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How the Yankees have solved their lineup overflow

By design, the Yankees have 10 starters for nine lineup spots. Here’s how they’ve maneuvered around that during the season’s first month.

New York Yankees v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Coming into the season, the Yankees had a bit of a pickle. After shifting Gleyber Torres off shortstop, re-signing Anthony Rizzo, and trading for Josh Donaldson and Isiah Kiner-Falefa, the Yankees had five infielders for four positions, and 10 players for nine lineup spots. Add on the fact that Donaldson and Giancarlo Stanton need regular days as the designated hitter to keep them healthy, and the lineup became the sort of problem you would see on the qualitative reasoning section of a standardized test.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Yankees played their 30th game of the season, which means we finally have a somewhat-decent sample size to see how Aaron Boone and Co. have solved their nightly puzzle. So far, they’ve been able to keep everybody in the lineup fairly consistently.

Note: Screenshot taken from Baseball-Reference on May 12th; Marwin Gonzalez and Tim Locastro, the two true backups who have not been part of the regular rotation nearly as much, have started six games and three games, respectively.

Everybody except the catchers have started at least two-thirds of the team’s games, with the Yankees’ most important hitters — Aaron Judge, Stanton, DJ LeMahieu, and Rizzo — starting approximately 85-95 percent of the time. For something that likely requires at least some bit of a daily rebalancing (see, for example, Aaron Hicks’ time on the paternity list last month and Joey Gallo’s injury two weeks ago), it is remarkably well-balanced. How have they achieved this?

To see how the Yankees have managed to solve their lineup puzzle, I dove into Baseball-Reference’s Defensive Lineups and Batting Order pages to see what patterns I could find. As it turns out, there are a few rules that have governed the daily lineups, although an outsider like me cannot determine just how deliberate they are.

Play the Lefty/Righty Matchups

The most basic rule governing the lineups is arguably the most basic one of all: respect the lefty/right matchups. Rizzo has sat just twice all year — not coincidentally, lefties Bruce Zimmerman and Daniel Lynch were the opposing pitchers. All but three of Gallo’s days off have come with a lefty on the mound — and two of those days came when he was injured. Meanwhile, Judge, Stanton, and LeMahieu have only sat against right-handed starters.

Now, this rule doesn’t apply for the bottom of the order (Torres, IKF, the catching platoon) — IKF plays pretty much every day as the only real shortstop on the roster, while Torres sits more often to keep LeMahieu’s bat in the lineup. Similarly, it doesn’t affect the lineup’s token switch hitter (Hicks), for obvious reasons. When it comes to the top of the order, however, handedness plays a big role in scheduling off days.

Regular DH Days for Donaldson and Stanton

It is no secret that both Stanton and Donaldson have dealt with the injury bug over the last few years. Stanton has not played more than 140 games since 2018, while Donaldson has battled calf injuries on and off since 2017. Because of that, although the Yankees have rotated the designated hitter spot frequently this year, the pair has filled the role almost three-quarters of the time.

Both Stanton and Donaldson have played the field more than they have DH’ed this year; specifically, Stanton has started 14 in the outfield and 13 as the DH, while Donaldson manned the hot corner 16 times and was the DH nine times. However, they do not spend too many consecutive days in the field. Each player has only started in the field three straight days just once (Donaldson from April 16th to the 19th, Stanton from May 8th to the 10th). Stanton, in fact, has only played back-to-back games on three other occasions, on April 14th and 15th, on April 26th and 27th, and on April 29th and April 30th. Additionally, during May 8th’s doubleheader, each player only played in the field during one game, although Stanton did DH in the other one.

Outside of these two, a fairly wide assortment of players have taken on designated hitter duties, with Judge getting the half-day off three times, LeMahieu and Torres twice each, and Rizzo once.

Slowly Acclimating Judge to Center

Since first manning center field early last June, Aaron Judge has increasingly become an outfielder who primarily plays right field, rather than a right fielder who can play center in a pinch. Indeed, the Yankees were at their best with Judge in center down the stretch using what Peter called “the Death Star lineup.”

Coming into this season, the plan from the beginning has been to give Judge regular reps in center — in fact, they only waited until the second game of the season to do it. Not only has he been the primary backup out there when Hicks has taken a seat, he’s also shifted over to center whenever Stanton has played the outfield. It has become such a regular occurrence, in fact, that Judge has only started a handful of games more in right (15) than he has in center (10) over the first month.

Although the Yankees have been aggressive in putting Judge in center, they have nonetheless been careful not to put him there too much. He has only started back-to-back games in center field twice, on April 26th and 27th and on May 9th and 10th. Additionally, he had a day off prior to the first pair of games, then followed it up by starting in right field, serving as the DH, and then having a day off — the second pair, meanwhile, was flanked by days as the designated hitter.

Add it all up, and the Yankees have found a way to keep a productive lineup on the field on the daily while not taking any of their primary bats out of their rhythm. It remains to be seen what the adjustment will be if there’s inevitably a longer-term injury to one of the starters, but this system helps to keep the odds of that happening lower as well. Any way you look at it, the Yankees have a good problem on their hands.