In the wake of last night’s humiliating 15-7 loss, it feels wrong to be focusing on improving the offense. The bullpen was an absolute dumpster fire, allowing 13 runs in just 6 IP. This all came on the back of Sonny pitching so horribly in a loss to the Triple A Orioles he finally got yanked from the rotation. JA Happ is on the shelf with the now notorious hand, foot, and mouth disease. And staff ace Luis Severino has reverted to his 2016 self for his last four starts, pitching to an 8.84 ERA.
Feeling good about this team yet?
But despite the panic of Yankees Twitter, the season is in fact not yet over. Last week I detailed how kind the schedule is to the Yankees down the stretch. And though last night was ugly, the Yankees also get nine more shots at Boston head-to-head. If they can find the team that went 50-22 to start the season, they have plenty of time to make the division race interesting again.
In this article, I want to look ahead to the coming returns of Aaron Judge and the much maligned Gary Sanchez to construct the optimal Yankees lineup for the home stretch. The team is scoring an impressive 5.21 runs per game, second to only Boston. In the process, they’ve hit a whopping 174 dingers, best in the league and on pace to break the ’97 Mariners single season record. If Boone shakes up the lineup, can they get even better?
My process for this lineup construction will rely on a few basic principles. First and foremost, the best hitters should be at the top of the lineup. Duh. Get more ABs for your biggest mashers. It sounds simple and straightforward, but for much of the season Boone left the struggling Greg Bird toward the top of the lineup and kept rookies Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres toward the bottom. While the proverbial “second leadoff man” 9-hitter can be valuable, give your best hitters the most opportunities at the plate. Easy.
Second, I want to avoid stacking high-strikeout guys as much as possible. Obviously, having Judge and Stanton hitting back-to-back is far from a bad thing as they’re the two best hitters on the team. But against righties, for example, Gleyber and Gary both exceed 25% strikeouts. My belief is that spacing these guys out improves the chances of sustaining rallies, something that has been complained about regularly with the home run happy Bombers this year.
Finally, and most importantly, I want to put high OBP guys in front of high SLG hitters so that there are more men on base to drive in for the extra base hit machines. This has been a growing trend throughout baseball since sabermetrics swept through the league, and is why a guy like Anthony Rizzo is hitting leadoff for Joe Maddon‘s Cubs. It’s no longer about just sticking your fastest guy in the leadoff spot. Maximize opportunities for your biggest sluggers to drive in runs.
Got all that? Now let’s dive into the numbers and build the Modern Day Murderer’s Row…
The Yankees have absolutely mashed lefties this year, slashing .263/.350/.494 (wRC+ 128) as a team. For reference, that means the whole lineup essentially turns into Kris Bryant against left handed pitchers. They’ve been led by the red hot Giancarlo Stanton, who is hitting .356/.417/.723 (wRC+ 200) against southpaws this season. Torres, Judge, and Hicks likewise post wRC+ over 160.
Neil Walker is immediately eliminated from lineups against lefties. He’s been a non-factor, hitting to just a 24 wRC+ with woeful AVG, OBP, SLG, and a 27.9% strikeout rate. Despite how valuable he’s been in Sanchez’s absence, Romine also rides the pine. He’s our backup catcher guys, and a really good one. But he’s a fraction of the hitter Sanchez is, especially against lefties. The third bench spot goes to some combination of Tyler Wade/Ronald Torreyes/Shane Robinson/Luke Voit/Jacoby Ellsbury (lol).
With all that said, here’s the perfect lineup against LHP (all stat lines are against lefties):
A few notes. Gleyber gets the nod over Hicks at leadoff both due to his higher OBP and, ironically, higher K%. In general, he poses a better bet to reach base than Hicks in front of the middle of the order. But, in the event a rally is already going, the stacking of Torres, Judge, and Stanton increases the likelihood of multiple rally-killing strikeouts.
Next, Bird hits sixth over Didi due to his far superior OBP and Didi’s better SLG. With the middle of the order turning over, you want guys on base for the more hit-or-miss Didi and Andujar, who slug the crap out of lefties but get on base far less frequently.
Finally, you get the added benefit here of actually getting a second leadoff man, with Gardner slotting in at 9. His OBP is strong despite his inability to hit extra base hits against lefties. This leaves potentially more men on base when the lineup turns over for the mashers at the top.
Regardless of precise construction, it’s fair to say the days of Yankees struggles against lefties should be over. No longer can a guy like Dallas Keuchel dominate this lineup. There are way too many weapons against lefties to keep these guys down for long.
The lineup composition remains the same against righties. Funny how your best hitters tend to be the ones who can hit against both righties and lefties. The only “controversial” decision is to leave Sanchez in the lineup over Romine. Gary has been demonstrably terrible against righties this year, and Romine has hit to a solid wRC+ 113. However, I stand by the fact that Gary is much the better hitter throughout his career, and refuse to sit him against righties for Romine.
With that in mind, here’s the perfect lineup against RHP (all stat lines are against righties):
Just because Gary is starting doesn’t mean he should bat high in the order. He’s been terrible against righties and his 8 spot reflects that.
Stanton bats above Andujar largely to break up the strikeout parade that would be Stanton-Bird-Sanchez against righties. Having that boom or bust nature right after the excellent top of the lineup could be a huge momentum killer. Additionally, Stanton has raked against righties (and all pitchers) recently, making this an even easier decision.
Finally, Gardner bats 9th again despite a high OBP to epitomize the “give your best hitters more ABs” strategy. Though he gets on base a lot, he doesn’t SLG high enough to warrant a top of the lineup spot. Once again, he serves as an excellent second leadoff man in the 9 spot.
These lineups are obviously very sabermetrics driven and do not account for realities a real manager must face. Aaron Boone has to contend with the media, who scrutinize every hitters promotion or demotion in the order. He also needs to show his players he has confidence in them by not arbitrarily moving them up or down the order day-to-day. And finally, sometimes players perform better against a particular pitcher than they do against the larger body of right handed or left handed pitchers. All of that is reflected in Boone’s lineup choices.
That being said, I think there are a couple of larger takeaways from this exercise. The first is that Gardner is the ideal 9 hitter, not leadoff man. I love Gardner to death, but at this point in his career he’s more valuable batting 9 than 1. Hicks and Torres deserve those top of the order spots, as they both get on base more and hit for more power.
The second lesson is obvious: Judge and Stanton are really good at this baseball thing. Keep them right in the heart of this order til death do them part. They get on base a lot and absolutely mash the ball. Do they strike out a lot? Sure. But keep the Bash Bros right where they are to keep driving in runs.
Finally, Boone should not be afraid to play a little more to the matchups. As we can see above, there’s significant variation in the performance of some key hitters against righties and lefties. In particular, Didi and Sanchez seem susceptible to the same side matchup, and perform much better against pitchers of the opposite hand. The lineup should maximize a player’s value to the team against the specific type of pitcher they face that day.
All of this is to say the Yankees lineup is incredibly deep when healthy, and poised to put up lots and lots of runs. Lets hope it can carry the shaky pitching staff for the home stretch and into the playoffs. In the meantime, keep an eye on Boone’s lineup construction as Judge and Sanchez make their respective returns to the ballfield.