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Examining two possible leadoff candidates for the Yankees

With Aaron Hicks still not up for baseball activities, it’s time to see who are other options at the leadoff spot besides Brett Gardner.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Brett Gardner is once again the Yankees leadoff hitter, as the newly-extended Aaron Hicks still sits on the injured list. This isn’t much of a concern since Gardner has performed in this spot before, but one has to think ahead to what can happen when Gardner needs a day off, or if he too joins the walking wounded.

That scenario means Aaron Boone would have to start changing the lineup around. With Mike Tauchman and Clint Frazier now the options for left, they will get the nod in the outfield, but not as the leadoff hitter. There are two other interesting options, though, with one very similar to Gardner and one the complete opposite.

DJ LeMahieu

The only difference between Gardner and LeMahieu is that the former bats left-handed and the latter bats right-handed. When comparing the two on their plate discipline, it’s hard to find any contrast. Plate discipline not only defines someone who knows how to take pitches, allowing the hitter behind them to see the opponent’s arsenal, but also reaching base to give them the opportunity to produce runs.

With the second hitter being Aaron Judge, the Yankees leadoff hitter should know their job clearly. Take last season for example. When Judge returned to the lineup, Andrew McCutchen’s approach at the plate changed. What fans saw was a player who knew who batted behind him and stopped looking for the big hits, as evidenced by his drop in slugging percentage. Most importantly, his strikeout percentage dropped eight percent and his BABIP jumped from .264 to .333.

McCutchen Before and After Judge’s Return

9/1-9/16 61 0.264 0.222 0.410 0.511 19.7 23.0
9/18-9/29 53 0.333 0.286 0.434 0.429 18.9 15.1

Can LeMahieu duplicate McCutchen’s .400+ on-base percentage in front of Judge? Most likely not since he has only done it once in his career, back in 2016 when he won the batting title with the Rockies. Secondly, it’s also extremely difficult considering only nine out of 278 players with more than 300 plate appearances in 2018 were able to accomplish this feat.

If someone deserves a chance besides Gardner, LeMahieu might be the guy. After all, he finished ninth in the big leagues last year with an impressive 5.2% swinging strike rate. Brett Gardner finished third with a 4.5% mark, so these two guys hardly miss the ball. Recent history has seen Gardner lose his leadoff spot, and if his performance once again drops, LeMahieu and his similar approach could be a favorable option.

Gleyber Torres

Torres has an entirely different approach to Gardner and LeMahieu. His skillset as a leadoff hitter focuses on when he puts the ball in play, and not plate discipline at all. Compared to the other two options, Torres had a gruesome swinging strike rate of 14.1% last year. Out of nine Yankees who had more than 350 plate appearances in 2018, Torres finished eighth. Giancarlo Stanton had the worst mark at 14.5%.

The reason why Torres should be considered as a leadoff hitter is because when he puts bat on ball, only two other Yankees are better. He finished the year with a .321 BABIP only behind — you guessed it — Aaron Judge and Stanton.

Leadoff Candidates

Player PA Swing% Z-Contact% O-Contact% Contact% SwStr% BABIP GB%
Player PA Swing% Z-Contact% O-Contact% Contact% SwStr% BABIP GB%
Gleyber Torres 484 48.40% 81.80% 55.90% 70.90% 14.10% 0.321 32.80%
DJ LeMahieu 581 41.70% 95.00% 72.70% 87.50% 5.20% 0.298 49.60%
Brett Gardner 609 36.00% 93.70% 75.30% 87.60% 4.50% 0.272 48.70%

The most optimistic part about Torres’ game is that he’s getting a chance while completely healthy. Last year he landed on the disabled list on July 5th with a right hip strain, and he just didn’t look the same upon coming back. He did play through it all, but the numbers do not lie.

Torres had 241 plate appearances before the injury and 243 after. Prior to the injury, his BABIP was .340. After, he produced a .301 BABIP for the remainder of the season. His slugging percentage saw the biggest drop, going from .555 to .404. Overall, Torres went from being a player with a wRC+ of 141 to 99, from a great player to an average one.

If Torres proves he can maintain a .340 BABIP and a WRC+ of 141, or close to it, than he should be the leadoff hitter. In his first 241 plate appearances, that’s what he was able to do. If he didn’t get injured, he might have given both Miguel Andujar and Shohei Ohtani greater competition for the Rookie fo the Year title. On the other hand, LeMahieu has only been able to produce a season with a wRC+ over 100 once in his career. It all comes down to what is wanted on top of the lineup, a patient hitter who can work a pitcher, or a batter going up there looking to shoot the ball to the gaps or over the walls.

All data courtesy FanGraphs.