Brett Gardner: Second-Half Slacker

The Yankees have been throwing Brett Gardner’s name out in trade talks (frequently) this offseason, and it certainly isn’t overly surprising. The outfielder, who was an All-Star in 2015, was anything but in the second half, batting an abysmal .206/.300/.292 with a well-below average 66 wRC+. His finish to 2015 left fans, and the team, with a bad taste in their mouth. A freshly signed extension from 2014, stretching through 2018, now looks like a liability. Gardner’s season was split by two different performances from what looked like two different players. The thing is, this trend isn’t new to Gardner. Oddly enough, he’s always struggled mightily in the second half—last year was just the most extreme example.

We’ve all heard of the kind of player who improves as the season goes on. Hitters like Adam LaRoche, Ryan Zimmerman, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, and Mark Teixeira are notoriously slow starters, usually improving significantly after the first couple of months. Naturally, the opposite player has to exist, one who is always getting off to a hot start and falling off as the season progresses. In actuality, examples of that type of player are few and far between. The problem is, players who decline in the second half are generally regression candidates, playing over their heads in the first half before returning to realistic levels. With that in mind, finding a player who continually regresses over his whole career is a challenge. The only clear example of this is Salvador Perez, who tends to hit a wall in the dog days of the summer. The reason behind this isn’t from lack of talent, though. It’s because Perez has been horribly overworked the past couple of years, catching a dizzying 165 games in 2014 and 158 games in 2015 (including the postseason). Perez simply tires, hurting his performance. As it turns out, Perez is a “second-half faller,” but not the type we’re looking for. This type of player is a rare breed, with the distinguished club consisting of just one player, our friend Brett Gardner.

For some reason, Gardner just can’t play well in the second half of the season. This isn’t a new trend either… it’s been going on for much of his career.

April .265 .340 .372 8.9% 19.1% 97 .106
May .284 .360 .417 10.3% 18% 114 .133
June .328 .400 .521 9.7% 16.6% 153 .193
July .244 .342 .359 12% 20.8% 96 .115
August .229 .318 .325 9.8% 18.6% 80 .096
September .227 .308 .349 9.4% 20.7% 79 .122

So what’s the reason behind this? It really doesn’t make sense. Gardner is in very good shape, so conditioning issues shouldn’t be a factor the same way it would be for a player like Pablo Sandoval. Also, it’s not like the league is adjusting to Gardner throughout the season, finally figuring him out in the second half as he’s been in the major leagues since 2008. If all pitchers needed to do was figure him out, Gardner would have been out of a job by 2012. Finally, it’s not bad luck. Gardner has played 919 games, far too big of a sample size to be affected significantly by luck. So, the only possible answer is injuries.

Oddly enough, it seems that Brett Gardner tends to get hurt in the second half, and that may be impacting his post-All-Star break splits. Here are some of his notable injuries (courtesy of Baseball Prospectus’ injury history database):

Date Days Missed Injury
4/13/15 2 Wrist Soreness
9/6/14 6 Abdominal Strain
8/24/14 3 Ankle Contusion
7/9/14 1 Abdominal Strain
4/27/14 2 Foot Contusion
9/13/13 17 Abdominal Strain
7/11/13 1 Lower Leg Contusion
6/27/13 1 Illness
4/18/12 160 Elbow Surgery
4/14/12 1 Illness
7/24/10 1 Illness
6/28/10 3 Forearm Contusion
6/10/10 2 Thumb Soreness
7/26/09 43 Thumb Fracture
6/19/09 1 Headache
5/18/09 3 Shoulder Contusion

Not all of Gardner’s injuries have occurred in the second half, but he does show a knack for getting banged up in the latter two thirds of the MLB season. This happens just about every season, and could be the answer to why he can’t hit in the second half. The key is, injuries don’t have to be overly serious to impact performance—often the accumulation of minor bumps and bruises are enough.

  • 2015: Gardner only missed two games with a ‘minor wrist injury,’ but absolutely collapsed in the second half, with a 66 wRC+ that was much worse than his 137 wRC+ in the first half. While the injury certainly didn’t seem serious at the time, hitting coach Alan Cockrell said that Gardner was bothered by it “off and on” all year, also receiving cortisone shots to try and beat the effects of the injury.
  • 2014: Gardner dealt with an abdominal strain in July, and it cropped up again in September. Gardner said September’s injury had the same kind of pain as the July injury. Abdominal injuries are notorious for lingering, and these two injuries could have impacted his swing, leading to a drop in wRC+ from 122 to 95.
  • 2013: Gardner also dealt with an abdominal strain in 2013, but it happened late enough in the season that he didn’t play again that year. Gardner didn’t deal with many other injuries that season, and as a result, his second half wRC+ of 110 was actually better than his first-half performance.
  • 2011: Gardner managed to stay relatively healthy throughout the season, but he still had a worse second half, with a 90 wRC+ (versus a 104 wRC+ in the first half). This season was an exception to the injury hypothesis, but the second-half decline may be due to a .286 BABIP, which was 33 points worse than his career .319 BABIP.
  • 2010: His 97 wRC+ in the second half was much worse than his 124 wRC+ in the first half, but Gardner didn’t suffer any notable injuries. Once again, BABIP is a factor, with a .360 pre-All Star break BABIP being well above his career average, and a .309 in the second half being below average. Still, I’m losing some faith in the injury idea.
  • 2009: Gardner only played 25 games in the second half after suffering a fractured thumb, and was unsuccessful in his return, with a 67 wRC+ that was much worse than his pre-injury mark of 98.

The idea that Gardner’s first half/second half splits were affected by injuries is far from perfect, but has some validity to it. Dealing with injuries more often later in the season have had an impact on his second-half numbers, and without injuries, there’s a good chance Gardner wouldn’t be such a bad second-half player over his career. Gardner is as well conditioned as any Yankee, but his reputation for being a hard-nosed player could easily start to hurt his body as the season drags on. These issues wouldn’t necessarily cost Gardner any time, but could stymie his performance.

The conclusion here is that Gardner may be dealing with bad injury luck in the second half of seasons, and his playing style could also be contributing to second-half decline. There aren’t too many numbers that prove this, but it’s a better explanation than the other possibilities. The league taking half a year to adjust to him every season simply doesn’t make sense, nor does the idea that Gardner hates the summer and just doesn’t hit well when it’s hot out.

In 2016 and beyond, the Yankees might as well expect a continuance in second half declines. Gardner is only getting older, and it’s not very likely that he will be healthier next summer compared to past ones. There’s a chance that Gardner is unscathed through most of the year, but a best case scenario is a bit off a drop off—not as precipitous as 2015’s—in the second half of next year.

Lead photo courtesy of Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

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