Monday, June 20, 2011

The Rebirth Of The "Who Should Hit Leadoff?" Argument Is Going To Come Soon. And It Ain't Gonna Be Pretty

(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.

Sprained Shoulder For The Horse? Who Cares?

The big news last night in Yankeeland, besides the fact that they kicked the Cubs' candyasses all over Wrigley Field last night, came out early in the game when it was announced that, according to the ever knowledgeable anonymous clubhouse source, The Horse has been playing with a left shoulder strain for the past few weeks, with no clues as to when he hurt it or how severe the injury is.  I'm going to be honest with you, I didn't even realize horses, or centaurs for that matter, had shoulders.  I thought it was kind of like how your lap disappears when you stand up if you're a regular human being.  Walking on all fours like that would eliminate the shoulder from existence, right?  Wrong.  At least I learned something today.

Naturally, the guys on the ESPN "Sunday Night Baseball" broadcast were quick to jump on how this injury was negatively affecting his production and how he's only 4th on the team in HRs and so on and so forth.  And naturally, they and everybody else complaining about that are idiots.  They're missing the big picture.  And what that big picture says is that A-Rod has been playing much better over the last couple weeks, since he suffered this supposed injury, and the Yankees have been winning games since then.

May was a rough month for A-Rod.  He hit just .286/.325/.403 in 119 ABs with just 6 XBH, 12 RBI, and a 6/29 BB/K ratio.  Not exactly Triple Crown-caliber numbers, in baseball or in horse racing.  Fast forward to this month.  So far in 57 June ABs, The Horse is sitting at .263/.382/.561 with 9 XBH, 12 RBI, and a 9/14 BB/K ratio.  The numbers suggest that he's seeing the ball better, being more selective at the plate, and driving the ball when he makes contact.  Sure, the batting average looks a little down, but 2 more hits in those 57 ABs puts him at .298, so I'm sure there's some bad BABIP luck in there somewhere.

The point is, whatever problems The Horse is having with his shoulder aren't very big ones.  I can't imagine he's been having trouble with it since the beginning of May when he started to struggle because we would have heard something long before last night.  It's a minor injury, it isn't affecting his performance, and regardless of what his HR rate is this year, he's still on pace to score 100+ runs, drive in 100+ runs, and crack the 30-HR mark again.  And if you check the WAR rankings for AL 3rd basemen, you'll find The Horse galloping up at the top of the list, a full W ahead of 2nd place Youkilis and Adrian Beltre.

He's not on the DL and he's producing during a month when the Yankees are 11-6 so far.  In short, he's winning.  Chill out about the home runs.  It's not like the team total is suffering without a few more from him.