When Aaron Boone first got the managerial job last winter, he didn’t waste any time crafting potential lineups for the 2018 season. Earlier this week, Boone told Brendan Kuty that he hasn’t been doing that as much this offseason, but he does have some ideas for who he’ll run out in 2019 and in what order. As of right now, Aaron Hicks is the winning the “Most Likely to be Leadoff Hitter” vote, but there are a few other names that could find themselves at the top of the lineup card in 2019.
Even though Boone hinted that Hicks probably won’t be cemented atop the lineup, he’s probably the best leadoff option on the team. Last season, Hicks let it be known he was comfortable in the leadoff spot. He was actually better hitting first than any other position in the order. His .276/.372/.585/ slash line and 11 homers are a testament to that. Hicks’ 4.28 pitches per plate appearance last year also outpaced other leadoff candidates on the team, and he has the second-highest Base Runs (BsR) in the organization since 2017. Hicks offers a combination of patience, hitting and baserunning skills that’s just not replicated by anyone else on the team right now.
Boone’s hesitation with keeping Hicks at the top of the order stems from the Yankees’ lack of left-handed hitting throughout the lineup, so it’s likely Hicks will move around a bit. If only there were a 26-year-old, left-handed, middle-of-the-order hitter on the free agent market the Yankees could sign. But we all know there isn’t. Best not to dwell on dreams.
If Hicks isn’t always going to occupy the leadoff spot, then there are a couple of Yankees Boone could run out in that place.
Gleyber Torres seems like he could fit the mold of a leadoff hitter. He sees a decent amount of pitches (4.06/PA) and gets on base quite a bit too (.340 OBP). Torres would also bring some decent pop to the top of the lineup. He hit 24 homers last year, just three fewer than Hicks, but he had a slight edge on slugging percentage.
Torres does have a few knocks against him, though. For one, he’s not a good baserunner. Greg Bird and Gary Sanchez were statistically better on the bases last year. In fact, only Austin Romine was worse on the bases for the Yankees in 2018. There’s also the real possibility Torres has a sophomore slump this season. Asking him to start hitting leadoff —something he’s never done before — might not be the best idea.
If the Yankees want to sacrifice some production for experience, Brett Gardner might get the call. Gardner has more career leadoff at-bats than anyone else on the team, so he seems a likely candidate to hit in that spot when Hicks isn’t. However, the thought of Gardner leading off just isn’t as attractive as it once was. Gardner’s .236/.322/.368 slash line in 2018 was the least he’s produced since becoming a full-time player in 2010. Preseason projections have him bouncing back a little bit in 2019, but he’s still expected to be a below average offensive player.
Gardner’s not all bad though. His 14.9 BsR the last two season makes him unquestionably the Yankees’ best baserunner. Plus, he still sees a good number of pitches per plate appearance (4.23), and his walk rate from last year was still in line with his career average. His deflated OBP was likely more closely tied to his batting average and .272 BABIP than a lack of patience. Still, the leadoff hitter gets more plate appearances per game than anyone else, so it’s probably not wise to give those to a player past his prime.
If the Yankees wanted to give the most plate appearances to their best hitter, then they’d put Aaron Judge at the top of the order. Judge is the team’s best hitter. Since 2017, Judge leads the Yankees in most offensive categories. He produces more at the plate than anyone on the team (162 wRC+) and gets on base more than anyone else (.409 OBP). Judge had over a .900 OPS against right-handers and southpaws in 2018, so he isn’t prone to pitcher splits.
The biggest knock to Judge hitting leadoff are the strikeouts. Judge struck out at about a 30% clip last year. It didn’t stop him from being the most productive hitter in the lineup, but it’s the most obvious objection. Additionally, Judge spent all but three plate appearances in the two-hole last season. Generally speaking, the leadoff hitter only gets about 20 more plate appearances per season than the second hitter. That’s probably a negligible amount, but still, I’d personally like to see Judge hit more during the season if at all possible.
The Yankees have a few options when determining their leadoff hitter, but it should probably be Aaron Hicks. He’s the most sensible pick to leadoff every game, but if Aaron Boone really wants more left-handers further down in the order, they could take things in a different direction too. Brett Gardner has the most experience; Gleyber Torres could emerge as a top-of-the-order hitter this season after spending most of his time at the bottom last year; or the Yankees could go out of the box and put Aaron Judge up there. Ultimately, this is a pretty good problem to have.