Joe Girardi made a lot of people happy yesterday by placing Brett Gardner at the top of the lineup. Unfortunately, he struck out in three of his four plate appearances. His lone contact of the game was a first pitch weak ground out to the pitcher. That first pitch swing in the first inning of the game was a fairly unique event for Gardner. When you dig deeply into Gardner's numbers, a lot of weirdness comes up.
For example, Gardner still makes a lot of contact when he swings. His 5.5% swing and miss rate is still very good compared to most Major League hitters. But there is a trend you can see over the long term. His swing and miss rates over the last five years: 2.9%, 3.0%, 3.3%, 5.3% and this year's 5.5%.
This corresponds almost perfectly with his strikeout rate over the last five years: 17.8%, 15.8%, 18.9%, 20.9% and this year's 23.6%. For a slash and speed guy, 23.6% strikeout rates start to get a bit unacceptable. His strikeout percentage as a lead off batter this season is 27.1%.
Gardner's walk rate is going in the opposite direction. Again, here are his five-year walk percentages: 13.9%, 10.2%, 13.5%, 8.5% and this year thus far, 7.3%. The walk rate is going down despite only swinging at 21% of pitches out of the strike zone and only 38.3% overall.
Major League scouting reports are pretty sophisticated these days. And word has most likely gotten around that Brett Gardner rarely swings on the first pitch. Of his 110 plate appearances, he has only put the ball in play on the first pitch four times. As such, the pitchers are pouring that first pitch into the strike zone. A full 60% of first pitch pitches to him are strikes. That number is the highest of his career. Therefore, he is 0-1 in the count a lot.
Gardner has seen 64 of his 111 plate appearances start with an 0-1 count. Of his 26 total strikeouts, 21 have occurred after starting with an 0-1 count. Gardner has a .512 OPS after starting his plate appearance with a first pitch strike.
Contrast this to Jacoby Ellsbury for example. Ellsbury has been in an 0-1 count 60 times in his 127 plate appearances and his OPS after starting as such is .668 with 15 strikeouts.
The problem for Brett Gardner is that everyone knows he won't swing at the first pitch. And I am not advocating that he starts doing so with abandon. But it could help his cause if he started each plate appearance looking location for a grooved fastball and turning on it whenever he gets one. His first plate appearance last night was not a good example. The location of the first pitch was away and he rolled over on it for a weak grounder.