(We should all be giving this guy low fives right now. Courtesy of The AP)
Before the season started, this debate was one of the hottest Yankee-related topics, and people were generally in favor of Brett Gardner winning the job out of ST. There was also general happiness when Gardner stumbled out of the starting blocks and Derek Jeter got the role. But as the season has progressed and Jeter's 2010 decline looks to be the new rule for him rather than a one-year exception, and as Gardner rebounded back closer to his averages, the debate started to re-emerge. And now with Jeter being on the shelf, Gardner absolutely lighting it up this month, and the Yankee offense being productive, the debate has once again turned decidedly in Gardner's favor, making for a potentially controversial decision when Jeter makes his return.
The statistical argument provides almost no support to the "Jeter should hit leadoff" theory. In last week's "big picture" look at the team without Jeter, I touched on the fact that his numbers, bad as they were, were better as a leadoff hitter and even better when actually leading off an inning. Unfortunately for Jeter, Gardner's line when batting first in the lineup (.255/.317/.382) is almost identical in much fewer ABs, and his line leading off an inning (.344/.420/.525 in 61 ABs) is even better than Jeter's. And those numbers for Gardner are probably negatively affected a bit by his weak April. Stretching the stats to cover the overall bodies of work of each player does even more to build a case for Gardner:
Jeter '11: .260/.324/.324 12 XBH 39 R 7.8% BB 83 wRC+ .297 wOBA in 293 PA
Gardner '11: .294/.372/.446 19 XBH 35 R 10.6% BB 124 wRC+ .357 wOBA in 236 PA
Any way you cut it, Brett Gardner has been the more productive player at the plate this season, bad start and all. He's hit for a better average, hit for more power, and gotten on base at a much better clip than Jeter. Sure, he's a disaster on the basepaths this year, but the sheer fact that he is on base more and the fact that he has better speed than Jeter means there are more opportunities for the team to score runs with him at the top of the lineup than The Captain. From a statistical and pure logic standpoint, Gardner should be hitting leadoff over Jeter.
The reality of the situation, however, is that Jeter is going to get the leadoff spot back when he returns from the DL, because of who he is and the path to 3,000 career hits that he's currently on. Joe has shown himself to be a very loyal manager to his older players, much like the previous Joe was, to a point way beyond where he rightfully should be, and I can't see him sticking Jeter in the 9-spot to complete his march to 3,000.
And this is where the interesting part of the debate will come in. Joe was mostly praised for his decision to stick Jorge down in the lineup when he was struggling last month. But now that Jorge has rebounded of late, Jeter will become the new weak link in the lineup, statistically speaking. Based on his previous decision, Joe should move Jeter down and let Gardner hit leadoff, even against lefties, but how will that decision be received by the public? Will he again be praised for putting the team's success over one individual player or will he be vilified for spitting in the face of the Almighty Captain and insulting his quest for 3,000 hits? Jeter is much more of a fan favorite than even Jorge is, and the local writers will be chomping at the bit to get their 2 cents in on whatever decision Joe makes or doesn't make.
Jeter should really do the right thing and offer to move down in the lineup, as his traditional "team first" reputation would lead us to believe he would, but so far he has given no indication that this will happen. Assuming he comes back, gets the leadoff spot, and continues to infield-hit his way to 3,000, the voices calling for Gardner are only going to grow louder, especially if Gardner continues to play well (the dude has a 1.126 OPS in June!!!). At what point does Joe make the call? Before 3,000? After? If after, how long after? This is a very slippery slope that the Yankees are approaching, and it could become a major distraction moving forward. Either one man will have to sacrifice (Jeter), or the whole team could end up sacrificing in the win column.
I'm just glad I'm not the one who has to make the call.