Dallas Keuchel causes problems for the Yankees. That's not just because he's held them scoreless for 28 straight innings over four starts between 2014 and 2015, but also because for the second straight meaningful game, his mere presence on the mound has forced Joe Girardi into an awkward lineup decision.
In last year's Wild Card game, Girardi made the eyebrow-raising decision to bench Jacoby Ellsbury in favor of Brett Gardner vs. Keuchel. That decision didn't exactly work out. The Yankees put four men on base in six innings against the Cy Young winner, struck out seven times and didn't score. Ellsbury probably wouldn't have made much of a difference, but the criticism came anyway, particularly that the Yankees were marginalizing a player they valued enough to pay $153 million.
Six months later, Girardi has apparently changed his mind. This time around it's Ellsbury in the lineup and leading off with Gardner watching from the dugout. Gardner struck out three times and didn't get a hit in the Wild Card showdown, and his continuing recovery from the bone bruise he suffered that night held him to 12 games this spring, so maybe it is time the other option got a shot. With Aaron Hicks primed to claim a spot in the outfield just about every time the Yankees face a lefty this year, though, the Gardner vs. Ellsbury debate is one that will take place quite a bit.
That dilemma puts Gardner and Ellsbury in an unusual competition. Usually two players earning over $34 million combined aren't fighting out out for playing time, but Girardi and Brian Cashman have demonstrated a belief in using a lefty-mashing platoon threat to balance out a lineup whose regular nine includes just two full-time righties. Last year Chris Young filled that role, and he did it brilliantly, leading the club with a 162 wRC+ in 175 plate appearances vs. southpaws. This year, the Yankees hope to use Hicks as a younger Young. While the 26-year-old switch hitter has struggled from the left side, he excelled in 2015 as a righty hitter, pelting lefties with a .307/.375/.495 line.
Based on last season alone, Gardner seems like the wiser choice to play more often vs. lefties. In 2015, he actually hit them better than he did righties. His 112 wRC+ vs. same-handed pitchers was the best of any Yankee lefty. Ellsbury, meanwhile, really struggled with a wRC+ of just 83 against lefties, although to be fair that was also slightly better than what he did against righties. His career same-handed line of .284/.343/.394 is league average, but a notch below what he's done vs. righties - .291/.343/.439. That said, Gardner's career splits are similarly noticeable but non-drastic, suggesting 2015's numbers could be something of an anomaly.
Ellsbury arguably brings better non-hitting attributes to the table on any given night. While neither player in 2015 provided the base stealing or defensive boost the Yankees were hoping for, Ellsbury's been that guy more recently. He stole 36 bases in 2014, while Gardner hasn't managed 30 or more since 2011. The fact that Ellsbury is still something close to an average center fielder allows for an upgrade glove-wise in left with Hicks.
The Yankees are often accused of making decisions based on the size of players' contracts instead of their abilities, and this one could ultimately be another example of that. Neither Ellsbury nor Gardner is cheap, but Ellsbury makes around 60 percent more per year and he'll be around two years longer. That could be extra motivation for the Yankees to avoid turning him into a platoon player.
Luckily what they do against lefties shouldn't be what defines the Yankees' season. The American League East isn't exactly teeming with lefty pitching. The Rays are the only division foe who will feature multiple southpaws in their rotation - Drew Smyly and Matt Moore, and possibly top prospect Blake Snell later on. The only real left-handed ace the Yankees will face regularly is David Price, who leads a Boston rotation that's otherwise righty-filled. Baltimore doesn't have a left-handed starter to speak of and with Price and Mark Buehrle gone, Toronto offers only J.A. Happ who the Yankees have handled well in nine career meetings.
There isn't going to be a set lineup vs. lefties. Girardi will use Hicks as a vehicle for resting his other outfielders. Ellsbury and Gardner are 32 and Carlos Beltran will be 39 later this month, so who sits what game could end up being a simple rotation. It'll be interesting, though, to see who Girardi goes to when in a game he really wants to win. Last year it was Gardner. Who will it be this year?