On the very first day of camp last week, Joe Girardi held his annual start of Spring Training press conference and discussed the importance of settling on a lineup, among other things. “Figuring out our batting order I think is something important, because there are some people we don’t know exactly where they are at, and there are obviously some new people in camp,” he said.
The middle of the lineup is where the most questions exist. Figuring out the best way to align the three through seven spots with Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann, Chase Headley, and Alex Rodriguez will be Girardi’s toughest challenge, and he needs to see those guys in games before making a decision. The top and bottom of the lineup should be relatively easy. Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner at the top, Didi Gregorius and Stephen Drew at the bottom. Boom, done.
Here’s where it gets interesting: is it better for the Yankees to bat Ellsbury leadoff and Gardner second, or vice versa? They are two extremely similar offensive players. If you don’t believe me, look:
|PA||AVG/OBP/SLG||wRC+||HR||BB%||K%||SB/CS||wRC+ RHP||wRC+ LHP|
Like I said, they’re almost the same damn player. Ellsbury hits more singles, strikes out less, and steals more bases. Gardner draws more walks and hits for more power. Neither has a crippling platoon split either. (Girardi has said he has no problem batting them back-to-back even though they’re both lefties.) The end result is two players with almost identical offensive value overall.
Over the years, all sorts of statistical analyses have shown the best hitter should bat second, but when you have two guys this similar, deciding whether to bat Ellsbury leadoff and Gardner second or vice versa comes down to a matter of preference. We have to start nitpicking. They’ve both gotten on base at the same rate, so the default “he has a higher OBP so he should bat leadoff” tiebreaker doesn’t even apply.
I see it this way: Ellsbury not only steals more bases, he’s also the more aggressive base-stealer. We’ve all seen Gardner sit around and wait until the third or fourth or fifth pitch of the at-bat to take off. It’s annoying. Ellsbury gets on and goes. Ellsbury and Gardner get on base at the same rate, but Ellsbury will get himself to second base quicker, and that’s who I want leading off.
In addition to that, Gardner has a bit more power — he had a higher ISO than Ellsbury last year (.166 vs. .148) and over the last three years (.152 vs. .130) — and batting him second means there should be a few additional runners on base when he bats. That will help turn some of those solo homers — Gardner hit 17 homers last year and 14 were solo shots because he batted leadoff and the eight/nine hitters (Ichiro Suzuki, Brian Roberts, etc.) weren’t getting on — into multi-run blasts.
On the other side of the argument, we could say Ellsbury strikes out less than Gardner, meaning Girardi could be a little more creative with the better bat control guy hitting second. More hit-and-runs, that sort of thing. It’s an old school mentality but the Yankees are going to have to manufacture more runs that way this year. The three-run homers aren’t coming like they used to and Ellsbury’s contact skills (and both his and Gardner’s speed) is a weapon they can use.
Ellsbury was forced to hit third last year due injuries and whatnot, but he is totally miscast in that role. He’s at his best creating havoc in a table-setting role. Same with Gardner to slightly lesser degree. Unless the season gets underway and one guy is drastically outproducing the other, there’s no clear cut answer as to whether Ellsbury or Gardner should bat leadoff. The only wrong answer is the one where someone other than these guys hits first or second.