Yankees Should Replace Gardner At Leadoff With These Alternatives

Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports
Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports /

Yankees manager, Joe Girardi, loves to mix up the lineup from day to day, see what works and stick with it as long as it’s effective. But the one lineup change he seems unwilling to make is batting anyone but Brett Gardner leadoff.

Yankees fans have become accustomed to seeing the scrappy left fielder hit first in the order for years. Jacoby Ellsbury took over the leadoff role for a little while, but Girardi eventually swapped the two, batting Gardner first and Ellsbury second.

This year, the manager finally decided to split up Gardner and Ellsbury amid both outfielders’ declining offense. The switch seems to be working for Ellsbury. Through 17 games, he’s taken most of his at-bats fourth or fifth in the order and is slashing .323/.373/.403.

At this point in his career, Ellsbury is no longer a leadoff hitter, and Girardi might want to entertain the thought that neither is Gardner. Sure, his walk rate is 16 percent, and he’s managed a .323 OBP, but his .192 AVG is startling. (Our own Mike Calendrillo has made his feelings on the matter abundantly clear).

More from Yanks Go Yard

If Gardner doesn’t start hitting for more power and continues to be allergic to driving in runs, it stands to reason that pitchers will start attacking him in the zone. And if that happens and he can’t maintain his OBP, Girardi will need to move his favorite leadoff hitter down in the order.

Let’s take a look at some in-house candidates that might make sense batting first.

Aaron Hicks

Unlike Mike’s solution, this wouldn’t be an outright demotion for Gardner, just an attempt at getting Hicks more at-bats. In 42 plate appearances, Hicks is slashing .323/.476/.774 with a walk rate just shy of 24 percent and a beefy 243 wRC+.

He’s also scored nine runs and driven in nine as well, making him one of the Yankees’ best offensive players thus far. Simply put, this red-hot version of Hicks makes a lot of sense to leadoff because he gets on base and drives in runs.

Hicks will probably regress to his light-hitting ways, but why not let it ride while he’s hitting the way he’s been hitting?

Chase Headley

The same rationale can be used for Headley, who is far from your traditional leadoff hitter – but who cares? Carlos Santana is Terry Francona’s primary leadoff hitter, and the Indians went to the World Series last season. Joe Maddon has been batting Kyle Schwarber leadoff for the reigning champion Cubs.

Is it possible that the game’s two best managers are onto something? The idea is simple: the best hitters get the most at-bats by hitting in the top third.

If the Yankees put their best hitters in the top third of the lineup, it would indeed feature Headley batting first. He’s slashing .362/.456/.603 with a .419 BABIP, thanks in part to his willingness to bunt/squib balls the other way against the over the shift. His aggressive, savvy baserunning this season makes him my favorite choice to hit first.

Like Hicks, Headley’s recent history suggests his hot start may not last, but it’s a good sign Girardi is at least willing to get him more at-bats by slotting him second. If Headley keeps hitting, batting him leadoff would also leave open the two-hole for Sanchez when he comes back.

Greg Bird

He’s been the anti-Headley this season. Everyone knows how gifted a hitter Bird is, we all saw it in 2015 and this past March. Girardi is right to stick with Bird despite his early season struggles, but what if he tried to get creative in jump starting the first baseman’s bat?

Bird has always had a good eye at the plate, and his FanGraphs plate discipline numbers are surprisingly solid despite his dismal numbers. The eye test also supports Bird, as he’s clearly had his fair share of good at-bats.

With Sanchez and Didi coming back, Holliday and Headley hitting well, and Aaron Judge creeping higher and higher in the order, Bird would have some serious muscle protecting him in the lineup. Batting Bird leadoff could wind up with him seeing better pitches and turning more good at-bats into positive outcomes.

Leaving the leadoff spot could very well be beneficial for Gardner. If he bats in the bottom third of the lineup, he can increase his run-scoring opportunities by getting on base for the team’s heavy hitters without changing his mindset at the plate. He can still be a traditional leadoff hitter, just not one that bats first in the order.