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Building the perfect postseason lineup for the Bombers

A couple weeks ago, I did a deep dive into the Yankees pitching staff and who can be trusted in October. With a couple more weeks of solid baseball behind us, it seems like now is a fair time to look at the offense. I conducted a similar analysis last year, although it wound up being rendered moot by the Yankees inept pitching and poor management. The same caveat applies this season: if the pitching is non-competitive the offense will be left powerless to carry the team to a championship.

But James Paxton‘s recent run of form, the impending return of Luis Severino, and the possible reinforcement of the already strong bullpen with relief ace Dellin Betances gives me optimism about the team’s pitching prospects in October. The Astros, Dodgers, and rest of the playoff field will certainly be formidable. But at their best this Yankee squad can go toe-to-toe with any ballclub in the league.

So let me begin with a quick primer before we enter this breakdown of the offense. First, I am assuming for this article that all the starters who are currently injured but are scheduled to return before the postseason will do so without setbacks. I refer specifically to Giancarlo Stanton, Edwin Encarnacion, Luke Voit, and Aaron Hicks, all of whom would presumably reclaim their starting roles should they regain health without incident. This is of course an optimistic assumption, but it seems a fair one given that all four are supposed to return within the next month. With luck, they will even have a couple weeks to hit their stride before the playoffs.

Second, I want to establish a few principles that will guide this analysis. The most obvious is that the best hitters should hit at the top of the lineup. You would think this would be a fairly self-evident strategy, but managers (and nerds) often work themselves in knots trying to optimize matchups and get overly clever with the bottom of the lineup. I believe strongly that it is more important to stack your big bats, and maximize their opportunities throughout the postseason. No more Gleyber hitting ninth to “turn the lineup over”.

Next, I think there is value in mixing high on-base guys with high slugging guys. This comes secondary to your best hitters being stacked at the top — if your best five hitters were all power guys I would still bat them 1 through 5. But given the Yankees luxury of having strength in both areas and many hitters that excel at both, Boone will have the ability to mix their grinders with their sluggers to optimize scoring opportunities.

Finally, I am extremely against the notion of mixing righties and lefties simply for the sake of avoiding relief specialists. For one thing, the rise of sabermetrics has rightly led to a decline in the number of so-called LOOGYs (lefty one-out guys). Additionally, messing with your lineup construction for the sake of a potential single matchup is foolish when there are nine innings and twenty-seven outs in a game. And above all, a hitter’s splits are not always dictated by their handedness! Bottom line, I refuse to mess with the best lineup simply for the sake of avoiding a string of hitters that bat from the same side.

As a known BP nerd, I will be heavily employing wOBA, xwOBA, SLG, xSLG, and xBA. For the less statistically inclined, wOBA stands for “weighted on-base average” and is an improved version of OPS that focuses on each plate appearance’s impact on runs scored. Anything that you see with an “x” in front of it means it is an “expected” stat, and uses Statcast batted ball data to predict what a hitter’s statistic should be based on the type of contact that they make.

Got all that? Without further ado, let’s dive into the breakdown and figure out the Yankees best lineup for October.

The Top of the Lineup

1. DJ LeMahieu 2. Aaron Judge 3. Gio Urshela 4. Gleyber Torres 5. Luke Voit

The first five guys pick themselves, and they should all be automatic starters whenever rested and ready to play. They share the characteristics of having wOBA and xwOBA over .350, SLG and xSLG over .480, and OBP over .350, all incredible numbers that prove there have been no flukes in their success. None of them has any significant differences in their performance against righties or lefties, with Judge the lone aberration at a .332 wOBA against righties. However, his long track record of crushing righties and the fact that he’s Aaron freakin’ Judge earns him an obvious pass.

Frankly, you could mix and match these five guys any which way and experience tremendous success. I chose this configuration for two main reasons. The first is that it puts the three guys with by far the best batted ball statistics first. These three have been head and shoulders above most of the league in terms of the quality and consistency of their contact, and thus should be getting the most at bats on the team.

The second is that it splits up the two guys that struggle with strikeouts, Judge and Voit, with the three best contact hitters on the team. LeMahieu, Urshela, and Gleyber have three of the lowest strikeout and whiff rates on the team, and all rank in the team’s top 5 of xBA (expected batting average). This means that with runners in scoring position, the likelihood of suffering consecutive strikeouts is diminished, increasing the chances of scoring a run.

As I said, there is essentially no wrong way to configure a lineup that puts these five guys at the top. While past evidence suggests Boone will likely insert Sanchez or Stanton in one of these spots, a metrics driven approach would guarantee these five guys the top spots in the lineup based on offensive production throughout this year.

The Other Guaranteed Starter

6. Gary Sanchez

Sorry Rominites, El Kraken has proved that last year was a fluke and the best hitting catcher in baseball is back for good. Gary hasn’t been perfect this year, and his torrid start has cooled to a merely excellent middle of the season. But Gary remains head and shoulders above Romine in all aspects of offensive production, and it’s really not close.

Beyond being a clear starter, he also slots in nicely behind Voit at 6 in the lineup. While he too can struggle with strikeouts and pop ups, his power is formidable, putting him in the top 5% of the league in xSLG and Barrel%. Sticking these two behind the high on-base top of the order means these two should have plenty of chances to drive in runs. He’ll certainly need the occasional off day, but Gary should be a shoo-in at the 6 spot on any night where he’s got the freshness to play.

The Last Six

You’ll notice that there are still some notable names missing. This is a testament to the tremendous depth in offensive talent that the Yankees will have at their disposal this fall. Also, I doubt that most fans would have predicted before the season that Giovanny Urshela would be locked into a top-3 lineup spot while Giancarlo Stanton and Didi Gregorius failed to make the top 6.

For the last three spots, it starts making sense to consider splits on top of overall performance. This is not a contradiction of my earlier principle! These guys will be chosen based on their performance against different types of pitchers, not the side that they bat from. And it is also simply a recognition that given the similar overall performance of these hitters, it makes sense to try to extract value at the margin by optimizing matchups based on pitchers.

So where does that leave us? Remember that based on the currently selected guys, we need two outfielders and either an IF or DH depending on where Voit slots in. In essence, this gives us six spots to fill between two lineups (one vs. LHP, one vs. RHP).

vs. LHP

7. Giancarlo Stanton 8. Edwin Encarnacion 9. Aaron Hicks

The most obvious pick is Stanton. He has crushed lefties throughout his entire career, with a .422 career wOBA and .631 career SLG against southpaws. He is the clear choice for the 7 spot against lefties. Edwin also slides in against lefties, hitting to a .408 wOBA and .615 SLG against such pitchers this year, even better than his excellent career numbers.

That leaves just a single outfield spot for the lefty lineup, one that must go to a player with the ability to play center. Based purely on 2019 numbers, Mike Tauchman would actually earn this position. But due mostly to the extremely small sample size and partly due to his inexperience, we will instead go with Aaron Hicks. Gardner and Hicks are actually comparable against lefties (both not great), but Hicks gets the edge due to his superior defensive talents in center. While Gardner is admirable in LF, his metrics while patrolling the middle of the outfield are decidedly subpar.

vs. RHP

7. Giancarlo Stanton 8. Didi Gregorius 9. Brett Gardner

What about against the righties? Gardner steals the spot in center, with his performance outpacing the injured Hicks in all offensive facets. His resurgence in 2019 has come in large part due to his dominance against righties, and he has more than justified a spot in the 9 hole. This means that again Stanton gets the nod, mostly on the backs of last year and his career numbers. He’s a lifetime .369 wOBA hitter against righties, and even in a down year in 2018 exceeded the performance of Hicks to earn the 7 spot in the lineup.

And, finally, we find a role for Didi Gregorius, who is severely underperforming in his 2019 return from offseason Tommy John surgery. His .296 xwOBA and .318 wOBA put him in the bottom third of the team in terms of overall offensive performance. But his .330 wOBA against righties is still better than what Edwin Encarnacion has produced this season. Throw in the fact that his K% is effectively half that of Edwin’s and his defense allows Voit to move to DH, and you get a strong case for the beloved Sir Didi to start against righties in the playoffs.

Final Thoughts

More than anything, writing this article gave me tremendous hope for the Yankees’ championship prospects this season. This offense is legitimately fantastic, ranking in the top 3 in the league in every category of import as we enter the final month of the season. Boone can hardly go wrong if he keeps things simple, and this lineup has proven it will be a major headache for even the very best pitchers in baseball (right, Ryu?).

That being said, here’s how I would set up the team if I were in charge of the lineup during October:

vs. RHP

  1. DJ LeMahieu, 2B
  2. Aaron Judge, RF
  3. Gio Urshela, 3B
  4. Gleyber Torres, SS
  5. Luke Voit, 1B
  6. Gary Sanchez, C
  7. Giancarlo Stanton, LF
  8. Edwin Encarnacion, DH
  9. Aaron Hicks, CF

vs. LHP

  1. DJ LeMahieu, 1B
  2. Aaron Judge, RF
  3. Gio Urshela, 3B
  4. Gleyber Torres, 2B
  5. Luke Voit, DH
  6. Gary Sanchez, C
  7. Giancarlo Stanton, LF
  8. Didi Gregorius, SS
  9. Brett Gardner, CF

The realities of managing a baseball team are far more complicated, and there will no doubt be significant mixing and matching based on who’s hot and who the Yankees are facing any given day. But based purely on the merits of their performance, this is the optimal alignment for the Yankees this postseason.

I hope my two articles, on both the pitching staff and lineup, have given you the same buzz of excitement it’s given me for the 2019 playoffs. This is the Yankees best chance at a World Series since 2009, better even than last year or their magical run in 2017. With two years of experience behind them and a cavalry of All Stars set to return in the next month, it’s an exciting year to be a Yankee fan. I look forward to seeing if this team can perform in practice the way it looks on paper, and restore the Commissioner’s Trophy to its rightful home in the Bronx.