When Derek Jeter came off the DL before yesterday’s game, the Yankees got more than just the player. They got all of the drama that comes along with him. That’s not exactly normal for Jeter. While the spotlight has always moved with him, but it has cast him in mostly a positive light. The stories about Jeter this year have been something less than that. While there are still positive vibes, mostly in regards to his 3,000 hit milestone, he and the team have faced an onslaught of criticism over his place in the lineup (and in some, more frivolous, cases, his role as a starter). Yet all this nitpicking might be just that.
A common refrain from stat-minded fans goes something like this: The difference between the optimal and the least efficient batting orders amounts to about a win during the course of a full season. It still means something on a game-to-game basis, but as with most averages it evens out when you collect a large enough sample. It’s not ideal, having guys who don’t get on base often sandwiched with guys who do, but good teams can overcome that in the long run.
It is clear to everyone, whether they’re willing to admit it or not, that Brett Gardner is a better fit in the leadoff spot than Jeter. Even after Gardner slumped a bit in the past week his on-base is 30 points higher than Jeter’s. The ZiPS rest of season projections give Gardner the advantage as well. Given his speed and prowess on the base paths, it’s a great advantage to have him leading off. But is it worth the drama to move Jeter down — probably to eighth — while Gardner slides into the lead off spot?
Against lefties this shouldn’t even be a question. Even as his production has declined in the past few years Jeter has continued to hit lefties. His wRC (weighted runs created, based on wOBA) against lefties from 2010 through the present is 51.0, which trails only Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, and Nick Swisher — that is, hitters who have clearly outproduced him on the whole during that span. His slash stats, .315/.396/.462, indicate that he is still well suited to the leadoff role when a lefty is on the mound. Since they face a lefty starter roughly a quarter of the time*, we’re then dealing with three quarters of the remaining games when analyzing Jeter’s role atop the order.
*Baseball Reference has the exact number on its team splits page, but all 2011 splits pages are blank at the time of writing, so I am SOL on the exact number.
Let’s see how this stacks up when we compare the number of times both Gardner and Jeter project to reach base against righties the rest of the way. To get an approximation of OBP, I’ll use each player’s numbers against righties from the last two seasons. I’d like to go back to 2009 as well, but it’s clear that both Gardner and Jeter have changed dramatically as players since then. It would make for a larger sample, but i don’t think it would be fair to the analysis.
Jeter has batted 718 times against right-handed pitching in the last two years and has reached base safely 220 times, good for a .307 OBP. Gardner has hit 631 times against righties and has reached base 233 times, good for a .373 OBP. If we take these rates and put them into the context of 263 PA* we get Jeter on base 81 times and Gardner on base 98 times. The difference of 17 times on base can be huge, since it means 17 more opportunities for Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and even Robinson Cano to drive in runners. But it’s also 17 runners in the span of 59 games, or one runner every 3.5 games. Is one base runner every 3.5 games worth demoting Jeter?
*The leadoff man will get approximately 350 PA the rest of the way, and so figuring a quarter of them will come against lefties, that leaves 263 against righties.
Let’s take this a step further, even, and plug in everyone’s 2010-2011 numbers against righties into Dave Pinto’s lineup analysis tool. With Jeter at leadoff and Gardner ninth the Yankees would score 5.434 runs per game. With a completely optimized lineup they’d score 5.524 runs per game, and with a lineup that most closely resembles the Gardner first, Jeter eighth or ninth order they’d score 5.518 runs per game. But let’s just take the optimized one. The lineup with Jeter atop against righties would score 321 runs in the 59 (theoretical) remaining games against right-handed starters, and the Gardner-led lineup would score 326 runs. The difference, then, doesn’t seem very large.
There are things that the lineup analysis tool cannot comprehend, such as quality of at-bats. In that department, Gardner is clearly the favorable option. Overall Gardner is clearly the best person to beat leadoff against righties; almost all of the evidence points to that fact. But just as there are factors that go beyond the lineup analysis tool, there are factors that go beyond lineup optimization. There are egos to handle, and a wrong move can have further effects. We can’t measure those, and so we can’t pinpoint their effects on the team. But they do exist, so the least we can do is acknowledge them before moving on.
While Brett Garndner is the preferred option atop the lineup against right-handed pitching, the difference between he and Jeter the rest of the season might not be so great. The Yankees will certainly get more opportunities, but with the averages point to far fewer than we might expect. The Yankees will have the advantage of an additional base runner every 3.5 games, and will score on average six more runs during the rest of the season against RHP, but is that worth the drama of moving Jeter? For every move, after all, there are unforseen consequences, and I’m not sure it’s worth the risk right now. It’s the preferred and optimal move, but it’s understandable why the Yankees wouldn’t do it.