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Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury are the weak links in the Yankees lineup

The Yankees leadoff batters have struggled in 2016. Is it time to shake things up?

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees lineup has undergone a dramatic change since the August 1st non-waiver trade deadline. The team sent Carlos Beltran to the Rangers, jettisoned Alex Rodriguez, and reduced Brian McCann and Mark Teixeira to part-time players. At the same time, the organization called up top prospects Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, and Tyler Austin, infusing young, impact bats onto the roster. That’s a lot of moving pieces in a short period of time.

Not everything has changed with the Yankees, however. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury remain anchored to the top of the lineup, and that’s a problem. They’re currently the glaring weak point of the offense. They’re struggling to get on base, and when they do make it, they’re not swiping bags. Since those are two of the core job requirements for leadoff hitters, the Yankees have themselves a bit of a lineup problem. This begs two important questions: what explains their lack of production and what can the Yankees do about it? Let’s take a look.

Before we try to explain what has cause the leadoff hitters' offensive troubles, it makes sense to look at their 2106 numbers. This is where you put the children to bed because things could get ugly.

Jacoby Ellsbury 478 .262 5 18 .323 .364 86
Brett Gardner 470 .257 7 13 .346 .370 97

That's not the production you would expect from elite leadoff men. Those are two fairly one-dimensional players. Ellsbury is about league average at getting on base and Gardner fairs slightly better. They're also swiping bags at an alarmingly low rate. When Gardner and Ellsbury get on base, they're very hesitant to steal. Approximately league average on-base percentage and mediocre stolen base production is not how you want to build the top of your lineup, especially when you have two name-brand speedsters on the roster.

What can explain this? Well, health can certainly be a factor. Ellsbury hasn't looked quite the same since the knee injury he suffered last year. Plus Gardner missed a little over a week recently after being hit by a pitch on the ankle. He also has a history of wearing down as the season progresses, and other scouts have suggested that he's "playing scared." These two depend on their legs to have an impact on the offense, so lingering injuries and hesitancy could explain the decline in production.

Another explanation might be that opposing pitchers have been feeding the two a steady diet of breaking pitches this season. Let's have a look at the percentage of pitches seen by Ellsbury thus far courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

And now for Brett Gardner:

Ellsbury's case is more dramatic, where there's a steady increase in the percentage of breaking balls. Gardner has seen a less severe, but still noticeable increase as the summer wears on. These pitches have given the two batters fits and for the most part, kept them off of the base path. This increase in breaking pitches could explain why the two seem off balance during their at-bats, especially as far as Ellsbury is concerned.

The Yankees know what a healthy and productive Gardner and Ellsbury bring to the top of the lineup. They can wreck havoc on opposing pitchers. We've seen that before. Remember the first six weeks of last season? The pair seemed to always be on base. Plus, they were a constant threat with their running game. Just take a look at what they managed from April 6th - May 19th:

Jacoby Ellsbury 170 .324 1 14 .412 .372 125
Brett Gardner 146 .291 3 9 .366 .433 123

That's pretty, pretty good. That's what the Yankees expected when they signed Jacoby Ellsbury to his seven-year $153 million contract back in 2013. They envisioned Ellsbury and Gardner giving opposing pitching staffs migraines. Every time the middle-of-the-order would come to bat, the table setters would be on base and ready to score. Unfortunately the plan has only been executed for six weeks in 2015.

Can the Yankees leadoff hitters return to this level of production? It's difficult to expect that from speed-centered players who are both on the wrong side of 30. But there are steps that the team can take to shore up the lineup as the team remains on the fringes of the second Wild Card race. Sliding Ellsbury down to ninth in the batting order would be a start. The team could also follow through on their commitment to give Aaron Hicks regular at-bats. He would play left or center while one of the regulars rests on the bench. In theory, this is a way to mitigate the wear-and-tear that Ellsbury and Gardner are so prone to. Are these solutions perfect? No, but they're worth an exploration. What the Yankees have at the top of the lineup isn't working.

The Yankees offense has become so much more interesting with the recent additions of young, impact bats. The weakness now is in the top of the order. Gardner and Ellsbury are expected to get on base and run wild, but they haven't done that in awhile. The Yankees insist that they're still in it and ready to compete for a Wild Card position. If they truly mean it, they will consider shaking things up at the top of the lineup.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball