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The Yankees should embrace the idea of Josh Donaldson batting leadoff

Manager Aaron Boone seems open to trying his new slugger at the top of the lineup in the regular season, extending his spring training experiment.

New York Yankees Spring Training Photo by J. Conrad Williams Jr./Newsday RM via Getty Images

Third baseman Josh Donaldson has been a positive addition for the Yankees’ lineup, as his bat carries more thump than Gio Urshela’s. Additionally, his offensive profile has an underrated element that people don’t talk about enough: plate discipline. The Yankees sure love their power and patience hitters, and Donaldson fits that profile. Urshela is a good baseball player, but Donaldson, even if he is older, has a longer track record of being a great ballplayer, and his offense is just superior.

For his career, Donaldson has a .269/.367/.505 slash line and a solid .872 OPS. The former MVP’s batting average ceiling is closer to .260 rather than .280 at this point, but he hasn’t posted an OBP lower than .350 since 2014. In 2021, he slashed .247/.352/.475 with a 124 wRC+: even though his batting average was low, his 13.6 percent walk rate allowed him to post a solid .352 OPS. In fact, his solid on-base skills could make him a fine alternative to lead off for the Yankees.

Manager Aaron Boone has been using him in that spot recently during spring training play, and he has responded with a .267 average, a .353 OBP, a 1.020 OPS and a couple of homers already. He is patient and powerful, a good enough combination to help set the tone for the entire lineup.

Boone said over the weekend that Donaldson could get some opportunities to bat leadoff, according to Erik Boland of Newsday. “Guys that controls the strike zone like he does, the ability to get on, power, great hitter ... yeah, he’s definitely someone I would consider,” the skipper said.

It appears Boone is more than willing to take the experiment into the regular season. As long as the hitter feels comfortable in the role it remains a possibility, and so far there are no signs that Donaldson is opposed to the idea.

This was yesterday’s lineup:

A high-OBP, powerful guy like Donaldson has great odds of leading off the inning either with a walk or a home run, both extremely desirable outcomes. If he gets on base as he should, then the sluggers like Joey Gallo, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, or whoever comes next will theoretically see more people on the basepaths.

In general, walks and homers at the top of the lineup are a good idea. That’s why the Chicago Cubs experimented with Anthony Rizzo at the top of the lineup a couple of years ago, and that’s why the Los Angeles Angels have been writing Shohei Ohtani’s name as the leadoff hitter in spring training. For a long time, the ideal leadoff hitter had speed and contact. Baseball has evolved and it has learned to appreciate how good a walk is, so now high-OBP guys, like Donaldson, fit in perfectly at the top of the batting order.

The best hitters belong at the top of the lineup, or at least they should. For the Yankees, some combination of Donaldson, Judge, Gallo, Stanton, and Rizzo should be the top five night in, night out. We can analyze the exact order any time, but those five belong as the first five hitters in the Yankees’ lineup unless Gleyber Torres, DJ LeMahieu, or Aaron Hicks play well enough to force a change at any given time.