Brett Gardner has been the Yankees’ leadoff man for some time now. This season has been no exception, as he’s started 89 of the Yankees’ 118 games at the leadoff spot so far. It’s no wonder why this has been the case - as a speedster who avoids strikeouts well, in addition to having a good eye and surprising power, Gardner profiles as a competent leadoff batter both traditionally and sabermetrically.
However, there is one man on the Yankees who is even more qualified for the leadoff job. He checks all the boxes that Gardner does, and in some facets of the game he leaves Gardner in the dust. His name is Aaron Hicks.
If your memories of 2016 Hicks are still clouding your perception of him, you’re missing out on a heck of a career renaissance. After a strong but injury-shortened 2017, Hicks has proved that his breakout was not a fluke, hitting .253/.364/.485 for a 131 wRC+ with great baserunning and fielding skills to boot. By fWAR, he’s been the team’s third most valuable player so far in 2018, a hair behind Didi Gregorius and a tiny bit above Giancarlo Stanton. Whether you like him or not, Hicks has become a major contributor on the Yankees’ roster.
With that said, it’s puzzling to see how Hicks has been utilized in terms of lineup construction. Hicks’ power (.232 ISO), baserunning skills (3.4 baserunning runs), and on-base ability (14.7% walk rate, .364 OBP) make him the perfect candidate for a leadoff hitter in today’s game. Yet he’s only started there in 26 games, while hitting 4th, 5th and 6th in a combined 55 games. This seems to me like suboptimal usage of Hicks’ skills.
Sure, putting Gardner and his .249/.340/.384 slash line (100 wRC+) at the top of the lineup is hardly egregious, in a vacuum. However, it becomes perplexing when Hicks, whose batting line exceeds that of Gardner’s in every category, is found in the five or six spot. The only things that Gardner has on Hicks at this point are baserunning runs (6.8) and strikeout rate (16.0%), and even then Hicks is running above-average marks in both metrics. It’s safe to say that Hicks fits the leadoff role better than Gardner does at this point.
Even if you’re the stat-savvy type who’s skeptical about specific batting order roles, you have to admit that there’s no sense in batting Hicks lower than Gardner. Since the higher a hitter bats in the order, the more plate appearances he gains, why not put your best hitters at the top? Hicks, as I have shown, is now a far more dangerous hitter than Gardner. Therefore, he should see more plate appearances between the two of them. To do that, Aaron Boone should put Hicks, rather than Gardner, in the top spot.
Before I conclude, I’d like to make a quick disclaimer. In no way do I think that Gardner’s time as a productive regular is finished, and in no way am I belittling the contributions that he has made to this team. A 100 wRC+, 2.6 fWAR season to this date from a soon-to-be 35-year old is nothing but impressive. That it’s merely in line with what Gardner has done for the past five years is a testament to his consistency and reliability.
However, unlike the Yankee squads of years past, the team has another, better leadoff candidate in Aaron Hicks. That shouldn’t be read as a slight to Gardner - it should be read as an acknowledgement of the abilities that Hicks has demonstrated over the past two seasons. Moving forward, the man who’s best suited for the Yankees’ leadoff duties is Hicks.