balls and the direction he’s hitting them.
This season, the longtime Yankees outfielder has traded line drives for more fly balls and pop ups. As a hitter who isn’t typically a power threat, this isn’t a good recipe for success. To make matters worse, it seems like either he’s selling out for power or his approach is out of wack.
Gardner has become very pull heavy this season. As a lefty who calls Yankee Stadium home, it’s easy to interpret that as an attempt to hit more homers. Perhaps the uptick in power has cost him productivity elsewhere.
Even without perusing Statcast, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Gardner has struggled mightily at the dish. At this stage in his career, it’s not like we can just chalk up 2018’s second half swoon as just a thing he does annually. He’s 35 with over a decade in the league now, so decline was inevitable. Now, instead of his typical strong start, he’s been rough from the get go. Just look at how he closed out last year:
If the 2018 finish was instead a few years ago, there wouldn’t be much concern heading into the next season. But again, at his age, there’s more to consider than his notorious splits.
Of course, the blame isn’t all on the Yankees and certainly not on Gardner. The expectation was that Gardy’s workload would be managed this season, particularly with rest against lefties (he’s virtually useless against them nowadays). But now with all the injuries, he’s had to play.
Gardner has been a great Yankee for more than a decade now, but the truth is that his time as an everyday player has come to an end. Much has been asked of him to date, and though there’s no question he’s given his best effort, Stanton and Judge’s returns can’t come soon enough. Hopefully Gardner can better contribute in a reduced role.