Move over, Ichiro Suzuki. Step aside, Pete Rose. Slide down, Maury Wills.Here comes Aaron Judge?If the role of the leadoff hitter — once the domain of the speedy, pitch-spoiling, sharp-eyed singles hitter — has long been reshaped by baseball’s increased reliance on analytics, an emphatic confirmation came Friday on the Yankees’ lineup card.
At the top of the batting order was baseball’s biggest bopper: Aaron Judge, 6 feet 7 inches, 282 pounds and the American League’s leader last season with 52 home runs.
It may not happen often, but it could happen soon — the Yankees open the regular season on Thursday at Toronto — so Manager Aaron Boone wanted everyone to get used to the idea, not just Judge.
“If that’s a real option, I, at least, want to introduce it, because obviously it’s a story today,” Boone said on Friday after a 5-0 exhibition loss to the Boston Red Sox. “So I just want to at least get that part of it out of the way.”
Along with his prodigious power, Judge has another desirable attribute at the plate: a keen eye. He led the A.L. with 127 walks last season and his on-base percentage was .422, third in baseball behind Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds and Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, who also mostly batted second in their lineups.
Since each spot further down in the lineup translates into anywhere from 13 to 16 fewer at-bats over the course of the season, according to Fangraphs, the best hitters on a team are increasingly slotted second in the lineup instead of third.
The Yankees have occasionally deployed power-hitting leadoff hitters over the years — Bobby Bonds and Alfonso Soriano among them — but it was typically because those teams lacked a traditional leadoff hitter.
Despite having Jose Altuve, one of the best hitters in baseball, the Houston Astros used George Springer, their top home run hitter, in the leadoff spot last season. It worked out well: The Astros won the World Series and Springer was the Series’ most valuable player.
Red Sox Manager Alex Cora, the bench coach for the Astros last season, said Springer “controls the strike zone for how powerful he is.”
“His swing decisions are good,” Cora added. “He’ll swing at strikes. It’s not like he’s swinging at bad pitches and trying to hit home runs.”
Placing Judge in the leadoff spot presents a trade-off: It guarantees that nobody will be on base for Judge at least once each game, but it also makes certain that no other Yankee will have more trips to the plate.
Boone said he was considering using Judge as the leadoff hitter only in rare circumstances: when the Yankees were facing a left-handed pitcher and their usual leadoff hitter, the left-handed-hitting Brett Gardner, was in the lineup. That will be the case in the season opener against the Toronto left-hander J. A. Happ. When Gardner, who figures to sit more frequently against left-handers, is out of the lineup, Aaron Hicks is likely to hit leadoff.
But with three left-handed hitters — shortstop Didi Gregorius, first baseman Greg Bird and Gardner — in the lineup, using Judge in the leadoff spot will allow Boone to stack two right-handed hitters between each lefty, as he did on Friday when Bird batted third, Gregorius sixth and Gardner ninth. And batting the switch-hitter Neil Walker and Gardner in the Nos. 8 and 9 spots will allow Boone to have two high on-base hitters in front of Judge after his first trip to the plate.
“If you have a lefty specialist, maybe they have one bullet in the middle of the game,” Boone said. “They’re not going to ride those three guys out. With your switch-hitters, you can kind of protect guys — and I don’t think you would ever consider it if we didn’t have as deep a lineup as we do. We’re going to have guys at the bottom of the order with the capability of getting on base, so you feel like the top of the order is going to have good opportunities anyway.”
Boone added, “I think there’s a strong case to be made for it, but we’ll kind of see.”
Though Boone never managed before this season, these are the types of decisions that he had to consider when he interviewed for the job. The Yankees presented each managerial candidate with an exercise: Take a list of nine anonymous player statistics and configure a lineup.
“We just take the emotional attachment to a name away from the long stat lines,” said General Manager Brian Cashman, who called the drill informative. “We just want to see what makes the manager tick when they’re putting the lineups together. You want to see how they construct one through nine and then the more important part is why.”
While Boone had previously considered the idea of moving Judge to the top of the order, he said he gave it more serious consideration on Thursday on the bus ride back from Fort Myers, Fla. He phoned Judge, who had stayed in Tampa, to gauge his interest.
Judge said he was fine with it.
“I might have done it in a high school game once, but not really,” Judge said before he singled, struck out twice on called strikes and grounded into a hard-hit double play.