The 2019 Yankees have suffered a full season’s worth of injuries despite the fact that the new campaign is barely a week old. The injuries are significant: with four starting position players, the rotation ace and the bullpen ace on the IL, that adds up to roughly 25 WAR in 2018, using FanGraphs for the batters and Baseball-Reference for the pitchers. The depleted state of the roster gives new urgency to early April games, as the Yankees cannot afford to dig themselves too deep a hole in the early going before returning to full strength in (hopefully) May.
The good news is that the rival Red Sox have started the season even worse than the Yanks: they’re 2-7, having been thoroughly embarrassed in Arizona last night, and they’ve seen their playoff odds drop all the way to 70 percent, per FanGraphs. The Sox are healthy (with the possible exception of Chris Sale, who has yet to garner a swing and miss on a fastball) and will surely bounce back soon, but the Yankees have to be thanking their lucky stars that Boston has scuttled out of the gate. Truthfully, Yankee fans should be, too – imagine the takes if the Sox started 2019 like they did 2018.
In any case, the Yankees cannot rely on their competition playing below expectations. The team won’t be healthy for a while and simply needs to not bury themselves early. They should be up to the task, but it starts with giving their best hitters the most at-bats. That means Aaron Boone should hit Gleyber Torres leadoff, at least until Aaron Hicks returns.
The case for Gleyber is pretty straightforward. Let’s get right into it, starting with what the typical leadoff man has done recently.
What’s The Average Leadoff Hitter Like?
First, let’s look at how leadoff hitters stack up compared to the rest of their competition. The following table shows the triple-slash and walk/strikeout rate for leadoff batters in the AL and NL, with the third row reserved for the league average in 2018, all per FanGraphs:
There are clear takeaways here, all of which were fairly predictable: the average leadoff batter hits for a higher average, gets on base more, hits for power and strikes out less than the average player in the league, though they walk at virtually the same clip. Leadoff hitters tend to be better, obviously.
That’s not breaking any new ground, and that is how it should be: the top spot in the lineup got 22,631 plate appearances in 2018: that’s 500 more than batters hitting 2nd, 2,000 more than the 5th spot in the order and 4,000 more than the “second leadoff” hitter batting 9th. In other words, teams give more at-bats to better players. Simple enough.
That’s particularly relevant to the Yankees, though, who have often used either D.J. LeMahieu or Brett Gardner in the spot this year—and as much as I think DJLM got short shrift from fans or how much I love Gardner, it’s pretty hard to argue that those two deserve to get the most at-bats in April. They’re not the Yankees best hitters, even among the depleted lineup. Given their scuttling rivals and own struggles, the Yanks simply cannot afford to waste any opportunity to maximize their production. These games are important now, despite the rainy spring weather.
How does Gleyber Stack Up?
Things brings us to Gleyber. As we all know, Torres was generally the 9th hitter for the Yanks last year and lived primarily in the bottom third of the order. A look at the data clearly shows that it’s time for that to change. Let’s bump that same chart from above here, this time replacing the final row (average hitters) with Gleyber’s 2018 production:
It’s important to remember that Torres was a 21-year-old rookie last year, thrust into a playoff race fresh off a truncated 2017 MiLB season: those numbers show that the kid can play. While he strikes out more than average for the spot, that’s more than made up by the rest of the line: Gleyber hit for higher average, got on base more regularly and hit for significantly more power than the normal leadoff hitter.
A deeper dive suggests that Torres is ready for more plate appearances, too. Torres made contact with 82% of all strikes he swung at (higher than Judge) and swung at balls out of the zone only 30% of the time (about the same as Judge) in 2018. Making contact with balls in the zone and taking the bad stuff is prototypical leadoff material and is the sign of a patient hitter; Torres saw 4.03 pitches per plate appearance last year, backing up that assertion.
Folks, Gleyber Torres is The Real Deal. Turns out there was a reason he was such a highly-touted prospect for so long.
Don’t Waste His Talent Now
But the Yankees and Aaron Boone have not properly used their young stud. In fact, they’re actively wasting his talent so far in 2019. Consider Thursday’s game at Camden Yards. Torres saved the game, slugging two home runs and injecting new life into a struggling Yankee offense. The problem? He was hitting 7th, ahead of Clint Frazier and Tyler Wade—not setting the table for Judge, Voit and Sanchez.
A guy who can change the outcome of a game with one or two swings shouldn’t waste away at the bottom of the lineup, especially now. It’s one thing when the lineup is fully healthy and the Yankees return to their rightful place as one of the league’s most feared offensive juggernaut, but it’s another altogether when Wade, Tauchman, and others are getting significant playing time. Stacking the best hitters at the top of the lineup simply makes sense: think of Boston last year, who masked a poor bottom third of the lineup with a truly fearsome top half. That’s what the Yankees need to do right now.
Again, the Yankees need to tread water (at the very least) before returning to full strength, and the best way to do that is to ensure that the very best hitters on the team get the most opportunities. If Aaron Boone is smart, he will adjust his lineup to reflect the fact that Gleyber Torres has proven that he is more than just a prospect, and he will give Torres the opportunity to do his part to keep the Yankees afloat during the rough waters of early 2019.