For the past two games Joe Girardi has written Brett Gardner’s name first on the lineup card. Normally he doesn’t lead off the game unless Derek Jeter gets a day off, but for these two games Jeter has moved to the spot he knows very well. He has more plate appearances hitting second than in any other lineup spot, and given Girardi’s comments yesterday, we could see more of that in the second half. It certainly changes the dynamic of the lineup, at least against righties.
“[Gardner’s] on-base percentage against right handers is tremendous,” said Girardi. The manager does not lie. Gardner has faced a righty pitcher 205 times this season and has a .382 wOBA and .414 OBP. Combined with his speed, that makes for a tremendous leadoff hitter. Hitting in that spot will also give him a chance to take a base or two; it seems like he’s more apt to go with the No. 2 hitter up than the No. 3. We have only a minuscule sample to work with, so it’s not worth even running the numbers, but I think the anecdote holds up. It’s easier to send him when Jeter’s at the plate than when the big bats are up.
One of the reasons Girardi moved Jeter into the leadoff spot last year was his propensity to hit into the double play. By hitting leadoff he’d have fewer chances to kill a runner on base with a groundball to second or short. Wouldn’t moving him to the No. 2 spot then increase his double play frequency? A few weeks ago I wrote about the issue on FanGraphs and noted that even with two double plays the night before, Jeter’s rate was down from previous years. He has currently grounded into a double play nine times in 61 chances this season. That might not necessarily increase with Gardner hitting ahead of him.
Remember, Gardner has more PAs hitting ninth than any other spot in the lineup, so he’s frequently hit just before Jeter anyway. And, as we saw last night, Gardner’s speed can make that difference to break up a double play. Jeter hit into what looked like a tailor-made twin killing, but Gardner got to second base in time to make an impact on Adam Rosales’s timing. That bough Jeter the precious second he needed to make that extra step and beat the relay to first. Then there’s also the possibility of Garnder moving on the pitch, whether in a straight steal or a hit-and-run, further reducing Jeter’s double play opportunities.
The further effect of this move is to pile more power bats later in the lineup. Neither Gardner nor Jeter hit for a lot of power: they currently have ISOs of .112 and .122, respectively. Following them are Mark Teixeira (.191), Alex Rodriguez (.225), Robinson Cano (.221), Nick Swisher (.210), and Jorge Posada (.212). Then again, after the first time through the order this doesn’t make much of a difference, since Gardner normally hits ninth, right before Jeter any way. The only thing it really accomplishes, then, is getting Gardner more plate appearances — which, considering his production this season, does make sense.
Against lefties it could be a different story, but Gardner also owns a .355 OBP against them this year so he’s a viable option to hit atop the lineup every day if Girardi so chooses. But considering the Jeter and Swisher 1-2 combo against lefties — .387 and .415 OBPs, respectively — the Yanks would probably be slightly better off using them to lead off games, sticking Gardner in a spot further down the order. He probably shouldn’t hit ninth, as there’s no reason to bat Francisco Cervelli or Curtis Grandrson ahead of him. But if Girardi wants to move him down against lefties that seems like a fair proposition.
As we’ve pointed out frequently, lineup construction has little impact during the course of a full season — a win or so difference between the best and worst lineups. Since this will only happen for half a season it should have even less of an impact, especially because the lineup is basically constructed the same way, except with Gardner starting the carousel instead of turning it over. But given his stellar performance against righties this season, and given Swisher’s and Jeter’s excellent numbers against lefties, it’s tough to argue with the move. Gardner, it seems, has gained the Yankees’ confidence.