Who would’ve thought that Yu Darvish could send guys on hot streaks? Well, that’s exactly what’s happened with Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner.
Gardner homered off Darvish back on July 23. The next week, he faced the Rangers’ ace once again, hitting two homers this time. And Gardner hasn’t looked back.
Coming into this season, Gardner’s career high in homers was a mere eight. He was a slap hitter, someone who worked counts deep, smacked the ball to right field, played defense and stole bases. But all of a sudden, it’s like Gardner lined the inside of his bat with superballs.
Gardner’s fly-ball percentage is actually down from last year (from 35.3 percent to 32.2 percent), and his home runs per fly ball have nearly tripled from last season. Given everything we know about a guy who’s about to turn 31, this shouldn’t be sustainable, but given a BABIP somewhat in line with his career averages, it doesn’t necessarily seem like a statistical oddity. Gardner is just hitting better.
Here’s the thing: Those bombs Gardner has been hitting of late aren’t necessarily Yankee Stadium cheapies. Thirteen of his homers actually would’ve left the park at Seattle’s Safeco Field, one of the league’s most pitcher-friendly ballparks.
Coming into this season, just less than 70 percent of Gardner’s homers have come at Yankee Stadium, the ultimate home run park for left-handed hitters. That makes even more sense when you account for the lead-off hitter’s lack of power the other way. This year has been no exception. Thirteen of the lefty’s 15 homers have been to right field, according to HitTrackerOnline.com. Two have been hit to center. But again, the ball is simply jumping farther off his bat of late.
Since July 28 (seven games), Gardner has hit five home runs. Four of those five have traveled more than 400 feet per Hit Tracker Online, doubling the amount of 400-foot homers he’s hit in his entire career. He had never in his major league career hit a 420-footer until a week ago. And he’s hit two in the last seven contests.
Gardner has always been a patient hitter. He’s finished in the AL’s top 10 in pitches per plate appearance during each of his last three healthy seasons. This year is no different. Actually, he’s seeing more pitches, up to 4.47 from 4.19 and 4.23 in 2011 and 2013, respectively. (He missed almost all of 2012.)
Still, Gardner’s approach has actually changed this season. The King of the Looking Strikeout is actually swinging at pitches now, and he’s choosing the right ones.
Gardner has swung at a career-high 58 percent of pitches inside the strike zone, per Baseball Info Solutions, but he’s still been selective. As a consistent lead-off hitter for the first time in his career, he’s swinging at only 21.7 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, below his career average. He’s simply been more aggressive within the zone and early in the count.
Gardner is 13.8 runs above average on fastballs this year, almost twice his previous career high. He’s able to take advantage better when he gets ahead in the count, and that’s when he ends up doing most of his damage, hitting .307/.481/.635 with 11 of his 15 homers in those situations. Those are easily his best ever power numbers when ahead.
It’s possible this is just Gardner’s version of Jacoby Ellsbury’s 2011 season. Still, there’s clearly been some sort of adjustment in approach. But he’s gotten unspeakably hot over the past month-and-a-half, hitting a new-found power streak he’s never come close to seeing before, and for now, the Yankees finally have some power at the top of what has been a light-hitting lineup for most of the season.
Fred Katz insists that the wood bat killed his high school batting average. Find his NBA and college basketball work at Bleacher Report or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.