As Joe Girardi held forth this morning on the first day of camp, the Yankees plan to head into 2011 with their newly-resigned Captain as the team’s leadoff hitter. Despite his hitting a career-low .270/.340/.370, Jeter will not fall in the batting order.
“We signed him to be our shortstop and we signed him to be our leadoff hitter,” the Yanks’ skipper said of his captain.”he’s got a pretty good track history of what he’s done in the game of baseball.”
Girardi, very good at speaking for reporters in baseball platitudes, continued with his praise of Jeter. Noting that by September, Girardi believed Jeter to be back at his Jeterian levels, he expressed utmost faith in the current leadoff hitter. “He’s very in tune with what his role is as the captain of the New York Yankees, as the leadoff hitter of the New York Yankees and what he’s supposed to do,” he said. But all of this begs the question: Should Jeter be leading off?
By and large, American League teams were surprisingly bad at leading off last year. Overall, AL leadoff hitters reached base just 33 percent of the time. Five teams — including Boston — saw their one hitters put up a cumulative OBP of .320 or lower, and the Indians managed to put their number one hitters on base just 29.4 percent of the time. The Yanks’ .358 OBP out of the one hole was second only to Ichiro and the Mariners.
That lofty OBP was due to two factors: Jeter’s split in the one spot was .283/.348/.387 in 656 PAs — strange how he seemed to struggle more when not leading off — and Brett Gardner as the one hitter reached base 41.2 percent of the time. As much as Yankee fans groaned over Jeter’s 2010 struggles, as a leadoff hitter, he was better than average.
The numbers grow even more intriguing when we isolate only the first at-bat of the game. In essence, that’s when the leadoff hitter gets to shine, and both Jeter and Gardner — the only two Yankees to start a game in 2010 — did so. Showing no power, Jeter hit .304 with a .365 on-base percentage in 137 plate appearances to start the game while Brett Gardner reached base in 15 of his 25 leadoff ABs. That’s a whopping .600 on-base percentage in a very small sample. For comparison’s sake, the cumulative OBP for AL batters who started the game was just .311.
All of that is to say that the Yanks have two seemingly viable leadoff options. We can’t right now conclusively say that Brett Gardner is a better choice to bat first than Jeter. He’s not going to maintain a .600 OBP in the first inning over the course of 140 games, but his willingness to take a walk and his ability to work the count and make contact leads to good things. Jeter, on the other hand, is the long-time vet who hasn’t yet hit himself out of the spot in the lineup. If he struggles again this year, though, the Yanks have another leadoff hitter on deck.
Perhaps, though, the ideal lineup would allow Gardner to showcase his skills leading off. The Yanks slotted Jeter into the one hole to avoid the endless double plays into which he kept hitting, but by having Gardner bat first, the Yanks can use his wheels to keep Jeter from creating two outs with one swing. It’s a thought at least.
For now, though, the lineup will have a familiar look to it. Derek, the incumbent, will bat leadoff, and Brett the upstart will likely be breathing down his neck. Having two potential leadoff candidates should be a nice luxury for the Yanks this year indeed.