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The Yankees have a serious leadoff problem

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With DJ LeMahieu’s continued regression, what can the Yankees do to generate some production out of the leadoff spot?

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at New York Yankees Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Every time a lineup card drops, Yankees Twitter readies themselves to direct their anger at the team’s poor social media coordinator who has nothing to do with lineup creation or Aaron Boone’s inability to produce a consistent batting order.

Despite the (somewhat reasonable, if misdirected) hostility, there is one spot in the lineup that Boone has mostly refused to change: the leadoff spot. And, at least on paper, there appears to be a good reason for that. Since joining the Yankees in 2019, DJ LeMahieu has amassed 1,236 plate appearances over 294 games as the team’s primary leadoff hitter. In that time, he has slashed .320/.370/.478, hit 42 homeruns, and averaged a wRC+ of 137. That is excellent production from any spot in the lineup, let alone the leadoff spot.

So why am I starting this post about the need for a new leadoff hitter with overwhelmingly positive things about the current leadoff hitter? Well, I want to show you why I love DJ LeMahieu before I make the case that he should not be hitting leadoff anymore.

It’s no secret that LeMahieu is having a down year, but just how bad has he been?

Baseball Savant
Baseball Savant
Baseball Savant

Not great, Bob. LeMahieu’s barrels are way down, his strikeouts are way up, and his xwOBA is the lowest it has been since he got to New York. Some regression from LeMahieu was to be expected, but this type of nosedive in production from the leadoff spot is truly hard for any lineup to recover from. Beyond the Statcast numbers, though, LeMahieu’s traditional and advanced metrics do not look much better.

Not only has LeMahieu regressed, but the numbers actually show that he’s regressed to a just-barely (if not slightly below) average player. Though the BABIP drop-off might indicate that he’s hitting into some bad luck, and it certainly seems like he has at times, LeMahieu’s regression in hard hit percentage, coupled with his startling rise in strikeout percentage, suggests to me that the overall regression we are seeing is more of a trend than an outlier.

But this is not an appraisal of DJ’s raw numbers - that’s coming later this week. Instead, let’s get back to the central question: who should be hitting leadoff, if not LeMahieu? Needless to say, production out of the 1-hole has not been particularly great when LeMahieu gets a day off. Boone has tried five other players in that spot this season. Here’s a very basic snapshot of their numbers, small sample size and all:

Bleak, to say the least. This might be one of the rare cases where traditional stats do tell you all you need to know.

Let’s be frank: Gleyber Torres shouldn’t even be sniffing the top half of the lineup after his performance to this point, Brett Gardner should be in a special advisory role for the front office, Luke Voit has a good eye but does not make consistent enough contact (and is rehabbing), and Aaron Hicks, though a solid choice for his ability to work a walk, is also injured.

Looking at the rest of the roster, though, who else stands out as a potential leadoff hitter? Aaron Judge, though a prime candidate on account of being elite at basically everything, is the type of hitter who needs to be hitting with people on base. So is Giancarlo Stanton, despite his own recent struggles, and Joey Gallo, for that matter. Gio Urshela, who just recently landed on the IL with a hamstring issue, simply doesn’t get on base enough (he currently has a very pedestrian .315 OBP with a paltry 5.5% walk rate). Gary Sánchez... yeah, I’m not even going to entertain that one, for fear of the comments that would follow.

That leaves bench players who are perhaps getting far too much playing time in Rougned Odor and Tyler Wade, both of whom seem allergic to getting on base at a reasonable clip or even attempting to draw a walk. Needless to say, they will not do.

So, if LeMahieu is not the answer right now, who is? Enter my choice:

Anthony Rizzo, assuming health (which might be asking a lot from this team), should be the leadoff hitter for the rest of the season if this team wants to make a serious playoff push.

We all know Rizzo has been on fire since he came to New York, but he’s quietly putting together a very strong overall season at the dish. Here is a snapshot of his numbers compared to the numbers that LeMahieu has posted thus far:

As you can see, the differences between Rizzo and LeMahieu’s seasons are quite stark. While LeMahieu has the slightest of advantages in batting average, strikeout percentage, and walk percentage - with K% and BB% rendered virtually negligible - the simple fact of the matter is that, as of right now, Rizzo gets on base more frequently with more power and generates more runs than LeMahieu does. If he is doing that more consistently than LeMahieu is, then he needs to take over the leadoff spot.

For a fun little experiment, here’s Rizzo’s stats when batting in the leadoff spot throughout his career:

FanGraphs

Of course, the above sample size is far too small to decipher anything truly meaningful, but those numbers sure look fun, eh? Rizzo is not the solution to all of the Yankees’ offensive woes, but LeMahieu’s below-average production this season - combined with his weak contact and inflated strikeout rate - have seriously hampered the Yankees’ ability to produce runs. As a self-proclaimed DJ LeMahieu fan it kills me to write this, but he needs to hit towards the bottom third of the order.

The Yankees have put themselves in a position where they need all the baserunners they can possibly get. If giving Anthony Rizzo an extra at-bat every night over DJ LeMahieu gives the Yankees even a slightly better shot at getting more guys on base, they need to make that change. And they needed to make it, like, yesterday.