For years now, Yankees fans have groaned in frustration as manager Aaron Boone has insisted on regularly slotting players like Brett Gardner, Rougned Odor, and the 2019 edition of Didi Gregorius into the third spot in the lineup, passing over more potent bats like Luke Voit and the 2019 editions of Gary Sánchez and Gleyber Torres simply because they hit from the right side. The logic, it seemed, was that the Yankees needed a left-handed bat between Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton to break up the heavily-right-handed middle of the order.
With the 2021 Yankees offense unexpectedly struggling, Brian Cashman decided to act on the team’s imbalance in the lineup, trading for Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo. And, judging from the results, adding this pair of lefties did just the trick, as the team’s wRC+ increased from 99 prior to the deadline to 105 after it; furthermore, both Judge and Stanton immediately entered hot streaks.
Note: In the below images, Judge’s monthly splits are listed first, then Stanton’s.
Judging from these numbers, it seems that both hitters benefited from the introduction of Gallo and Rizzo to the lineup, particularly Stanton. But is this enough to prove that Judge and Stanton are at their best with a left-handed hitter between them?
In order to test the effect of lineup construction on Judge’s and Stanton’s performances, I combed through every single box score from the 2021 season, dividing them into the following categories based on their relationship in the order: Judge/Lefty/Stanton, Judge/Righty/Stanton, Stanton/Lefty/Judge, Stanton/Righty/Judge, Judge/Stanton, Stanton/Judge, Judge Alone, and Stanton Alone.
For the purposes of this exercise, only the lineup at the beginning of the game counted (pinch-hit appearances were ignored), and switch-hitter Aaron Hicks counted as a lefty when the opposing starter was a righty and as a righty when the opposing starter was a lefty. Additionally, the categories did not care where in the order they sat, only their relationship. As such, the Judge/Lefty/Stanton and Judge/Stanton categories both include instances where Judge is batting second and Stanton cleanup and where Judge is batting third and Stanton fifth.
Below are the stats that I calculated; there were no instances in which Stanton came before Judge in the lineup with another hitter in between, which is why the categories of Stanton/Lefty/Judge and Stanton/Righty/Judge have been left out.
These numbers indicate that Judge performed much better at the plate with a lefty behind him than a right-handed hitter not named Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton, on the other hand, was remarkably consistent: The only major deviation in any category can be seen when he hit immediately behind Judge, as he walked only five times in those 30 games; even so, he still managed to rake, drilling a home run every third game.
Although these numbers do provide some support for the inclusion of a competent lefty bat between Judge and Stanton — Freddie Freeman would do nicely, I’d say — in my opinion, they raise more questions than answers. Would they remain similar in a larger sample? And is the handedness of the hitter most important, or the skill? After all, both Gallo and Rizzo were superior hitters for most of this past season than Sánchez and Torres, the two righties who spent most of the time between the big guys.
Answering these further questions to give us a more definitive answer on the righty/lefty/righty question would require another dive or two through the box scores of this past season — and quite possibly ones from 2018, 2019, and 2020 as well. The early return, however, suggests that there might actually be something to the Yankees’ lineup construction.
Now they just need to be willing to invest the resources to get a left-handed hitter talented enough with the bat to make it worthwhile.