How Safe is Brett Gardner's Job?

By Craig Williams

New York Yankees fans know all too well that Brett Gardner has been struggling mightily so far this season.  Additionally, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of fantasy baseball managers are aware of his struggles as well.  After making a lot of fans in 2010 with his peskiness, speed, defense and fantasy profit (Gardner was a FA pickup in most leagues), Gardner has done the opposite in the early going.  What’s the deal?

It seems as though some bad luck and poor approach are working against Gardner in this case.  His .244 BABIP certainly isn’t helping his game thus far, but even that can likely be related to a lower line drive rate of 15.2% (18.1% career) and a higher fly ball rate of 32.6% (30.6% career).  The difference between this years rates compared to his career are fairly modest, but even slight trends can have a big impact on numbers while the sample size is still relatively small.  He’s got three homers already this season, but if he could find a way to trade some cans of corn for infield worm burners he would run into more hits.  Secondly, the strikeouts are out of control.  Gardner owns a career strikeout rate of 20.9%, but through a month or so of games he’s whiffing at a 31.4% clip.  To put that into perspective, Adam Dunn’s career strikeout rate is 32.9%.  When it’s all said and done Gardner may not have as many career home runs as Dunn launches in 2011 alone so the former has no business strutting a K rate north of 30% (shouldn’t even be above 25% for that matter).  For those of us that have watched a solid amount of New York Yankees games, the answer behind Gardner’s increased strikeout frequency seems to be his approach.  We know that he’s a very patient – and sometimes passive – hitter, but in addition to that how many times have we seen him fake a bunt only to have the pitch called a strike?  Fake bunts aren’t the single cause of the drastic increase in strikeout %, but it is indicative of what is causing him to struggle.  He’s constantly behind in the count and it doesn’t take a seam head to tell you that being down 0-2 or 1-2 is a good way to find yourself making that U-turn back to the dugout.

The good news (or bad depending on how you feel about Gardner right now) is that the Yankees will keep running him out there.  Andruw Jones presents the biggest threat to Gardner right now, but he is only going to steal AB’s against some of the tougher lefties.  The Yankees don’t want to expose Jones so there shouldn’t be too much of a concern over him vulturing too much of Gardner’s PT.  Taking this a step further, the Yankees don’t have any outfield prospects in the system that are knocking on the door, so unless you expect to see Jesus Montero roaming left field (I don’t) Brett Gardner is a safe bet to hold on to the left field job for the foreseeable future.

The best option for the New York Yankees right now is to get Gardner some extra work with hitting coach Kevin Long (if they determine it’s needed), keep plugging him into the lineup to allow him to make the necessary adjustments and just hope he runs into a little bit better fortune.  To the Yankees fans growing frustrated, take solace in the fact that Gardner is still an asset to the club when he’s not hitting well because of his defense and speed.  To the fantasy managers on the verge of cutting ties with Brett, give him a couple of more weeks if you can afford it.  He’s going to come around and rack up plenty of runs and stolen bases.

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