Do the Yankees Have a Need for Speed?

During Joe Girardi’s remarks to the press Monday morning, he asserted that he planned on Derek Jeter hitting leadoff in 2011. Rob Neyer picked up on this and notes that Girardi is at least saying the right thing both politically and also in anticipation of Jeter hitting better in 2011 (given his pre-2010 performances). Still, Neyer, like many who pay attention to the Yankees, can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a bit of a lost opportunity here with to Brett Gardner:

Would it make sense to lead off Brett Gardner, at least against right-handed pitchers? Yeah, probably…. It is a shame that Gardner winds up batting ninth, because he really is the prototypical leadoff man. There are so few of those guys, and the Yankees are sort of wasting theirs.

Gardner’s low-power, high-on-base, high-speed offensive profile does fit the profile of what one would expect from a “prototypical leadoff man.” However, I wonder whether speed on the bases is something that the Yankees need to be looking to make a priority at the top of their batting order.

Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman discuss the Yankees’ Opening Day batting order.

I’m not going to get into every aspect of the Yankees’ batting order here. I love obsessing over batting order, even though we know that the difference between a typical batting order and an optimized one is probably between five and 15 runs over a full season — at most, an individual move is worth something like two runs a season.

I used to do long write-ups on batting orders optimized according to The Book, taking into account relative player skills, platoon issues, baserunning, grounding into double plays, and so on, but it took a ton of work for not much payoff (if anyone has a program/simulation that takes all that into account all those things [the fun Baseball Musings tool doesn’t], feel free to pass it on to me…). Here I will focus simply on the notion that a a speedy guy like Gardner would be somewhat “wasted” if he doesn’t hit at the top of the Yankee’s lineup.

Let’s start by taking a look at the Marcel projections for what will probablly be the Yankees’ starting lineup at the beginning of the 2011 season, sorted in order of projected wOBA, then projected Speed Score.

1B Mark Teixeira .273/.368/.496 (.374 wOBA), .223 ISO, 2.9 Spd
3B Alex Rodriguez .269/.354/.486 (.365 wOBA), .217, 4.1 Spd
2B Robinson Cano .300/.347/.476 (.354 wOBA), .176 ISO, 3.4 Spd
RF Nick Swisher .254/.345/.462 (.352 wOBA), .208 ISO, 3.0 Spd
LF Brett Gardner .269/.357/.378 (.341 wOBA), .109 ISO, 8.0 Spd
CF Curtis Granderson .253/.329/.448 (.341 wOBA), .196 ISO, 6.5 Spd
DH Jorge Posada .252/.340/.440 (.341 wOBA), .188 ISO, 2.9 Spd
SS Derek Jeter .283/.350/.397 (.334 wOBA), .113 ISO, 5.1 Spd
C Russell Martin .256/.350/.350 (.315 wOBA), .095 ISO, 3.5 Spd

What stands out when I look at those projections is that the Yankees have a bunch of power hitters. In 2010, the average isolated power was .145; Marcel projects six Yankee hitters to be far above that., and those six players all project to be in or close to the top third of the league. It isn’t just Teixeira and Rodriguez, either — Swisher and Granderson project for impressive power as well.

Without going through their extensive derivation of why, The Book says that best hitters in the lineup should usually hit first, second, and fourth (with the higher OBP hitter up first, the most powerful fourth, and a the more balanced of the three hitting second), with the next two best hitters ideally hitting fifth and third. There are other factors to consider (splitting up lefty hitters, double play issues, etc.), but that’s all we need for now. If you look at the Yankees four best hitters according to Marcel, they all have good or great power.

The fifth-best is three-way tie, and Gardner is in there, but that’s not the only consideration (for example, in setting up the batting order, you want to consider the matchup at the plate, and Gardner’s wOBA is a bit inflated by his steals — not that they aren’t valuable, but they should be considered separately in this situation). But back to the question at hand: is speed best leveraged by putting it in front of the hitters that will certainly be at the heart of the order like A-Rod and Teixeira?

We should distinguish between basestealing and baserunning, with the latter being understood here as simply taking the extra base on a hit. Speed Score isn’t a perfect sabermetric measure, but it does given a decent idea of a player’s speed in relation to both skills. Gardner and Jeter have to two highest projected Speed Scores on the Yankees. Where in the batting order is basestealing best leveraged (in terms of batting order, not in terms of game situation, where pinch-running sometimes might be a good idea) in front of a hitter who has trouble getting over by themselves with a hit, and without much power.

That description doesn’t really fit any of the Yankees’ best four-to-six hitters (other than Gardner, who is somewhere between five and seven). As for baserunning, that is best leveraged in the batting order in front of good hitters who hit mostly singles and doubles and thus give the good baserunner more opportunities to exercise his craft. As The Book notes, although good basestealers and good baserunners aren’t always the same players, they usually are, and this situation creates a dilemma, as the ideal spot for a good basestealer (in an average lineup, usuallly fifth or sixth, in front of the poorer hitters) is in tension with the spot for a good baserunner (in front of good hitters who don’t get too many extra-base hits).

However, neither of those descriptions fit the best hitters on the Yankees. They certainly aren’t poor hitters who need a guy on first to get over to second base with a steal just in case they eke out a single. Moreover, other than Cano (who isn’t exactly a dinker himself), none of them project for an especially high average — their value primarily comes from lots of doubles and home runs, which renders good baserunning less relevant.

This isn’t meant as a full analysis of the Yankees batting order, or even to say who should and shouldn’t lead off. Perhaps Gardner (or Jeter against left-handed pitching) should be the primary leadoff hitter for different reasons, e.g., on-base percentage (although this isn’t the only consideration). It isn’t as if speed is useless in this case (even Teixeira is going to hit some singles), any more than putting a guy with power in the first spot is “useless” because his homers are more likely to be “wasted” (i.e., hit with no one on base). That being said, while I’m probably one of the biggest Brett Gardner fans outside of Yankee fandom (he’s dangerous), his speed is more likely to be “wasted” by having him hit in front of players who manage 30 or more home runs during “down” seasons.

Print This Post

Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted

Isn’t Granderson’s 6.5 Speed Score better than Jeter’s 5.1? Am I missing something?