Several Yankees were victimized by bad luck in 2014. Despite Jacoby Ellsbury's relatively clean bill of health, he was definitely one of them. Prolonged injuries to Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira caused him to hit third in the Yankees lineup on 93 occasions after only doing so 11 times during his Red Sox career. While intuition says Ellsbury is a natural leadoff hitter, Brett Gardner is another great option to lead off. Looking at Ellsbury's second half stats, the choice is actually pretty clear.
The main reason why the Yankees would consider leading off with Ellsbury is because of his ability to steal bases. Over the past two seasons he has stolen 91 bases in 100 attempts. Gardner is obviously a weapon on the base paths too, though he doesn't hold a candle to Ellsbury's blazing agility. What he brings instead is a better ability to draw walks as he has maintained a 10 BB% over his career compared to Ellsbury's 7% Both players are good at making contact, but a closer look at each of their first and second half stats prove that Ellsbury is better suited to hit second:
|Brett Gardner (First Half)||.279||.353||.424||.145||21.9%||86.2%|
|Jacoby Ellsbury (First Half)||.282||.346||.400||.118||25.5%||85.8%|
Starting with their first half stats, Gardner had a bit of an edge, due in part to a higher BABIP and a bit more power, but his passive approach at the plate caused him to strike out a lot, making him ill suited for hitting with runners on base. While Gardner is an elite contact hitter, Ellsbury is in a league of his own, as shown by their second half stats:
|Brett Gardner (Second Half)||.218||.286||.417||.199||22.6%||86.9%|
|Jacoby Ellsbury (Second Half)||.255||.298||.450||.195||35.6%||87.5%|
In the second half, the alarms for both hitters probably went off as they realized that the New York Yankees were not a very good offensive team. Ellsbury's sudden spike in O-Swing% might have been a result of him trying to compensate for the rest of the team's failures. But Ellsbury's incredible ability to make contact on pitches out of the zone 79.4% of the time provided interesting insight on where he should hit in the lineup.
When hitting behind a habitual base stealer, hitters have to be ready to flail at a pitch if they see the runner get a poor jump. Ellsbury's plate discipline splits show that he can hit pretty much anything, whereas Gardner has to rely more on a good eye and the ability to do damage on pitches inside the strike zone. In addition, Ellsbury's versatility as a hitter makes him a prime candidate to be the 2009 Johnny Damon to Gardner's 2009 Derek Jeter. Despite clear efforts to hit for more power in the second half, Ellsbury's contact rate actually improved noticeably, even while swinging at worse pitches. If his plate discipline had not disappeared in the second half he actually could have been one of the more valuable players in all of baseball. His ability to add power at will without becoming a huge strikeout risk suggests that he should get as many at-bats as he can with runners on base, which would be accomplished if he hit second.
The notion that stacking two similar lefties back-to-back in the lineup would be detrimental is also probably wrong. For his career, Ellsbury's lefty/righty splits are not very drastic at all, minimizing the risk of opposing managers using lefty specialists out of the bullpen to neutralize the top of the Yankees' order.
In the end, the batting order could come down to clubhouse politics. Jacoby Ellsbury is on a superstar contract, while Brett Gardner is on a team-friendly extension. But from a marketing perspective, Gardner has the added benefit of being a homegrown player with a fiery nature that brings back memories of the late 90's Yankees. In addition, Ellsbury seems like a very amicable guy who was more than willing to hit third when the situation called for it. Either way, Joe Girardi is going to have a pretty busy schedule trying to put a lineup together. Hopefully this makes his job a bit easier.