Last night, the Yankees used something that looked awfully close to their projected Opening Day starting lineup. The only regular not in the lineup was Brian McCann, who is still nursing a sore knee after being hit by a foul tip over the weekend. It’s nothing serious. He’ll be back in a day or two. No reason to push it in mid-March.
As a quick reminder, here is the starting lineup the Yankees ran out there against the Blue Jays last night:
- CF Jacoby Ellsbury
- LF Brett Gardner
- RF Carlos Beltran
- 1B Mark Teixeira
- DH Alex Rodriguez
- 3B Chase Headley
- 2B Starlin Castro
- SS Didi Gregorius
- C Gary Sanchez
I’m guessing a healthy McCann slots in at No. 6 behind A-Rod, bumping the other guys down a spot. That’s pretty close to the lineup the Yankees used for most of last season — the most common Yankees’ lineup last year was used only nine times, so yeah — which makes sense because almost none of the personnel has changed. Castro replaced Stephen Drew. That’s the only difference.
Obsessing over the lineup on a day-to-day basis is not really my thing anymore, though I do think it would be instructive to look over the projected batting order and try to figure out who fits best in each spot. The Yankees have a pretty straightforward lineup. We don’t have to rack our brains too much.
The Leadoff Man
This is the easiest, most predictable spot in the lineup. Ellsbury is going to hit leadoff. Against righties, against lefties, whatever. The Yankees are paying Ellsbury an awful lot of money to set the table and he was one of the most productive leadoff men in the game as recently as last May. The only time Ellsbury won’t hit leadoff this coming season is when he gets a day off. Right? Right. Next.
An lot of studies over the years have shown the No. 2 spot is the most important spot in the lineup. The No. 2 hitter gets the second most at-bats on the team and is responsible for both driving in runs (when the leadoff man reaches base) and setting the table (for the middle of the order). Ideally your best all-around hitter hits second. Who is the Yankees’ best all-around hitter? Beltran? I dunno.
An argument can be made Gardner is the team’s best hitter, at least when he’s healthy. He did hit .302/.377/.484 (137 wRC+) in the first half last season, after all. Gardner batted second most of last year and he fits that spot well because he can mash the occasional dinger and he’s one of the club’s best on-base guys. Prior to Ellsbury’s injury last year, he and Gardner were dominant from the 1-2 spots. They were on base a combined seven times a game it seemed.
Joe Girardi has discussed using Castro as his No. 2 hitter against lefties, which makes sense from a “he hits right-handed and Girardi likes to sit Gardner against lefties for some reason” point of the view. The problem? Castro hit .281/.304/.339 (76 wRC+) against lefties last year and .265/.309/.366 (86 wRC+) against lefties the last three years. Against lefties Gardner hit .276/.361/.400 (112 wRC+) in 2015 and .262/.337/.395 (104 wRC+) from 2013-15.
There also this: Castro is a big time double play candidate. He’s downright Jeterian with the double plays. Starlin had a 54.1% ground ball rate last year, 12th highest among the 141 qualified hitters, and throughout his career he’s banged into a twin killing in 16% of his opportunities. The league average hovers around 11% each year. Yes, Ellsbury steals bases, but he’s not going to steal every time he reaches base. Castro’s double play ability will short circuit a lot of rallies.
The way I see it, Starlin should show he’s an asset against lefties before giving him a primo lineup spot. Don’t give him the benefit of the doubt just because he’s a righty. When Gardner does inevitably sit against southpaw, Aaron Hicks would be a better No. 2 hitter option than Castro. Hicks hit .307/.375/.495 (139 wRC+) against lefties in 2015 and .272/.360/.447 (125 wRC+) against them the last three years. The Gardner/Hicks platoon is the best No. 2 option.
The 3-4-5(-6) Hitters
We know who is going to hit in the 3-4-5-6 spots: Beltran, Teixeira, A-Rod, and McCann. The only real question is how those four players should be ordered. I have two opinions:
1. Teixeira should hit cleanup. He is is not only the Yankees’ best power hitter, he’s also one of their best on-base guys, which serves the team well whenever he leads off the second inning after the top of the lineup goes down in order in the first. Fourth is a good spot for him. You don’t want Teixeira batting any lower because it means fewer at-bats, and you also don’t want to hit him much higher because you want as many men on base as possible when he hits. Plus he’s a switch-hitter. He’s the perfect cleanup hitter.
2. McCann should hit sixth. At this point of his career, McCann is basically a grip it and rip it hitter. That’s not a bad thing, but all the fly balls — his 36.1% ground ball rate was 18th lowest among the 141 qualified hitters in 2015 — are not conducive to a high batting average. McCann has hit .236 with a .309 OBP and a .241 BABIP in over 2,000 plate appearances the last four years. Yes, he has a lot of power, but out of the four guys projected to hit in the middle of the lineup, McCann is the worst at not making outs. He’s great at capping off rallies with a dinger. He’s not so great at extending rallies.
That leaves Beltran and A-Rod for the No. 3 and 5 spots. If Rod hits like he did from April through July, you want him hitting third. If Beltran hits like he did from mid-May through the end of the season, you want him hitting third. Rodriguez did hit more homers than Beltran (33 to 19) and was better overall last season (129 to 119 wRC+), so maybe bat him in the three-hole. I’m not sure there’s a wrong answer here, though I do think Alex gives you a better chance at quick first inning offense with the long ball. So I guess that means my 3-4-5-6 hitters go Rodriguez-Teixeira-Beltran-McCann.
The Bottom Third
I know Castro is the new hotness and everyone is excited about him, but the reality is he barely out-hit Stephen Drew last season (80 to 76 wRC+). That level of production is not so fluky either; Castro had a 74 wRC+ back in 2013. He did sandwich a 117 wRC+ between those two awful seasons in 2014, and surely the Yankees hope that’s the Starlin they’ll get going forward. Until then, I think he has to hit near the bottom of the lineup.
In fact, the best lineup might have Gregorius batting eighth and Castro batting ninth to break up the string of lefties in the wrap-around 9-1-2 portion of the lineup. We saw more than a few teams bring in a lefty reliever and leave him in for a full inning against that part of the lineup last year. Said reliever was staying in even longer when Drew was in the lineup and McCann was hitting fourth. Teams could get two innings out of their left-on-left reliever no problem.
Headley was the best hitter of the three last season and projects to be the best hitter of the three this season (per ZiPS), so seventh is where he belongs. Personally, I’d like to see Didi hitting eighth and Castro hitting ninth for “break up the lefties” purposes, but I have a hard time thinking the Yankees will bat their big offseason pickup ninth. Not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. We’re nitpicking.
So after all of that, I think the most sensible Yankees’ lineup looks something like this:
- Gardner vs. RHP and Hicks vs. LHP
Like I said, Castro’s probably going to hit eighth with Gregorius ninth. That’s the only real difference between my preferred lineup and what is likely to happen. Beltran and A-Rod might flip spots depending who is swinging better at the time. Not batting Starlin second against lefties is the only thing I feel strongly about. That’s a mistake in my opinion. Let him force the issue before bumping him up.
Recent research has shown that, generally speaking, the difference between the most optimal batting order and the worst batting order is a win or two across a full season. Wins are important! But we’re not talking about a difference of ten wins here. The Yankees have a pretty easy to put together lineup, and as long as Girardi doesn’t do something silly like bat A-Rod eighth or Castro leadoff (which he won’t), the Yankees will have a solid offense on the field.