Lineup construction is an often overlooked aspect of a manager’s job. While it has been shown that the difference between the average batting order and an optimum one is probably not more than a few runs over the course of a season, those runs could mean one or two wins. In a race like the Yankees are expected to be in, using an ideal batting order could be the difference between playoffs or no playoffs.
There are several factors that go into a manager’s decision making regarding lineup construction, and obviously each is going to have their own tendencies. Things like a player’s speed, hitting ability, on base skills, power, handedness, and whether they are hot or cold all come into play. Some aspects, like injuries and rest, should be discounted from this because whether or not someone will even be in the lineup should be a completely independent decision from where they will bat. Batting order is determined from the players deemed ready to start on that day, and anything beyond that is a separate aspect of a coach’s job.
A lot of what goes into making the average MLB lineup is based on conventional wisdom, of which some is useful but much is also outdated. For example, getting speed at the top of the lineup is a good thing, but not just for the sake of having someone fast bat lead off. Speed and base stealing are skills, just like hitting is, and all managers should seek to give their most skilled offensive players the most times at bat. The Yankees have been using Jacoby Ellsbury at the top of the order. Having his speed there is excellent, but if Ellsbury could not hit or get on base what use would it be?
The lineups that have been used by Joe Girardi so far in 2014 are actually fairly close to ideal. For the first few series, Jacoby Ellsbury was in the leadoff position. Ellsbury satisfies both the traditional and modern perspectives on a lead off man. He is adept at getting on base and also has prototypical speed for the position. The only Yankee significantly better than Ellsbury at getting on base in the past is Derek Jeter, who is still somewhat of an unknown. Against Baltimore, and in the opener against Boston, Girardi shuffled things around. With Mark Teixeira out, Brett Garnder has been shifted to the top of the order to let Ellsbury bat third. Gardner is also good at avoiding outs, as well as having the speed desired at the top of the order.
The Yankees are now essentially bunching all of their best hitters at the top of the lineup. Girardi is playing it smart. The higher in the order one bats, the more appearances at the plate that person will get over the course of the season. Logic dictates that the most time at bat should be given to the best players, in order to maximize their value. In other words, it is better for a team to give an extra 50 plate appearances over the season to Miguel Cabrera than to Eric Young. When Teixeira returns he should slot back in the five or six place in the lineup, keeping the top half consistent.
The 2014 New York Yankees do not have an absolutely dominant roster like they did during Jeter’s peak years. Girardi has to do his best to make sure he is optimizing everything he can, be it his relievers, defensive substitutions, or his lineups. So far, he has done an excellent job at getting his best bats near the top of the lineup regardless of where tradition dictates they should be.
Commentary by Brian Moore