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Why Aaron Judge should hit leadoff for the Yankees
New Yankees manager Aaron Boone has acknowledged that in the aftermath of the trade for Giancarlo Stanton, he’s had fun thinking about the different lineup variations he might consider. The Yankees haven’t completely filled in their infield, but no matter who is installed at second base and who plays third, Boone’s lineup will be loaded with power, and hitters who get on base consistently. The Yankees should have some speed, if not necessarily high stolen-base capability.
Boone could hit Aaron Judge back-to-back with Stanton, third and fourth, or second and third. He could split them up. Inevitably, as the Yankees go through hot streaks and slumps, the batting order will change, sometimes dramatically.
But Boone should think about doing something that will seem incredibly unconventional: He should jot down Judge's name in the leadoff spot.
Judge would not look the part, for sure; historically, leadoff hitters have often been smallish, pesky hitters. At 6-foot-7 and 282 pounds, Judge is the biggest position player in baseball history.
But Judge can bat leadoff because he has the primary skill of the best No. 1 hitters: He gets on base a whole lot. Judge drew 127 walks, easily leading the American League and breaking Ted Williams' 78-year-old record for a rookie, and only Mike Trout had a higher on-base percentage than Judge’s .422.
Judge also led the AL in strikeouts, with 208, and between his combination of walks and strikeouts, he averaged 4.41 pitches per plate appearance, the most in the AL. Managers often prefer to have hitters who see a lot of pitches near the top of the batting order, so that the batters who follow can watch the opposing pitcher work and learn -- about what the pitcher is throwing, what he is commanding, how he is attacking hitters.
Judge, an excellent athlete, is a good if unspectacular baserunner, ranking 78th among 144 qualified hitters in Fangraphs’ baserunning metric. He’s big, but he’s not a base-clogger.
Judge led the AL in home runs last season, and in prior generations, no manager would consider batting a prolific slugger in the leadoff spot. But the Yankees, like so many other teams, make decisions built on statistical analysis, and there are a lot of numbers that would support the logic of having Judge bat leadoff -- especially because the Yankees have other hitters capable of generating power in the middle of the lineup.
Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that Todd Frazier is re-signed, and Gleyber Torres wins the second base job in spring training. This is what the Yankees’ lineup could look like:
Gardner could hit second, where his tendency to foul off pitches and take walks could stress the starting pitcher even more; Gardner ranked seventh in the American League in pitches per plate appearance, at 4.23, not far behind Judge. It might be that the opposing pitcher would throw 10 to 12 pitches to Judge and Gardner at the outset of the game, lots of information for Stanton, Bird and the other hitters that followed. Or maybe Gardner could hit ninth, breaking up the line of right-handed batters leading into Judge and discouraging opposing managers from calling on a right-handed reliever for that part of the Yankees’ lineup.
Gregorius could hit cleanup, a spot he occupied for 164 at-bats during the regular season and more in the postseason. If Bird progresses as the Yankees anticipate, he could bat fourth and be in position to take advantage of the numerous RBI opportunities in that spot.
Stanton averaged 3.95 pitches per plate appearance last season, more than average, and Bird averaged 4.26 pitches, which would have ranked among the league leaders if he had enough plate appearances. Starting pitchers will probably have a lot of trouble keeping their pitch counts under control early, given the tendency of the Yankees’ hitters to go into deep counts.
And if Judge bats first, there would be the potential for the instant ambush of the opposing pitcher, who would be under pressure immediately. If you make a mistake to Judge, and the Yankees would have a quick run on the board; if you pitched carefully, he might take a walk and set up the rest of the inning, with Stanton looming in the middle of the order.
No wonder Boone was smiling as Stanton stood next to him on a podium the other day in a Yankees jersey. He’ll have a lot of great options with his batting order, and leading off Judge could be the best.
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