The best teams in baseball are probably doing something right, so often it’s useful to look at the clubs on top and implement their strategies. If one team is loading up players with impressive numbers in statistics less commonly valued by the league, such as on-base percentage (Billy Beane and the Athletics) or defense and speed (Andrew Friedman and the Rays), then other teams will often follow suit. This year, that trend could be a batting order quirk: non-traditional leadoff hitters.
It’s inarguable that the two teams ‘on top’ last season are the reigning AL and NL champions, the Cubs and the Indians. While they have a few things on common, such as impressive pitching staffs, bullpens, and top-of-the-line management, there is something less obvious, but certainly notable, that sets those two teams apart from other rosters…their batting orders. Sitting at the top of each lineup aren’t speedsters like Jose Ramirez or on-base machines like Dexter Fowler, but instead slow and powerful bats: Carlos Santana and Kyle Schwarber.
When two undoubtedly brilliant clubs are employing a new and unique strategy such as this, the Yankees may be wise to follow suit. Leadoff hitters see the most at bats among all players on a team, and their most important function is to get on base. Sticking a player like Schwarber or Santana—power hitters who walk a ton and provide loads of value with the bat—isn’t the obvious answer, but it makes sense.
Alas, this interesting approach isn’t going to be for all teams, and the Yankees may be one club who should stick with the historically normal lineup construction. While much has been made this offseason about where Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury should bat, placing them up front may make the most sense. Gardner, in particular, probably belongs in the leadoff spot: an athletic hitter who showcases excellent contact abilities and plate discipline, the left fielder had the highest walk rate on the Yankees last season and the second best on-base percentage behind the transcendent Gary Sanchez.
Gardner also gets it done with his legs, generating more value than any other Yankee on the basepaths (by BsR), and his 7.3 BsR mark actually ranked seventh best in baseball. While his .261 batting average isn’t what you’d ideally want from a leadoff man, what matters most is getting on base, and Gardner was excellent in doing that with his .351 mark.
If the Yankees really wanted to imitate the pennant winners, they could give someone like Gary Sanchez or Greg Bird a chance at the leadoff spot, but that doesn’t seem to go with the flow of their lineup the same way it might with the Indians or Cubs. Given the many power hitters which have departed recently from the Yankees—Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran among them—the team should prioritize sticking their sluggers in run-producing spots in the lineup, where there are likely to be men on base to be driven home by extra-base hits and home runs. Sticking with the norm might not be fun and exciting, but in many cases, it’s the smartest option. This is probably one of those cases—as least for now.