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.

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

28 Responses to “Do the Yankees Have a Need for Speed?”

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  1. BJsWorld says:

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

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  2. storminjnorman says:

    Holy crap Marcel is rough on A-Rod.

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    • Kevin S. says:

      What, expecting a player in his mid-thirties to repeat his previous season (which was still excellent by any standards but the ones he set)?

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  3. Mike D says:

    Although this is very similar to OBP, the amount of pitches that Gardner takes per at-bat is also reason enough to put him in the leadoff position. Here was a good WSJ article written about him last summer…

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  4. Dude says:

    Even Teixeira will hit _some_ singles? He hits mostly singles, everyone does.

    Jose Bautista hit 56 singles last year. Even the most successful power hitters will hit more singles than any other kind of hit.

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  5. Cody says:

    My two loves combined: baseball and Top Gun! My life is now complete.

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  6. Preston says:

    The difference in runs that moving around the lineup would have is minimal. Derek Jeter is the face of the franchise. Moving him down in the order would be publicly humiliating to him. I’m not saying he wouldn’t say all the right things and do it, I’m saying it would be a huge media distraction. Brett Gardner would have a lot of pressure put on him. The added pressure of being at the top of the order instead of the bottom, as well as the media scrutiny of his performance (imagine if Jeter went 2/3 with a walk and Gardner went 0/5 the horror). A big part of being a manager is putting your players in a position to succeed and avoiding distractions, switching up the lineup at this point accomplishes neither of these goals. Now if at the all-star break Jeter is struggling and Gardner is on fire you switch them, but it was only 2009 that Jeter was 2nd on the MVP ballot so I’m not ready to assume that will be the case.

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  7. My echo and bunnymen says:

    My two loves combined: baseball and avoiding Kenny Loggins songs. Thanks to the author.

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  8. nolan says:

    I think ninth is the perfect spot for Gardner. It’s as if the Yankees have him leading off while starting the game off batting their second hitter, if that makes sense. He can hit in front of Jeter while not having the pressure of the leadoff spot. I seriously doubt the Yanks are going to put a second year outfielder in front of Jeter to earn five runs. They earn enough runs already.

    And this from a huge Gardner fan (one of the three Yankees I can stand.)

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  9. ropespinner says:

    So, Jeter has had some hamstring problems before, and can assure you that at his age they will re-appear. Not sure I understand why Jeter’s ego is being pampered so, place him in the 8 hole in line up.

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    • Preston says:

      Jeter’s ego isn’t being pampered. There is a real possibility that his low average was the product of an unlucky BABIP. Even if that isn’t the case Kevin Long seem’s to think Jeter will drive the ball better with minor swing adjustments. Jeter is a great baserunner (if not base-stealer) takes walks at a good rate, and hits for more power than Gardner. If you put Jeter 8th in the order and he hits .314/.380 next year and gardner regresses and hits .260/.350, both real possibilities Girardi looks foolish and will have damaged his relationship with one of the greatest players of all time, and lost credibility in the locker room. I’m not saying the switch should never be made and Derek Jeter should be allowed to hit wherever he wants until eternity. But if you’re going to make that move, you better be proof positive it’s the right move.

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      • hk says:

        How do you propose that they are “proof positive” it’s the right move? Isn’t it entirely possible that the 37 year old is in a decline phase and this year will be worse than last and that the 28 year old maintains or improves his performance in which case giving him more PA’s will be beneficial? With the general improvement in the division during the off-season, I would not be surprised to see the teams beat up on each other to the extent that the Wild Card comes from outside the East for the first time in a while, in which case the team cannot afford to lose runs (and games) appeasing Jeter’s ego in what could be a playoff race that goes down to the wire.

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  10. Scout Finch says:

    Looks like more team speed than your 2010 SF Giants. Wasn’t a problem for them.

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  11. Regis says:

    Posada’s speed should be listed as 0.0.

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  12. JNat says:

    I have to question the book’s claim that the third hitter in the ideal lineup is your fifth best. I have always heard and believe that the most important hitters in the lineup are the first three; the third hitter being the most important of all. He should be your most reliably consistent hitter who also has good power. The best of all time were primarily third slot hitters (Williams, Musial, Ruth, etc.). The lead-off hitter needs to have a high OBP and be a good baserunner (Gardner?). The second slot hitter needs to be a good contact hitter who hits to all fields and who also is a good baserunner (Jeter?). The third slot hitter should be your most dependable day in and day out in coming through with these runners on base (Cano?). Regardless if paper statisticians say that an optimized lineup adds only minimum value, just remember that over the course of the season, no position in the lineup gets more at bats than leadoff, and none gets less at bats than the ninth slot. Every one-run loss when a number of runners have been left on base are arguably games that could have and should have been won with the right batter up in the key situation, and that does not mean a home run hitter who often strikes out. If the Yankees do not think they need Carl Crawford because they already have a bargain priced Crawford in Gardner, what is Gardner doing batting ninth?…then evidence that belief and bat him first. Does anyone believe that Crawford would bat ninth for the Yankees or in any other team’s lineup? A resurgent Jeter would not be insulted by batting second, where his style is suited and he has been so successful over his career. Cano, the team’s currently most dependable hitter should bat third. Texeira is a great asset to the team, but he is too streaky to rely on day in and day out in the third slot (and they probably have lost a number of games each year during his slumps in this critical batting position). He’s better suited for the fifth slot where his presence alone, regardless of whether he is hitting or not, will provide protection for Arod and still keep the 2 power hitters back to back. This order would also keep with the strategy of alternating right and left handed hitters. If Jeter continues last year’s slide, then he could be move to sixth behind Texeira which is still not an insult.

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    • adohaj says:

      why not do this since Texeira IS better than Cano.

      1. Gardner
      2. Cano
      3. Tex
      4. Arod
      9. Jeter

      Oh yea Jeter’s intangibles wont be put to as good of use then.

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    • James says:

      The reason why the 5th hitter is in the 3 spot is because that is the batter most likely to come up to bat with 2 outs and no one on base, and is also least likely to start an inning.

      This is rather straight forward as the 1 and 2 batters will always lead off the game and around 1/3 of the time both will record outs, and it’s obvious the 3rd batter is least likely to start off the second inning.

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  13. Ryan says:

    Gardner scored 97 times last year (17% of PAs, tops on the Yanks) out of the 9 hole last season. If it ain’t broke…

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