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Why Jeter Should Stay at Leadoff Upon Return

By Joseph Delgrippo ~ June 28th, 2011. Filed under: Digest Contributors, New York Yankees.

There is likely no bigger Derek Jeter fan than me. I don’t live and die with every Jeter at bat, but am a big fan in the way he has carried himself as a player and especially as a New York Yankee. As captain, Jeter has helped the Yankees win five World Series titles.

With 27 World Series titles, the Yankee franchise has been carried by position players of the Jeter magnitude, with stalwarts (and HOFers) such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra providing legions of Yankee fans winning baseball and the accompanying idolatry.

Despite all the Jeter heroics during his 17 year career, most articles about Jeter this season have been about his quest for 3,000 career hits or, since his recent injury, the need for him to be removed from his customary leadoff spot. People point to Jeter’s reduced capacity to hit, get on base and drive the ball with authority.

Those are all valid reasons, especially his ability to get on base. Jeter’s 2011 OBP is .324, vastly inferior to his career mark of .383. Combined with his .340 OBP in 2010, Jeter has recorded his two lowest OBP’s over the last two seasons.

Since being placed on the disabled list June 14th with a calf strain, Jeter’s replacements at the top of the order, Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher, have flourished. In his most recent eight games atop the order, Gardner has utilized his patience and newfound ability to bunt for base hits in logging a .313 BA/.389 OBP/.438 SLG/.827 OPS slash line. And Swisher has pummeled his way to a .308/.526/.462/.988 during his four games batting leadoff.

That duo has produced an overall .311/.426/.444/.870 line from the leadoff spot, helping lead the Yankees to a 9-3 record during Jeter’s absence, with the offense producing 69 runs (5.75 per game).

But has the Yankees new winning ways clearly the result of a different leadoff hitter, or are other factors contributing the current first place run? So when Jeter comes back from his injury and collects his 3,000th career hit, should the Yankees move him out of the leadoff spot and hit him lower in the order?

The 12 games before Jeter went on the DL, the Yankees were 7-5 and scored 61 runs (5.08/game). Jeter batted leadoff in every one of those 12 games. This offensive production is clearly less than the current 12 game stretch without Jeter. But the 12 games before that, all with Jeter batting leadoff, the Yankees had an 8-4 record and scored 68 runs (5.67/game).

These numbers reveal there is not that much of a difference from their current stretch without Jeter atop the order and not much different from the Yankee season average of 5.25 runs per game. That total is second most in baseball behind the Boston Red Sox per game average of 5.31.

In fact, with or without Jeter batting leadoff, the Yankees are pretty darn consistent over the last three 12 games stretches. Plus, the middle 12 games stretch with Jeter leading off and the Yankees faring a little worse, the Yankees faced far better run of pitching than they did before and after. Gio Gonzalez, Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana, Joel Piniero, Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Carlos Carrasco (1.77 ERA over last five starts).

As the advanced statistics have crept their way into standard baseball society, the baseball public is constantly bombarded with “small sample sizes” and warned that we cannot read too much into these results.

But isn’t the recent Gardner/Swisher leadoff combination a “small sample size?” They are getting on base more than Jeter, but it still has been only 12 games. Even when you add in Eduardo Nunez’ positive results with the bat, the Yankees score the same amount of runs whether Jeter leads off or not.

But isn’t Jeter a much worse leadoff hitter than Gardner and Swisher? Gardner and Swisher both have really good eyes which shows in what I call their “walk differentials” of .079 and .122, respectively. This is the difference in a player’s OBP and his BA, subtracting BA from OBP. Since provides the majority of any hitters OBP, this differential is a players ability to generate additional times on base, primarily of importance when a player is slumping with the bat*.

*I love it when hitters are praised for their high OBP of .380 when their BA is around .340 (Ichiro is a perfect example), then a hitter is excoriated for his low productivity with the bat when his batting average and slugging percentage is terrible (he’s slumping) but still draws his share of walks (think Swisher earlier this year). It proves that batting average is more important to the perception of offensive value and OBP than sabermetric gurus want to believe.

The main point told by most people is that the more times your leadoff hitter gets on base, the more runs you will score. But then some people say the batting order is not indicative of run production but if the entire lineup is full of high OBP guys, then it doesn’t matter where they bat in the lineup.

When he gets back off the disabled list, Jeter should continue to be the Yankees leadoff hitter.

Let’s get this out of the way early. Swisher is not hot now because he was put into the leadoff spot for four games after the Jeter injury. Swish started hitting very well long before Jeter was injured, and has hit .316/.433/.632/1.065 in June with six home runs. Four of those home runs have come hitting in the six or seven spot in the order AFTER Jeter was hurt.

Swisher is hot right now, raising his BA 30 points and his slugging average 71 points in June. With Teixeira and Alex always on base, Swisher is better suited for the sixth spot, where his current power surge can lead to game-changing multiple run homers, like he has three times this month. Swisher is more productive to the Yankees where he currently is located in the order.

So that eliminates Swisher from the leadoff spot.

And despite the small sample size over the last eight games Gardner has led off, Jeter has been a better hitter out of the leadoff spot than Gardner this season. Jeter’s OBP is .336 out of #1 hole, while Gardner’s is only .296. Granted that Gardner has performed well in Jeter’s stead since the calf injury to Derek, but since his hot start atop the order, Gardner has only hit .158/.238/.158/.496 OPS over his last five games leading off. This coincides with his permanent placement there.

One of the biggest needs for a team is to get off to an early lead, like scoring runs in the first inning. When leading off a game, Jeter is hitting .391/.472/.478/.950 OPS, going 18-46 with four leadoff doubles, five walks and two HBP’s. Gardner you ask? Well he’s produced a .176/.222/.353/.575 OPS line leading off the first inning.

Gardner’s most comfortable spot appears to be in the eighth hole, “Brett the Jet” has produced at a .404/.508/.615/1.123 clip. That is pretty darn impressive for a number eight hitter, the best in baseball.

The main reason why the Yankees have played their best ball is because they are slugging very well, with a .449 SLG in June. This is similar to the higher output in April, when they slugged .475.

While the team on base percentage is 21 points higher for June than either April or May, the improved batting averages as a team for June are the primary indicator of success. The early slumping Posada and Swisher are now hitting well as well as the superb months of the 3, 4 and 5 hitters (Alex and Cano are hitting over .300) has been the biggest difference.

This all has occurred when Jeter was leading off and when Gardner/Swisher was, too. Jeter still got on base 19 times during his last 12 games, four less than the Gardner/Swisher combination of their last 12 games leading off. This is one fewer time every three games. Is that such as big difference? I don’t believe it is on the determination of the Yankees winning and losing.

Since Gardner has not been as productive in the leadoff spot as Jeter has, and Swisher is producing runs with power, the best bet for the Yankees for when Jeter comes back is for everything to revert back to the pre-injury lineup, where the Yankees have averaged the second most runs in baseball.

Give Jeter his leadoff spot back and with the power the Yankees can show, they will still score lots of runs and wins plenty of games.

The Yankees are about power this season and a surprisingly good starting pitching staff (at least when A.J. Burnett is not throwing). If the surging Posada and Swisher start slumping again and Granderson, Teixeira, A-Rod or Cano stop hitting the long ball, it will not matter who hits leadoff.

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Joseph Delgrippo is an aspiring sportswriter and TV baseball analyst. He played NCAA baseball, at tiny Marietta (OH) College, participating in the Division 3 World Series. In addition, he's coached baseball at the high school level. His knowledge of this game goes far beyond what is shown on television.

3 Responses to Why Jeter Should Stay at Leadoff Upon Return

  1. Harold Hashinsky

    Hi: Derek Jeter is 100% Yankee. They just game ho a 3 year “healthy” contract. THat seems to mean they want him to play up to his best capacity, and that should be leading off and playing shortstop. If he fails in a terrible fashion, than & only than, should other avenues should be considered. He will always be “Mr. Yankee” as all the Yankee great of the past remain – Yankee retired #’s.
    Thank you,
    Harod Hashinsky

  2. Lou

    He is failing in a terrible fashion. .324 OBP/.324SLG is failing for the batter getting the most at bats in the line-up.
    I also think some of the logic used in the article is very selective. For example – Swish’s success has nothing to do with his spot in the line-up, but Gardners is, thats crazy. Thats where sample size comes in, a theory the author apparently is aware of, but doesn’t grasp.
    Here is the basic theory of why Jeter shouldn’t bat lead-off. He is the worst hitter of the starting 9, and it should be intuitive that the worst hitter shouldn’t get the most at bats.
    What might make sense is batting Jeter first against lefties and Garnder first against righities. Swish probably would still bat 6th, but that is just because the Yankees have a very deep line-up.

  3. Chuck Johnson

    Dead on, Joe.

    I love how those sabermetric media types keep trashing Jeter and say Gardner should hit leadoff, when all along Jeter has better numbers there.

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