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  • Cary Greene

Who Should the Yankees Leadoff Hitter Be? 

…Mid February Thoughts by Cary Greene 

February 20, 2024

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It's been a long time since the Yankees lineup had an impactful leadoff hitter, hasn’t it? Well, it turns out the answer is, “Not so fast” and just so happens that the answer opens up a giant can of worms. Let's begin today’s piece which, coincidentally, was sculpted for your reading pleasure with a few questions.


Putrid would be a good choice of adjectives to describe the Yankees lineup last season - there were a number of problems. With the stench of a dismal season still hanging over Yankee Stadium, Yankees fans are surely wondering, has Yankees GM Brian Cashman fixed the Yankees offensive problems going forward? He’s had an entire offseason to do so, right? So has he done it? 

 

With an offense that ranked eighth in MLB last season in bases on balls, there’s little doubt that the Yankees, as a team, did a pretty good job at taking free passes when they were given. Unfortunately for the Yankees though, they were 29th in MLB in hits, with only 1,207 total hits. It all added up to the Yankees having the fourth worst team on base percentage (.304) in baseball last season. For a pure three outcome team, it wasn’t a winning formula. The Yankees were 25th in the League in RBI’s, knocking in only 650 runs last season.  

 

Known far and wide as the Bronx Bombers, it's not surprising that last season’s Yankees did their fair share of bombing Yankee Stadium's outfield fences, as they ranked 9th in home runs (219). Interestingly, the Yankees also ranked dead last in runners left on base last season, stranding only 1,007 runners.  

 

How then, with a sizable amount of walks combined with adequate power did the Yankee offense manage to score the sixth fewest runs (673) in baseball last season? Part of the answer is that the Yankees clearly deployed a true three outcome approach, which is a home run, a walk, or a bust approach (going down on strikes). 


Ultimately, while the Yankees did take walks last season, they failed to hit their way on base enough and with a total of 1,427 strikeouts last season, the Yankees offense had the 11th most whiffs of any team in baseball. Very clearly, the Yankees didn’t walk nearly enough and they struck out at a rate that is probably expected of a pure, three outcome team – a rate I might add, that is far too high in this writer's opinion.  

 

Leading the league with the fewest runners left on base seems like it would be a good thing, but in the Yankees case, they flat out didn’t get enough men on via a hit or a walk last season. Since they walked at an okay clip, we can blame the Yankees futility on a significant lack of batsmanship. It’s also clear that the Yankees three outcome strategy sandbagged the Yankees offense last season and this concept actually manifests itself when we consider the way the Yankees use the leadoff position year after year.  

 

Under Brian Cashman’s leadership and with Aaron Boone as the skipper (who very likely has his lineup cards handed to him from someone on Michael Fishman’s Strat-o-Matic team), the Yankees fancy putting a player with a solid on base percentage at the top of the lineup.  However, it doesn’t seem to matter one iota whether the Yankees leadoff man can run the bases, as Michael Fishman’s analytics department has signed off on what he must fervently believe is a sound strategy. Many three outcome teams think like this, yet I’m here to tell you that this sort of thinking has zero statistical correlation with actually winning.  

 

Last season, the Yankees used 14 different leadoff hitters! If that isn’t a sign of a red flag, I’m not sure what is. Brian Cashman sailed into yet another season without a worry or care in the world - because Michael Fishman believes all the Yankees need to do is put a guy with a high on base percentage into the lineup, ahead of Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton.  With this kind of thinking, a team had better have in place a number eight, a number nine and a leadoff hitter who are really good at getting on base. 

 

Kyle Higashioka (145 P-A’s/.234 OBP) and Jose Trevino (113 P-A’s/.248 OBP), along with 16 other Yankees who also batted eighth in the lineup did next to nothing to help put runners on base ahead of Aaron Judge. Factoring in the Yankees 19 number nine hitters, led by Anthony Volpe and his .304 OBP, the Yankees relied almost exclusively upon their leadoff man getting on base ahead of Judge. Any Yankees fan who watches enough games must wonder why, when Judge does connect - it’s often good for only a solo home run. Well, now we have our definitive answer: because no one is usually on base ahead of him.  

 

Coincidentally, the same was true two years ago, in 2022, when Judge had his best season ever. 40 of his 62 home runs were solo shots. The Yankees are squandering Aaron Judge by not surrounding him with a better bottom of the lineup and by not solving their leadoff hitter problem.  

 

Aaron Boone indicated recently that DJ LeMahieu would be his ideal solution in the leadoff spot this season, but he also indicated he’d use Alex Verdugo there often as well. Boone went on to say, “If we can solve that leadoff spot…if that leadoff spot gets settled, then we have a chance to be a really special offense…because I do feel like the middle of the lineup around Arron and Juan has a chance to be deep and special.”  

 

It certainly sounds like the Yankees are fully committed to trying the same old strategy that hasn’t worked yet. They intend to put ducks on the pond for their big boppers, Juan Soto and Aaron Judge, to knock them in. There’s just one problem with this thinking though. The ducks don’t seem to be on the pond much.  

 

DJ LeMahieu had a 10.7 walk percentage, a .243 batting average and a .327 on base percentage last season (.331 when batting first by the way), coupled with a dreadful BsR of -7.0! While LeMahieu ranks in the 78th percentile in the league at taking free passes, it’s virtually the only way he gets on base. Once he’s aboard, he’s basically double play bait - as he’s in the 12th percentile in footspeed. If the plan is to roll LeMahieu out again as a leadoff man, the Yankees offense is likely doomed - this is not a “win a championship” approach.  

 

Would Alex Verdugo be a better choice? Nope. While his batting average was a smidge better last season (.264), his on base percentage (.322) was basically the same as LeMahieu’s because Verdugo’s walk rate (7.5 percent) is only in the 38th percentile in the League. Not to mention, Verdugo’s BsR is -2.0 percent.  

 

Neither LeMahieu, nor Verdugo, are ideal leadoff hitters on a team looking to make a run at a championship. In fact, both are probably best suited to bat seventh in a real lineup – so what should the Yankees do?  

 

While it’s surprising to me that the Yankees don’t have a better plan, I’m actually not surprised at all. Cashman has really been ignoring the top of the lineup for years. As I mentioned earlier, while there is no statistical evidence that true three-outcome baseball can actually be correlated with winning, this isn’t a topic that's really up for debate for Brian Cashman’s Yankees…but it should be. In years when the Yankees make the playoffs, their lineup is routinely exposed in the postseason. Last season really punctuated what the inherent problems actually are with Cashman’s approach.  

 

The first step to cracking the code that to Cashman seems to be an enigma, is for us to understand what BsR truly is, in order to quantify the importance of speed on the bases, when combined with adept base running and what it can do for a team. So what is BsR anyway? 

 

BsR quantifies the number of runs above or below average a player is in this important aspect of the game. Zero is league average in a given season and every nine or ten runs above or below average, equals about one win. All stats, BsR included, are measures of past value, so full season’s worth of data help to predict future value. It therefore stands to reason, striving to add a leadoff hitter who has a plus BsR and a plus on base percentage would be an ideal “duck on the pond” for the Yankees. This would be especially true if they brought other attributes to the table.  

 

BsR is calculated by adding wSB, UBR and wGDP together. Suffice it to say, a player who can steal bases and not get caught a lot, who runs station to station well, and who can take an extra base without being gunned down, while also being fleet of foot enough to avoid hitting into many double plays can really move the needle as a leadoff man.  

 

While stealing bases is a valuable attribute, getting caught stealing is actually more costly than successfully stealing is beneficial. While stealing a base increases the odds that a team can score, getting caught stealing equals an out. Therefore, stealing bases is good, but being caught has a greater negative impact. Stealing 50 bases while being caught 20 times is not as valuable as stealing 15 bases and being caught once.  


Another cool thing about BsR is that this quantifies what a base runner can do when the ball is in play. There is a lot of value in going from first to third or from home to second and being able to successfully tag up has added value as well. Therefore speed really does kill.  


In recent memory, the last time Brian Cashman had a chance to add an ideal leadoff hitter for a team like the Yankees was in 2017 when he decided to pass on trading with the Marlins for the sweet swinging lefty Christian Yelich and decided instead to add the slugging Giancarlo Stanton. Some might argue that Cashman also whiffed at adding a leadoff hitter in 2021 when he failed to land Francisco Lindor (then with Cleveland).  

 

Rather than attempting to trade for a reasonably attainable, ideal leadoff hitter - players who last season demonstrated characteristics that a team like the Yankees should covet as top of the lineup players – guys like TJ Friedl ($25.9 MTV/ .352 OBP/9.1 BsR) of the Reds or Nico Hoerner ($22.6 MTV/.346 OBP 9.7 BsR) or even the aforementioned Yelich (-$40.8 MTV/.370 OBP/7.5 BsR) – Cashman has been content to fancy LeMahieu and Verdugo as table setters for a championship caliber roster.  

 

I’m quite puzzled with Brian Cashman’s relaxed January and half of February to be honest. He even hinted that big things would be happening over this period. Devoid of any trades, is there any hope that Brian Cashman could possibly bumble into solving the Yankees dire table setter needs?  

 

To be blunt folks - both Aaron Judge and Juan Soto are both on the verge of being squandered this season. For the Yankees, it's win this season or shut up. Soto is a goner in free agency after the season and the Yankees core is passing their primes fast. Might there be a chance that something unexpected could occur as the season transpires, so that perhaps during the second half of the season, the Yankees might actually be able to field some table setters for their big boppers? 

 

Answering that question involves giving young players chances. If we use statistics as predictors of potential future results, there is actually some startling hope right under our noses - I’m talking about players that the Yankees have within their system and who are under team control. Let’s close by examining three such players who could slot into the leadoff spot and the number eight and number nine holes in the lineup. Guys who can run AND who can get on base.  

 

Ideally, Jasson Dominguez makes a speedy recovery and he becomes the Yankees leadoff hitter at some point later on in the season. Hopefully, the Yankees are still in contention when this has a chance of happening.


In 2023, while in Double-A, the Martian posted a .367 on base percentage over 507 plate appearances and as he continued to progress rapidly through the Yankees system, he worked very hard on strike zone recognition. He understands the importance of getting on base and he’s also a switch-hitter. Not only can the Martian get on base, he has speed rated at 60 on the 20-80 scale presently and while its projected to settle back to 50 in time, the point is that the kid can move out. He stole 37 bases in Double-A last season and he was only caught stealing 7 times. To a degree, that plays.  

 

In the future and considering that Soto is likely a goner after the season, Dominguez is probably better utilized either batting second or even third, due to his RBI potential. However, Dominguez may yet have a significant role to play this season, atop the Yankees lineup. While Aaron Boone didn’t use Dominguez at the top of the lineup this past season as he batted Dominguez third and fifth, Boone also didn’t have Juan Soto or a recovered Anthony Rizzo. If Dominguez can recover and make his way back, the Yankees might actually have themselves an answer atop their lineup at some point later in the season. For now though, since neither LeMahieu or Verdugo are viable leadoff guys, could a young player make some rapid strides and wind up becoming a solution? 

 

Enter Anthony Volpe. After a full season with plenty of downs and a few ups, Volpe enters his sophomore season in the bigs as the Yankees starting shortstop. Is Volpe the Yankees leadoff hitter of the future? 

 

Right now, he’s more like a number nine hitter. His home run or bust approach usurped his ability to hit gap to gap and his plus bat to ball skills fell victim to home run hunting. Back in 2021 when he was in High-A ball in Hudson Valley, when he was rated as the best pure hitter in MiB, he sported a .391 on base percentage. With better coaching, Volpe projects as a top of the lineup bat who will regularly approach or exceed a .350 on base percentage. If he can do that, his 2023 BsR of 3.5 could couple well with the ability to get on the bases at a strong clip. Last season, Volpe stole 25 bags but he did get caught 5 times. Hopefully he begins to learn when to run and when not to and if he does this, his BsR could climb significantly.  

 

Not if, but when, Volpe begins using all fields again and begins to prioritize contact over home runs, things will start clicking for him and he’ll find himself potentially batting first in the lineup. With the switch hitting Dominguez sandwiched between Volpe and Judge, a glimpse into the Yankees not too distant future can be easily conjured.  

 

When I wrote that this season is either win or shut up time, I sincerely meant it. Cashman has clearly indicated that the Yankees will not be extending Gleyber Torres during the season. This opens the door for Oswald Peraza to claim a huge role in the Yankees infield next season. This season, he needs to find his land legs and this will only happen if the Yankees commit to getting him at bats. I realize thinking this is a stretch, given the way the Yankees like to squander prospects, but if Peraza can get some at bats, he might actually respond positively.  

 

Last season in Scranton, Peraza had a .357 on base percentage and he had very strong OBP’s at other levels in the Yankees system as well (.348 in Double-A and .386 in High-A). With his speed and considering that there is significant contact ability in his swing, an ability which he’s already demonstrated in the Yankees system, he makes for a very pesky number nine hitter and he could become part of the Yankees table setting corps.  

 

Peraza is still learning when to run and when not to, but overall, he’s a good base runner for sure.  

 

Other teams didn’t seem to be as enamored with Peraza as the Yankees were when they were bringing him through their system. The word on the street was that Peraza was over hyped as he was coming up. It's now time for the Yankees to double down on Peraza, they have nothing to lose and everything to gain in doing so.  

62 commentaires


Luigi La Pietra
Luigi La Pietra
21 févr.

Probably would say DJ to start and let’s see from there is what I would do. Certainly not Volpe until he learns how to hit. Was not impressed by him at the plate at all.

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Cary Greene
Cary Greene
21 févr.
En réponse à

I agree Luigi, based on the players on the Roster, DJLM has the best hope of providing a strong OBP - if he's healthy.

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Cary Greene
Cary Greene
20 févr.

Beginning the season, LeMahieu, Verdugo and probably even Gleyber Torres will be used by Aaron Boone to bat leadoff. None are good baserunners and based on projections, only Torres will have an OBP anywhere near .340 plus. Yet, the Yankees have "generational talents" (as Andy put it below) in the lineup. If we go by projections, let's say Judge drives in between 89 and 110 runs and Soto drives in 96 and 106 runs. Folks, that's not going to cut it. Allowing that to happen squanders both of these fantastic hitters.


Taking a page out of Earl Weaver's playbook, which he utilized in the early 60's to win a World Series, ducks on the pond and runners in scoring position…


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Melfman1
Melfman1
21 févr.
En réponse à

I think trade values for both Peraza and Pereira are at all times low and I don’t see either of them being the centerpiece for any major trade. Until they re-establish their value, we would likely have to throw in another blue chip prospect. As far as trading Peraza, what do we do in the event of a lengthy injury to Volpe? Are we turning to Cabrera full time? Arias and Lombard are years away from promotion and there are no other shortstops on the 40 man.


As far as Yelich is concerned, speed doesn’t age well. Just ask Ellsbury whose SB totals plummeted after his age 30 season. All three of our top prospects are outfielders plus we ha…

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Jeff Korell
Jeff Korell
20 févr.

I am a throwback to the 1970's/1980's/1990's, when most lineups featured a "leadoff speedster". Guys like Rickey Henderson, Ron LaFlore, Tim Raines (the speedy Montreal Expos version of him), Lonnie Smith, Vince Coleman, Willie Wilson, Mookie Wilson, Dee Gordon, and more. I prefer that the team's top base stealer be the leadoff guy. Of course, he also must have a high enough On Base Percentage to officially qualify, because he would have to get on base in order to steal. The best base stealers on the Yankees are Anthony Volpe and Greg Allen (who will probably be a depth player at AAA to be called up in the event of an injury). So that would make Anthony Volpe my c…


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Jeff Korell
Jeff Korell
21 févr.
En réponse à

Cary, as a base stealer, Volpe reminds me a lot of Davey Lopes. Like Lopes, Volpe is not the fastest base stealer in the game, but he steals bases on "smarts". Like Lopes, Volpe is a master at "reading" pitchers and knowing the perfect split-second to begin a successful steal attempt.


What made Rickey Henderson achieve astronomical amounts of stolen bases, is that he DID have blazing speed PLUS, he had Davey Lopes as his team mate for a year, and Lopes shared with Rickey his technique for stealing bases on "smarts" and "reading" pitchers, which made Henderson a lethal combination of BOTH. Speed AND base stealing "smarts".

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Alan B.
Alan B.
20 févr.

Mr. G., you and I think an awful a lot alike of when it comes who really makes out the lineup. But I must disagree with you about DJ. Once he got the word from someone out there in Colorado at the ASB, that he could trust his foot, his OBP was something like .373. Peraza last year in his one week leadoff trial in July, showed potential. Personally, I was never impressed with Volpe at leadoff, even in AA in 2022. The Yankees really do an awful job in building lineups in the minors. Trey Sweeney as not a leadoff hitter, but there he was, in A or AA hitting leadoff. Spencer Jones was not a leadoff hitter…

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jeff
21 févr.
En réponse à

If the Yankees ever want to get rid of Cashman, all they have to do is what the Marlins did to Kim Ng. Hire a "President Of Baseball Operations" and keep Cashman as the General Manager. Cashman would likely resign because a General Manager who works under a President Of Baseball Operations is in effect, an Assistant General Manager. It is a "demotion in disguise".

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etbkarate
20 févr.

Straight out of the Cashman book to show everyone else how smart he thinks he is, the Yankees have devalued the concept of a true "leadoff hitter" for several years now. Who should hit leadoff? They never addressed it. For some reason they want DJ (an absolutely perfect 2 hitter) hitting leadoff. On the current roster of starting position players, I think they would love for it to be Volpe, but he is not ready for that job (why he needed 500+ AAA at bats last season, instead of making the team out of camp, IMO). So, based simply on mathematics, I can see a platoon of DJ and Verdugo hitting at the top of the lineup. Not ideal, in…

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Cary Greene
Cary Greene
21 févr.
En réponse à

To a degree, yes, Analytics doesn't respect speed enough, but BsR is a stat equated to a players value, as measured by fWAR. Analytics values a high OBP and my thinking is, if you can combine a high OBP with a ++ BsR, then you have yourself an exceptional leadoff hitter or even possibly, an ideal #9 hitter too (especially if #1 and #9 hit with opposite handedness or are switch-hitters with solid splits, which makes platooning either player not necessary and therefore, gives a teams roster more flexibility.

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