The Yankees will need to find a new leadoff hitter soon, and they have plenty of options

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the past four seasons the Yankees have been set at the leadoff position thanks to Brett Gardner. He hit .262/.341/.400 (104 OPS+) as New York’s primary No. 1 hitter from 2013-16 compared to the .269/.330/.402 (102 OPS+) league average leadoff hitter. Through two games this season Gardner remains the leadoff hitter. There’s not much of a reason to expect that to change anytime soon.

In a perfect world either Jacoby Ellsbury, who is now hitting fifth rather than atop the lineup, or Gardner would continue to hit leadoff through 2020. Gardner’s contract is up following the 2018 season, though Ellsbury is signed another two years beyond that, and the Yankees would love to see him reemerge as a top of the lineup hell-raiser. The Yankees have only seen that guy in a Red Sox uniform. Not pinstripes.

Of course, players age, and both Gardner and Ellsbury will turn 34 later this year. Neither figures to be a legitimate leadoff caliber hitter much longer — heck, you could argue they aren’t worthy of hitting leadoff right now — the same way neither figures to be a legitimate center field option much longer. Players age, their skills diminish, and their roles are reduced. It’s the circle of baseball life.

At some point, perhaps as soon as later this year or as late as 2021, the Yankees will need to find someone else to hit leadoff. The smart money is on them needing to do so sooner rather than later. Within a year or two. The farm system is loaded, which is an obvious plus. Even if the Yankees can’t develop their next leadoff hitter, they’ll have the pieces to go out and make a trade. Or the cash to sign one because young MLB players are cheap and keep payroll down.

The way I see it, the Yankees have five possible paths to filling the leadoff spot for the foreseeable future. This of course means they’ll find a completely different way to fill the leadoff spot when the time comes, because that’s usually how things work out. Anyway, here are the five options to finding the next leadoff hitter.

Stay the Course

As always, doing nothing is an option. The Yankees could stick with Gardner and/or Ellsbury at the top of the lineup and hope it works. Ellsbury is signed another four seasons, after all. He’s going to be around whether the Yankees like it or not. The Yankees were willing to live with an unproductive Derek Jeter as their No. 2 hitter in 2014, so they’re not above suboptimal lineups, but obviously circumstances are a wee bit different. Neither Gardner nor Ellsbury have Jeter’s clout and standing in the organization. But still, the Yankees could stick with those two atop the batting order. Always an option.

Rely on the Farm System

Fowler. (Presswire)
Fowler. (Presswire)

The Yankees sure are relying on their farm system a lot these days, huh? Gary Sanchez is the starting catcher with no veteran safety net. Greg Bird is the everyday first baseman despite missing the entire 2016 season with shoulder surgery. The rotation? The Yankees are going to sink or swim with the kids. They have a lot of rotation options and are probably going to end up cycling through all of them at some point.

Among their top 30 prospects, the Yankees have three potential leadoff hitters: shortstop Jorge Mateo, shortstop/supersub Tyler Wade, and center fielder Dustin Fowler. You could squint your eyes and see someone like, say, Wilkerman Garcia as a future leadoff hitter, but he’s a very long way from the big leagues. Wade and Fowler will open the season in Triple-A and Mateo will be back at High-A with a chance for a quick promotion to Double-A.

Going from leadoff hitter prospect to actual big league leadoff hitter is a process with several steps. Remember, Gardner made his big league debut in 2008 and didn’t take over as the full-time leadoff hitter until 2013. Wade and Fowler have to perform at Triple-A and show the requisite skills for promotion, get called up, have enough success to stay in the lineup, and then have enough success to bat near the top of the lineup. Mateo is even further away than those two.

Now, that all said, every player has a different timetable. Gardner had to wait a few years before becoming a leadoff hitter, in part because the Yankees had some quality veterans to hit leadoff in the meantime. Those 2009-12 lineups were pretty awesome. Ellsbury, on the other hand, was a September call-up in 2007 who hit well enough to take over the leadoff hitter in 2008. Who’s to say Wade or Fowler won’t do the same next year? Either way, the Yankees have some potential leadoff options in the farm system, including at the upper levels.

An Unconventional Solution

Baseball is evolving. We’re not only starting to see sluggers like Sanchez hit second in the lineup, but some teams are even using players like that to hit leadoff. Kyle Schwarber is hitting leadoff for the Cubs. Corey Dickerson, who hit 24 home runs with a .293 OBP in 2016, is batting leadoff for the Rays. Curtis Granderson has hit leadoff for the Mets for much of the last three years. Adam Jones hit leadoff last year. Those guys don’t have traditional leadoff hitter skill sets, but they’re all good hitters, so their clubs decided to give them the most at-bats.

The Yankees could pursue something similar. Batting Sanchez leadoff probably won’t happen because he’s a slow catcher and teams still like their leadoff hitter to have some speed, but what about, say, Aaron Judge? Or even Bird? He projects to be a high on-base player and he can run a little too. What about Didi Gregorius as an Adam Jones-esque “he’ll sock some dingers but won’t have a high OBP” leadoff hitter? I suppose Starlin Castro fits that mold too. I’m not saying the Yankees should do something like this. I’m just saying it’s an option.

Free Agency

We’ve seen the Yankees dip into free agency for leadoff hitters a few times already. Example one: Ellsbury! Example two: Johnny Damon. Go back even further and you have example three: Wade Boggs. He hit leadoff for a while for both the Red Sox and Yankees. The Yankees seem to have a thing for ex-Red Sox leadoff hitters, huh? I guess that means we should expect them to one day sign … looks up Boston’s current leadoff hitter … oh geez not Dustin Pedroia.

Anyway, in all seriousness, acquiring a new leadoff hitter via free agency is always an option. Sometimes is works out (Boggs and Damon) and sometimes it doesn’t (Ellsbury). That’s free agency (and baseball in general) in a nutshell. Here’s a quick run down of leadoff types scheduled to hit free agency the next two years:

  • After 2017: Rajai Davis, Jarrod Dyson, Jon Jay, Yunel Escobar, Eduardo Nunez, Ben Revere, Jose Reyes
  • After 2018: Charlie Blackmon, D.J. LeMahieu, A.J. Pollock, Jean Segura

The 2017-18 free agent class looks much more promising on the leadoff front. The 2017-18 class is basically Escobar and Nunez, and a bunch of part-timers who would in no way be upgrades over Gardner and Ellsbury.

That’s fine though. The Yankees are trying to get under the luxury tax threshold next season, so spending on a free agent leadoff guy might not make much sense anyway. They can stay in-house for the time being with Gardner and Ellsbury (and Wade and Fowler), then reevaluate things after the luxury tax rate has been reset for the 2018-19 offseason. So, long story short, free agency doesn’t offer any immediate leadoff help.

Future Yankee A.J. Pollock? (Presswire)
Future Yankee A.J. Pollock? (Presswire)

What About Trades?

I keep saying this and it bears repeating: the Yankees are going to have to trade some of their prospects, and fairly soon too. If they don’t, they’re going to start losing players for nothing on waivers or in the Rule 5 Draft. The great prospects like Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier will remain with the Yankees for sure. The lesser prospects still have value though, and the Yankees surely want to maximize it.

Trying to figure out which teams could put their leadoff man on the trade block in the future is damn near impossible. Who would have guessed Segura would be made available after the season he had last year, and that the Mariners would give up Taijuan Walker to get him? I suppose Arizona could make Pollock available before he becomes a free agent, though would the Yankees make that move? They balked at three years of Chris Sale. We’re talking about fewer than two of Pollock.

The point is trading for a leadoff type is always an option, and because the Yankees are so deep in prospects, they’ll be able to get pretty much anyone they want. Should someone like, say, Manuel Margot break out with the Padres over the next year or two, he could be someone the Yankees target as a long-term leadoff hitter and center fielder. Same with the Twins and Byron Buxton. (That would be fun, wouldn’t it?)

* * *

I haven’t mentioned Torres as a leadoff option yet but I definitely should. Long-term, he projects as more of a true No. 2 or No. 3 hitter, someone who can hit for power and drive in runs. Many players with that profile started their careers as leadoff hitters though. Christian Yelich hit leadoff for the Marlins for a while. So did Manny Machado for the Orioles. Mookie Betts made the transition from leadoff hitter to No. 3 hitter last year. Gleyber has the skills to do the same.

Right now the center field position and leadoff spot are intertwined for the Yankees because of their personnel. It doesn’t have to — and won’t — stay that way forever. The Yankees have close to a clean slate when you think about it. Ellsbury is only long-term contract on the position player side. They’re in position to pursue a leadoff type at nearly any position. Gardner (and Ellsbury) can hold things down for the time being. Soon enough though, the Yankees will have to find a new table-setter.

Why Chris Carter should be the Yankees starting shortstop

(Newsday)
(Newsday)

The headline drew you in, didn’t it?

The Yankees were almost faced with a situation where someone, either Chris Carter, Austin Romine or Aaron Hicks, was going to have to play second base if they tied it up on Sunday. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see it.

But it could actually be quite logical to start Chris Carter, a guy who is basically confined to first base, at shortstop… and bat him lead off.

No, I’m not crazy. This is an old Earl Weaver trick that can only be used on the road and only with a sufficient roster. Here’s how it works:

1. Carter isn’t actually going to play the field: Basically, you would have Carter lead off the top of the first inning in the lineup card as the shortstop. He’d take his turn at the plate. If you’re having a really good day, he might even get two plate appearances. And then you put Ronald Torreyes or Pete Kozma in as the shortstop for the bottom of the first. The lineup will then be the same as it is normally, just with the nine hitter as the leadoff guy and everyone moved down a spot.

With this scenario, you guarantee that you’ll get a better hitter an at-bat. You probably don’t want to do it with Didi Gregorius because he can actually hit. However, with him out, why not give an AB to Carter (or Aaron Hicks, who works just fine here too) over Torreyes? You can still pinch hit for them later with whoever is left on your bench in case you have a situation like Sunday’s ninth inning.

2. This can cause some clubhouse turmoil: When Weaver would do this back in the mid-1970s, it led to Royle Stillman, a left-handed hitting outfielder, as the team’s shortstop (as well as others). Personally, I love the concept of a lefty shortstop, even if it’s in name only. And Stillman was 3 for 6 in the role. However, Weaver also acknowledged in his book, “Weaver on Strategy,” that his sure-handed shortstop Mark Belanger was annoyed by the move. Sure, it makes perfect baseball sense, but it also is forcing a hitter like Belanger to see that he is an inferior hitter in his manager’s mind. That can really toy with a guy’s mind and may not be worth it from that standpoint.

3. The Yankees would have to re-tool their bench: This move eliminates your best pinch hitter (or one of them) and you lose one of your 13 position players off the bat. Therefore, it really only works if you have more position players on the roster. Weaver only pulled this trick in September with expanded rosters.

But the Yankees actually have an opportunity for that now. They have eight relievers for the time being, until a fifth starter is needed on April 16. That means they can easily afford to send someone down and call up another hitter. This would give the team more flexibility in general, but also enough room to use this ‘Carter at SS’ move.

Heck, it doesn’t even have to be Carter. On the 40-man, you could call up someone like Mason Williams, Rob Refsnyder or Kyle Higashioka and let them be the team’s shortstop in name only. That way, you save Carter for a late-game situation that may never come but could be a more valuable use of his power bat. Carter has never led off a game, as you may have guessed, so you don’t know if he’s even comfortable doing so.

(Getty Images)
A leadoff dinger would be fun. (Getty Images)

4. Lineup considerations: The other thing to consider is that with Matt Holliday at DH, Carter is your only backup first baseman unless you’re willing to have your pitcher hit or use your backup catcher (Romine). Therefore, you’d have to call up a backup first baseman (Refsnyder) or a backup catcher (Higashioka). You could also better do this move with Holliday getting a day off while you play all four of your outfielders with one as your DH. This way, Holliday is your emergency 1B or corner outfielder. Maybe you have Williams up as insurance for the outfield. Either way, this would probably be the optimal idea to pull this off.

I write this post acknowledging that the concept I’m suggesting will probably not be put into place. Beyond the simple thinning of your roster, it would cause a stir in the media. Girardi would be skewered if Carter made an out or Torreyes was forced to bat in a big situation late in the game. That’s the risk of this concept and you have to be someone that doesn’t care about how it will be received in order to actually put it in motion. I don’t blame Girardi if he doesn’t even consider this because really, what other current manager would even think about doing this? Maybe Joe Maddon or Buck Showalter? Buck, being in Baltimore, would be fitting to try it out.

But I will keep on dreaming of a world where some road PA announcer has to belt out, “Leading off, the shortstop, Chris Carter.”

Even in worst case, Holliday an improvement over 2016 DH situation

alex-rodriguez-matt-holliday-getty-split-slide
(Getty)

On Friday, Domenic raised the interesting question of whether the Yankees jumped the gun in signing Matt Holliday. While he was cheaper in total cash outlay than Kendrys Morales, he earned substantially more than some other DH options, including Chris Carter, who the Yankees still signed on top of Holliday.

But there’s one thing that I think is without a doubt: Holliday brings more to the table than 2016 Alex Rodriguez (duh) and will bring a substantial improvement in the Yankees’ DH situation this season, even in the worst case scenario. Yet how much Holliday will bring in surplus value is another question entirely (and whether it is worth $13 million is an extra question on top of that).

If we’re going to get into how much extra value he’ll bring, first you need to set the baseline: A-Rod‘s 2016 season. Man, that was just a huge disappointment. His 2015 season was perfect in many regards considering expectations and then he came back with a complete dud, failing to reach 700 home runs and getting a barely ceremonious release in August. In total, A-Rod hit .200/.247/.351 (56 wRC+) in just 243 plate appearances.

Because he played in just 65 games, that opened up nearly 90 games worth of DH at-bats (remember: 10 games in National League parks with pitchers hitting). Therefore, the baseline isn’t entirely Rodriguez. His general ineptitude opened the door for DH starts for many players. Carlos Beltran (148), Brian McCann (122), Gary Sanchez (72), Billy Butler (20) and Mark Teixeira (16) all got at least 15 plate appearances without needing to take the field.

While A-Rod having more success would have benefited the Yankees’ win-loss record, it would have hurt Sanchez’s development time or cut in further to McCann’s at-bats when Sanchez was called up. It also means the Yankees likely don’t sign Butler (probably a good development), Beltran is slightly less productive with the extra need to play the field and Aaron Hicks receives less of a chance to develop with Beltran taking starts away in right field. All of that is to say A-Rod’s struggles and eventual release opened the door for some strong positives for the Yankees.

As a whole, the Yankees’ designated hitter ‘position’ produced a paltry -1.5 bWAR, the worst in baseball. The position, in 642 plate appearances, had a .261/.312/.450 line. They also had -2.0 WAR in right field, which was in part due to Beltran only getting 232 plate appearances there.

I see very few scenarios where the Yankees post that poor a performance at DH in 2017, mostly thanks to Holliday. This factors in the idea that last season was likely the worst of his career and he seems to be on the decline. After all, he is 37 years old and can’t be far from retirement. Still, despite the decline, he still hit .246/.322/.461 (109 wRC+), which isn’t outstanding but certainly above average. He produced the lowest WAR of his career (0.7 fWAR, 0.3 bWAR) and the Cardinals as a team had a -1.4 WAR in left field with Holliday getting most of the at-bats there.

However, any comparison between Holliday’s performance totals last year and potential performance this year needs to factor in his defense. He was dreadful in left field last season while starting 82 games there and his fielding likely is a big factor in the -1.4 WAR for the Cards. Barring a rash of injuries, the Yankees don’t have to worry about the seven-time All-Star as anything but a hitter. If he is playing the field on anything of a regular basis, this whole post is thrown out the window because something has gone seriously wrong in the Bronx.

Assuming Holliday is able to stick to DH and maybe, just maybe, a few games in the field during National League play, there’s a solid chance he’s much healthier than towards the end of his time in St. Louis. He only played 183 games combined over the last two seasons and the injuries no doubt affected him at the plate. If he only needs to focus on his bat and doesn’t need to expend energy in the field, he should be a healthier and, therefore, better version of what he’d otherwise be in 2017.

And that leads to some optimistic projections for 2017 from Steamer and PECOTA.

ZiPS: .244/.325/.447 with 14 HR in 329 PA
Steamer: .271/.357.470 with 21 HR in 505 PA
PECOTA: .262/.352/.447 with 19 HR in 495 PA

ZiPS, as you can see, projects Holliday to continue his decline. That’s not unreasonable. All three systems had A-Rod hitting a lot better last season than he did but still had him declining, and sometimes an older hitter just falls off in an instant. Declines aren’t always gradual.

The best case scenario for Holliday is something along the lines of A-Rod’s 2015 season. That’ll happen if he stays healthy and really takes to the DH role. There are some signs pointing to this type of bounce back. Holliday was better in the second half last season. He also was at his best (.368/.385/.868 with five HR) in his eight games as the Cardinals’ DH. Holliday also gets the chance to play 81 games in the hitter-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium.

In this type of scenario, Holliday could anchor the Yankees’ lineup and warrant consideration to bring him back in 2018. The most likely case — a slightly above average but not great Holliday — is still a welcome improvement over last season and would bring stability to DH.

But there is the worst case scenario and ZiPS hints at it. However, I’d argue even the worst case with Holliday is still better than the Bombers’ 2016 DH situation. On one hand, you have Holliday getting injured. That’s not such a big deal for the team for two reasons; The Yankees have Chris Carter as a ready-made replacement and could also hand at-bats to developing younger players like Tyler Austin, Aaron Judge, etc. Heck, they could also use the spot to give Sanchez days off from the field like last year.

The other worst case is Holliday declining significantly. That wouldn’t be optimal, but he’s only under contract for one season unlike A-Rod from last year. Because of the limited investment (in years, not dollars), the team could move on and give away those ABs, which could perhaps be put to better use on a team in transition. A truly significant Holliday decline could help put a fork in the Yankees’ playoff hopes, but a more modest decline is much more likely.

On top of his performance, Holliday is renowned for his clubhouse presence. Who knows if it is more or less than what Rodriguez or Beltran brought to the table while they DH’d? Regardless, that alone isn’t worth $13 million and it may be tough for him to live up to the contract. But have no fear: It almost definitely doesn’t get worse than last season.

The Yankees lost some lefty power, but does it matter?

Getty Images
(Getty Images)

The Yankees lost a lot of veterans over the last year, whether to trade, retirement or release. While it has enabled the team to undergo a much-needed youth movement, it also signifies a significant loss in left-handed power. Lefty power isn’t a be-all, end-all. Just look at the 2015-16 Blue Jays and the success they had with Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.

Yet nearly all of the Yankees’ teams since Babe Ruth have been built around powerful lefty (or switch) hitters and they have a home stadium built to match. After all, lefties have the platoon advantage most of the time and strong lefty pull hitters can make mince meat of Yankee Stadium. Therefore, it’s worth looking into whether the Yankees can maintain that or if it will even matter with the team’s new additions.

What they’ve lost

In 2016, the lineup had Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Didi Gregorius, all lefties or switch-hitters, all hit 20+ home runs in pinstripes. Now, the first three names on that list are either retired or playing for the Astros. That leaves a major hole in the middle of the Yankees’ lineup without similar players to fill it.

And those weren’t the only lefties in the lineup. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury combined for just 16 home runs after 33 between the pair as recently as 2014. Chase Headley, despite going without an extra-base hit until mid-May, still hit 11 homers from the left side. In total, thanks to the contributions of those above and a few others, 101 of the team’s 183 homers came from lefty batters, many taking advantage of the short porch in right field.

Sir Didi and Bird

If all went according to plan in 2017, Gregorius and Greg Bird would cement themselves as Yankees regulars for the foreseeable future. Headley, Ellsbury and Gardner will all be 33 for most of the upcoming season, so it’s tougher to see them rebound and provide a strong power surge. So we look to the youthful duo.

It’s worth questioning whether Gregorius, who had only 22 career dingers before last year, can sustain his power surge. He improved on pitches located essentially anywhere, but where he really improved was his power on inside pitches. It’s spelled out through his isolated power in 2015 vs. 2016, via Baseball Savant.

didi-iso-zone-2015-vs-2016
2015 (left) vs. 2016 (right)

While he began the spring with a home run, he’s still not exactly a home run hitter. Some of those home runs last year were line drives that snuck out and he pulled all 20 of his dingers, benefiting from the short porch. Craig Goldstein broke down Gregorius’ 2016 power surge at Baseball Prospectus (subs. required) and says it very well could be a one-year blip.  For what it’s worth, the Yankees believe he can maintain his power, even if the home runs don’t necessarily come, and he did also post a career-high in doubles last season.

As for Bird, the 24-year-old first baseman has the task of replacing Teixeira in the middle of the Yankees’ order. First base is the one spot where the Yankees could find improved power for a LHB, but there is also reason to fret that may not happen. Greg Bird hit 11 homers with a .268 ISO in 178 plate appearances in 2015, but now he’s working his way back from shoulder surgery. Did the surgery sap some of his power? Time will tell and his spring will be important to knocking off some of the inevitable rust (his two doubles on Monday are a good sign).

Righties in the middle

Beyond Bird, there were no lefty hitters added to the Yankees lineup. Maybe Gardner or Ellsbury could bounce back and hit double-digit home runs again. It’s certainly possible that, with extended playing time, this is the year Aaron Hicks puts it together and fulfills his potential.

However, it’s more than likely any uptick in slugging would come from righty Bombers, of which there are plenty candidates. Namely Chris Carter, Matt Holliday, Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge.

Carter mashes lefties more than righties, making him an obvious platoon candidate with Bird, but he still hit 29 homers and posted a more than respectable .487 slugging percentage against RHPs in 2016. Furthermore, he used the opposite field more against RHPs while pulled the ball against LHPs, a sign Carter can utilize the short porch more than one might expect. Here’s his spray heatmap vs. RHPs via Baseball Savant (and here’s the link to the same vs. LHPs).

chris-carter-heatmap-vs-rhp

Matt Holliday, the team’s new everyday DH, has hit — with the exception of 2015 — 20 home runs every season since 2005. Like Carter, he hit for more power against lefties but was still above league average against same-sided pitchers.

Sanchez and Judge are tougher enigmas to crack. Sanchez’s slump to end 2016 indicates he won’t put up nearly the same numbers as he did in August last year. Then again, how exactly was he supposed to replicate that anyway? For what it’s worth, Sanchez hit righties much better than lefties, making up for the lack of platoon advantage McCann provided vs. RHPs. Judge, meanwhile, has more than enough power regardless of opponent but needs to cut down on strikeouts to stay in the lineup.

Does it matter?

Surely the Yankees will hit fewer homers from the left side. But their addition of right-handed power, particularly batters who can use the opposite field, will help make up for that. This will help correct the team’s issues against southpaws that plagued them last season (.253/.317/.391 vs. LHP as compared to .256/.323/.414 league average). With a division littered with lefty starters (eight, including potentially four on the Red Sox alone), the Yankees may be able to turn a 2016 weakness into a strength. As mentioned above, you can be right-handed heavy like the Blue Jays recently were and still be able to rack up extra bases.

Still, it’s worth wondering if the team has traded struggles vs. southpaws for something worse, a lack of power vs. RHPs, who make up the majority of what the team will face. The team as a whole was just 12th in the AL in slugging last season. Therefore, it’s reliant on young players like Bird and Gregorius as well as the team’s RHBs to fill in the power gap or else the Yankees won’t be able to live up to the Bronx Bomber nickname in this transitional season.

Even without many lefty power hitters, the Yankees will still be able to take advantage of the short porch

Carter. (Dustin Bradford/Getty)
Carter. (Dustin Bradford/Getty)

Once the new Yankee Stadium opened and it became clear the short right field porch was even shorter than it had been at the old ballpark, the Yankees started to build their roster around left-handed pull hitters. I mean, they’d always done that, but there was an increased emphasis for sure. It made complete sense too. You tailor your roster to your ballpark since that’s where you play the majority of your games. Every team does it.

The Yankees sought left-handed pull hitters whenever possible. When they needed a short-term designated hitter, they signed guys like Nick Johnson and Raul Ibanez and Travis Hafner. Filling out the bench? They brought in Kelly Johnson and Eric Chavez. Brian McCann‘s pull power from the left side of the plate was one of the biggest reasons the Yankees signed him. No doubt about it.

At the moment the Yankees have three left-handed hitters in their projected 2017 lineup: Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Didi Gregorius. Greg Bird can make it four should he win the first base job in Spring Training, and he’s the only one of those four you’d truly consider as a power hitter, right? Gregorius hit 20 homers last season and that was awesome, but I don’t think anyone is counting on him to be a big run producer going forward.

The Yankees actually have more power from the right side of the plate right now. Chris Carter, who will play first base on the days Bird does not, smacked 41 home runs last year. He’s hit the eighth most homers in baseball since 2014. Gary Sanchez, Matt Holliday, and Starlin Castro all topped 20 homers in 2016. Sanchez and Holliday didn’t even play full seasons. Aaron Judge hit 23 homers in 120 games between Triple-A and MLB.

For the first time in as long as I can remember, the Yankees lineup leans towards the right side of the plate. Go back throughout history and most successful Yankees teams had big lefty bats, from Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to Reggie Jackson and Graig Nettles and Chris Chambliss to Paul O’Neill and Tino Martinez. Left-handed power and patience is the franchise’s trademark. That isn’t the case so much right now.

“The power is not prevalent from the left side. That is the way the dominoes have shaken out,” said Brian Cashman to Joel Sherman recently. “There is no think-tank, philosophical change to get away from lefty power. It is how it has shaken out as we tried to upgrade each individual position.”

If the Yankees wanted lefty power, they could have added it this offseason. They could have brought in Pedro Alvarez and Brandon Moss instead of Holliday and Carter, for example. Or maybe Adam Lind and Luis Valbuena. There were left-handed pull hitters on the market this winter waiting to be signed. The Yankees went righty instead of lefty, probably because Holliday is a better pure hitter than those guys and Carter has more power than all of them.

The team’s lack of left-handed power — Carter hit more homers than Gardner, Ellsbury, and Gregorius (and Bird) combined in 2016 (41 to 36) — does not mean the Yankees will be unable to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch in 2017. Last year we saw Castro drive the ball to right field with authority. Holliday and Carter have been doing it for years as well. Check out their line drive and fly ball rates by direction from 2014-16:

LD+FB% to Pull LD+FB% to Middle LD+FB% to Oppo
Carter 51.8% 80.0% 90.1%
Castro 31.3% 51.6% 74.5%
Holliday 33.9% 54.3% 77.9%
MLB AVG for RHB 33.7% 35.3% 51.1%

When Carter has hit a ball the other way over the last three seasons, it’s been a fly ball or a line drive more than nine times out of ten. That sounds ridiculous, and it is, but it’s not unheard of. Other top right-handed power hitters like J.D. Martinez (90.1%), Kris Bryant (88.6%), and Mike Trout (88.0%) are in the same neighborhood. The best power hitters are the ones who hit the ball out to all fields.

Castro and Holliday don’t hit as many line drives and fly balls when going the other way as Carter, but they’re still way above the league average for right-handed batters. Roughly three out of every four balls they’ve hit to right field over the last three seasons have been airborne. Want to take advantage of the short porch as a right-handed hitter? You’ve got to get the ball in the air when you go the other way, and Carter, Castro, and Holliday are all very good at it.

(Last year, after Tyler Austin hit his walk-off home run against the Rays, I noted how rare it is for a right-handed batter to hit an opposite field home run on an inside pitch. Only eleven righties had done it up to that point last year, and three are now Yankees: Austin, Carter, and Holliday.)

Holliday. (Jennifer Stewart/Getty)
Holliday. (Jennifer Stewart/Getty)

Now, here’s the rub: those three don’t hit the majority of their batted balls the other way. When they do hit the ball to right field, it tends to be in the air, but like most hitters they mostly hit back up the middle and to the pull side. Since 2014 only 23.0% of Carter’s batted balls were to right field. It was 29.9% for Holliday and 22.5% for Castro. This is important context. It’s not like these three are hitting every other ball to right field. It’s just that when they do go to right field, they often do so in the air. That’s good given the short porch.

During their brief big league cameos last season we saw Sanchez and Austin, as well as Judge, hit home runs to right field. All five of Austin’s big league homers were opposite field shots at Yankee Stadium. Sanchez hit two out to right field and Judge hit one. Their scouting reports coming up as prospects indicated those guys have opposite field power, especially Sanchez and Judge, so what we saw last year wasn’t out of character.

The Yankees aren’t very left-handed at the moment. Their best lefty power hitter is Gregorius by default, though a healthy Bird would take over that title. The good news is the Yankees do have plenty of power from the right side, including several righties who are equipped to take advantage of the short right field porch given their tendency to hit the ball in the air the other way. They’ll be able to use the short porch without all the annoying grounders pulled into the shift.

Didi Gregorius and the value of being a bad ball hitter

(Denis Poroy/Getty)
(Denis Poroy/Getty)

In just a few short weeks, the Yankees will enter year three of the Didi Gregorius era. Time flies, eh? In his two seasons as New York’s starting shortstop, Gregorius has shown a rocket arm and strong overall defensive chops, and blossoming power as well. And enthusiasm for the game, too. The Yankees have been a little too corporate over the years and a player having fun on the field is a welcome change.

Gregorius came to the Yankees with questions about his ability to hit, and while no one is going to confuse him for Derek Jeter at the plate, Didi hasn’t been a total zero with the stick either. He’s authored a .270/.311/.409 (94 wRC+) batting line in nearly 1,200 plate appearances as a Yankee. The league average shortstop hit .262/.319/.407 (92 wRC+) last season, so Gregorius is right there. Add in his defense and you’ve got a nice little player.

One thing we know for sure about Gregorius offensively is that he loves to swing. Loves it. His 55.4% swing rate last season was sixth highest among the 146 hitters to qualify for the batting title. And when he swings, he usually puts the ball in play. Gregorius had the third lowest walk rate (3.2%) and 26th lowest strikeout rate (13.7%) in baseball last season. He’s not someone who swings and misses a lot. When he swings, he tends to put in play.

Gregorius is not shy about swinging at pitches out of the zone — his 38.3% chase rate last year was 14th highest among those 146 batters — and that can get pretty annoying! At the same time, his 71.7% contact rate on pitches out of the zone was quite a bit above the 63.9% league average. This play sticks out to me from last summer. David Price tried to put Gregorius away with a changeup out of the zone, and Didi hooked it into the corner for extra bases:

That’s not a bad pitch! It was down and out of the zone, and with an 0-2 count and two outs, trying to get the hitter to chase something in the dirt is a smart move. The count says you don’t need to go right after the hitter in that situation. Price had some wiggle room thanks to the 0-2 count and the pitch was a ball (via Brooks Baseball) …

david-price-vs-didi-gregorius-050716

… yet Gregorius made him pay. What can you do if you’re the pitcher in that situation? Nothing, you just have to tip your cap, as annoying as that may be. Price made a good pitch and Gregorius drove in three runs anyway. That’s baseball. Sometimes you do everything right and still get beat.

That play speaks to Didi’s skills as a bad ball hitter. Vlad Guerrero was the ultimate bad ball hitter. We’ve all see the highlight of him hitting a single on a pitch that bounced. That guy could swing at any pitch in any location and do damage. Ichiro Suzuki was another great bad ball hitter. Gregorius is not a Vlad or Ichiro caliber bad ball hitter, basically no one is, but he is better than most in MLB today.

Over the last two seasons Gregorius has hit .222 with a .297 BABIP on pitches out of the zone, which sounds terrible, but the league averages were .187 and .281, respectively. The best bad ball hitter over the last two seasons, Denard Span, hit .268 on pitches outside the zone. Only nine others cleared .250. Here are Didi’s BABIPs on pitches in various locations from 2015-16, via Baseball Savant:

didi-gregorius-babips

The brighter the red, the higher above average the BABIP. The brighter the blue, the further below average. Gregorius has excelled at pitches down and in and out of the zone, like the Price changeup in the video above, and has been about average on pitches out of the zone away from him. That’s from the catcher’s perspective, so his weakness is up and in. Otherwise if it’s out of the zone, Gregorius has some level of success when he swings.

Of course, in a perfect world Didi would not swing at pitches out of the strike zone, but that’s just not who he is. Getting a hitter to change his approach is awfully tough, especially when you’re talking about a soon-to-be 27-year-old who has had success in the big leagues swinging at everything. Gregorius at this point probably is what he’s always going to be from an approach standpoint. He’s going to swing and swing often. So it goes.

I definitely think there is value in having a bad ball hitter in the lineup. Diversity is cool. On-base percentage is king and patient hitters who make the pitcher work tend to drive successful offenses. These days though, with velocity and strikeouts at an all-time high, having someone who can not only spoil those put-away pitches out of the zone, but actually get base hits off them is pretty useful. A full lineup of free swingers like Gregorius might not work. One in a lineup of patient hitters though? That’s doable.

Do the Yankees have a lineup full of patient hitters at the moment? Not really, though they’re probably in better shape than their 7.8% walk rate a year ago (19th in MLB) would lead you to believe. Brett Gardner, Chase Headley, Matt Holliday, and Greg Bird all have histories of working the count and drawing walks. Gary Sanchez showed similar patience last year. Aaron Judge has done it in the past too. Gregorius, Starlin Castro, and Jacoby Ellsbury are the team’s only true swing at everything hackers right now. Maybe three is too many.

Over the last two years we’ve seen enough from Gregorius to know he’s probably never going to draw a ton of walks and be a high on-base guy. Would I prefer it if he laid off pitches out of the strike zone? Of course, but that doesn’t seem to be in his DNA. Revamping his approach will take a lot of work. Drawing walks is not natural to him. If nothing else, at least Gregorius has demonstrated the ability to have some success when swinging at pitches out of the zone. If he’s not going to lay off them, then that’s the next best thing.

Yankees considering splitting Ellsbury and Gardner in the lineup, but I’ll need to see it to believe it

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Three offseasons ago the Yankees committed significant dollars to reshape their offense. After years of relying on the home run (not a bad thing!) and playing station-to-station baseball (a bad thing), New York invested big in a pair of speedsters. Jacoby Ellsbury was brought on board as a free agent and Brett Gardner was retained with an extension. That’s $205M worth of table-setters right there, with three-quarters of that money going to Ellsbury.

The attempt to diversify the offense hasn’t worked as hoped. In the three years since the signings, the Yankees ranked 20th, second, and 22nd in runs per game. The year they ranked second was the year zombie Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez rose from the dead to hit a combined .252/.357/.513 with 64 homers in just under 1,100 plate appearances. It wasn’t because Ellsbury and Gardner raised hell atop the lineup.

Derek Jeter‘s retirement tour kept him glued to the No. 2 lineup spot in 2014, but over the last two years, Ellsbury and Gardner have batted first and second in whatever order in 200 of 324 possible games, or 62%. Needless to say, building the top of the lineup around their speed hasn’t worked as planned for a number of reasons, and as a result, the Yankees are now considering breaking up the Gardner-Ellsbury combo.

“We’ve kicked it around (since) the second half last year,” said Brian Cashman during a YES Network interview earlier this week (video link). “Is it best to split them up? Who should really bat leadoff? Those type of things. And I’m sure those will pop back up this Spring Training. It could stay that way. It’s ultimately going to be Joe’s call … I think Joe’s going to get a better feel when he sees everything in camp — if it’s all healthy — and who’s best for that two-hole, then where’s the best guy slot after that. We’ll see how it plays.”

Changing the lineup can sometimes be really simple and at other times really complicated. Splitting up Gardner and Ellsbury is one of those times when it’s complicated, I think. There are a lot of ramifications up and down the lineup, and even in the clubhouse as well. There’s a lot going on here, so let’s break it down bit by bit.

1. Of course Gardner, not Ellsbury, should bat leadoff. Ellsbury has the more lucrative contract and is the bigger name, but Gardner is the better player and better hitter, and therefore the better fit for the leadoff spot. Consider their offensive numbers over the last few years (defense doesn’t matter when it comes to lineup spots):

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ HR XBH SB-CS BsR
2016 Gardner 634 .261/.351/.362 97 7 35 16-4 +7.3
2016 Ellsbury 626 .263/.330/.374 91 9 38 20-8 +2.7
2014-16 Gardner 1,926 .259/.340/.395 105 40 130 57-14 +18.5
2014-16 Ellsbury 1,762 .264/.326/.382 95 32 110 80-22 +14.1

Ellsbury steals a few more bases and hits for a slightly higher average, and that’s about it. Gardner is better at everything else, including all the other aspects of baserunning (BsR). The most basic job of the leadoff man is to get on base, and Gardner has a higher on-base percentage than Ellsbury over the last year (.351 to .330), the last two years (.347 to .324), the last three years (.340 to .326), the last four years (.341 to .333), the last five years (.341 to .331) … on and on we could go.

Furthermore, Gardner sees a heck of a lot more pitches than Ellsbury. That is kinda the secondary job of the leadoff man, right? To work the pitcher and prolong the at-bat so everyone else in the lineup gets an idea of what’s coming? Right. Gardner saw 4.09 pitches per plate appearance last season, 29th most in baseball. Ellsbury saw 3.73 pitches per plate appearance, which was 108th most. Gardner has a big advantage over the last three years too (4.23 to 3.73).

Looking ahead, both Steamer (.340 OBP to .324 OBP; 101 wRC+ to 91 wRC+) and ZiPS (.330 OBP to .324 OBP; 104 OPS to 97 OPS+) project Gardner to both get on base more often and be a better overall hitter than Ellsbury this coming season. Unless you’re one of those folks who believes the quality of a leadoff hitter can be measured exclusively by his stolen base total, there’s no statistical argument to be made Ellsbury deserves the leadoff spot over Gardner.

2. Okay smarty pants, who bats second then? The second spot in the lineup is an important one. Old school baseball folks will say that spot should go to a bat control guy who can hit behind the runner, hit-and-run, things like that. New schoolers believe your best overall hitter should hit second because he’ll get more at-bats than he would hitting third or fourth, plus he’d bat with more men on base than he would as the leadoff hitter.

Ellsbury fits the mold of an old school No. 2 hitter. He struck out only 13.4% of the time last year (career 13.6 K%), the 25th lowest strikeout rate among the 146 hitters qualified for the batting title. Ellsbury is most certainly not New York’s best hitter though. That’s probably Gary Sanchez. (I wouldn’t be completely shocked if, say, Greg Bird out-hits Sanchez in 2017.) Girardi has batted power hitters second in the past, most notably Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher, but I have a hard time believing he’d do it with Sanchez. He seems entrenched as the No. 3 hitter.

So if Gardner is leading off, Sanchez is hitting third, and Ellsbury is moving down in the lineup, who is the best candidate to hit second? My nomination: Chase Headley. He’s a better on-base player than Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro — Headley had a .331 OBP last year whereas Didi and Starlin were at .304 and .300, respectively, and ZiPS suggests more of the same in 2017 — but he probably won’t pop 20-something homers like those two. He’s better in a table-setting role. Gregorius and Castro are better used killing rallies with homers a bit lower in the order.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Ultimately, the Yankees don’t have a great No. 2 hitter candidate. Ellsbury has the bat control but is a below-average hitter overall. Castro and Gregorius don’t get on base much. Headley and Sanchez (and Bird and Matt Holliday) are really slow. Aaron Judge strikes out too much. You know who’d theoretically be a nice fit as the No. 2 hitter? Aaron Hicks. Switch-hitter with some pop who can run, doesn’t strike out a ton (18.8 K% in 2016), and will draw walks (8.3%). Of course, Hicks has a lot to prove before becoming a serious consideration for a premium lineup spot.

The lineup is going to change throughout the season, it always does, and it’s entirely possible Ellsbury will emerge as the best possible candidate for the two-hole. Headley seems like the best fit right now because, even though he lacks top of the order speed, he’ll get on base and hit for more power than Ellsbury, plus he’s a switch-hitter, which creates some matchup headaches for opposing managers. Headley has batted second for the Yankees before, 49 starts there the last two years, so it wouldn’t be new to him. He’s my suggestion until a better option emerges.

3. Will Girardi actually move Ellsbury down in the lineup? I can think of 153 million reasons why Ellsbury will remain the leadoff hitter in 2017. Like or not (not!) contract status absolutely plays a role when teams make decisions. It’s one thing to bench a wholly ineffective A-Rod, or slide Brian McCann to DH when Sanchez starts socking dingers left and right. It’s another to drop a guy in the lineup when you owe him $90M over the next four years.

Now, to be fair, Girardi did bench Ellsbury in the AL Wildcard Game two years ago, which I’m sure was difficult even though it was unquestionably the right move at the time. And Girardi did scale back the playing time of his veterans last year (A-Rod, McCann, Teixeira) without the clubhouse breaking into mutiny. Say what you want about Girardi’s on-field management skills. The Yankees have been largely distraction free the last few seasons. He seems to do a wonderful job managing the clubhouse.

Perhaps then demoting Ellsbury lower in the lineup — by demoting I mean dropped to the bottom third of the batting order, not, say, third or fifth — would not be a problem. Ellsbury accepts the demotion, uses it as motivation, and plays his way back to the top of the lineup. (Or demands a trade!) That would be the best thing for everyone. That said, there are too many years and too many dollars left on Ellsbury’s contract for me to think this will actually happen. I’m going to need to see this one to believe it.

4. Don’t forget, a Gardner trade is still possible. The Yankees can split Gardner and Ellsbury up by dropping one, preferably Ellsbury, lower in the lineup. They could also split them up by trading Gardner (or, again, preferably Ellsbury, but nah). Gardner has been on the trade block for more than a year now and reports indicate the Yankees continue to field offers. He remains a Yankee though, and until he’s traded, we have to proceed as if he’ll be around. This is just a reminder that a Gardner trade could make Ellsbury the leadoff hitter by default.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

5. So what actually is the best lineup? Good question! Moving Ellsbury, who has been 5% worse than the league average hitter over the last three seasons, down in the lineup makes perfect sense. Except when you look at the rest of the roster and realize the Yankees aren’t exactly loaded with high-end hitters. It’s not like they still have Swisher hitting eighth or something like that. I’d say this is the best possible lineup right now:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. 3B Chase Headley
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. DH Matt Holliday
  5. 1B Greg Bird
  6. 2B Starlin Castro
  7. SS Didi Gregorius
  8. RF Aaron Judge
  9. CF Jacoby Ellsbury

That allows Ellsbury to act as a second leadoff hitter, so to speak. After the first inning, he’d still be setting the table for Gardner and Headley and Sanchez. He just wouldn’t do it in the first inning. There are a lot of questions in that lineup — will Judge stick with the team on Opening Day or go to Triple-A? is Bird healthy and productive? etc. — but that seems like the best order.

Now, based on last year and his overall tendencies, this is the lineup I’m guessing Girardi would run out there if the Yankees do decide to split up Ellsbury and Gardner:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. 2B Starlin Castro
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. DH Matt Holliday
  5. SS Didi Gregorius
  6. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  7. 1B Greg Bird
  8. RF Aaron Judge
  9. 3B Chase Headley

Don’t ask me why, that just seems very Girardi-ish to me. Gregorius saw plenty of time in the middle of the lineup last year, and Castro was elevated to second on more than a few occasions. (Fifteen times, to be exact.) Sixth is low enough that Ellsbury is not getting premium at-bats but still high enough not to insult him. Then you’ve got the two kids in Bird and Judge, then Headley, who Girardi never bothered to elevate in the lineup for an extended period of time last summer even though he hit .269/.344/.426 (107 wRC+) in the final 135 games of the year.

Like I said earlier, I’m going to need to see Ellsbury dropped in the lineup before I believe it. Consider me skeptical. I half expect Gardner to be the one who gets demoted to seventh or eighth or whatever. It’s good the Yankees have been discussing this for a while now, since the second half of last season according to Cashman, now we just need to see if it leads anywhere. If there were one year left on Ellsbury’s deal and more viable top of the lineup alternatives on the roster, I’d be more optimistic about the chances of him being dropped. For now, I’m not expecting much.