After another A.J. Burnett implosion on Monday, I couldn’t help but notice something awry in the outfield. Specifically, why was Austin Kearns manning left field? I wondered if perhaps Gardner was given a day off in preparation of the postseason (although it does seem as though he’s been used pretty sparingly of late).
Granted, he's likely still recovering from injury and Girardi was simply exhibiting caution. And maybe he just hasn't had great success against the renowned Marc Rzepczynski (although he has accumulated a career triple slash of .318/.456/.614 against the Blue Jays and .333/.500/.533 line at the Rogers Center). In any event, I felt compelled to investigate possible explanations. What I discovered was something we've known for a while now: Brett Gardner's offensive production has taken a hit in a pretty significant way.
As I perused his stats via B-Ref, I couldn’t help but grimace at his monthly splits. His batting average has declined precipitously since the All-Star break. This is especially troubling given the fact that he is a pure contact hitter. Gardner earns a large portion of his keep (at least offensively) by complementing speed with a decent contact rate. As of late, the hits have essentially dissipated altogether.
In terms of OBP he has still performed well above league average over the course of the season. However, a declining batting average along with his lowest OBP of any month in September (.338) minus any real pop in the bat equals a pretty ineffective player. On a more uplifting note, he’s still seeing a solid number of pitches per at bat (on average about 4.60) making him one of the more patient (albeit currently ineffective) hitters in the league.
Speaking of pop in the bat, here's the next realization. Unfortunately, when one considers Brett's SLG and OPS percentages, he once again continues to fall short over the latter half of the season. The lack of slugging makes absolute sense given the fact that Gardner's hits are almost all singles. What’s stunning though is that for a guy with his speed, he has a frustratingly low number of doubles and triples. Even when Gardy is hitting well, his slugging is, and probably will always be, less than desirable.
Ideally, Brett Gardner would improve on this facet of his game. No one expects him to hit for power with any frequency, but it’d be helpful if he was at least capable of occasionally obtaining hits that put him in scoring position. This season, he’s managed only 19 doubles and 6 triples. Similarly, Gardner has managed to knock only 5 home runs, which is more of an aberration than anything else. Because there is a direct correlation between SLG and OPS, when one dips, so does the other. If Gardner didn’t have such a good OBP from early on in the season, his OPS would be that much further below average as well.
Now, some might argue that it’s hard to complain about Gardner’s production. He’s been brilliant in the outfield defensively, and his overall offensive contributions have far exceeded his projections (all of which have escalated his WAR well past what many of us initially expected). More importantly, he’s still very affordable which is great as he’ll remain under team control for another few seasons. These are all fair points which are difficult to contend.
Of course, there’s no guarantee he'll duplicate the same statistics next year. It’s just as likely that the league may have figured him out and he simply becomes another late-inning defensive substitution. My advice: sell high while he still has value. Then carefully mull over the idea of acquiring that other guy who’ll soon be available and is loaded with talent.