Something has gotten into the New York Yankees. Written off by some as old hacks doomed to fall short of the postseason when they stumbled to a 4-6 record to begin the month of September, the Yankees enter the weekend as winners of five in a row and seven out of eight.
We can point to several things: Nick Swisher's bat is starting to stir again, Ivan Nova is back, Andy Pettitte is back, and Derek Jeter is still hitting the ball all over the yard.
Right now, however, the biggest superhero in Gotham is Ichiro Suzuki.
Ichiro fueled the Yankees' sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays this week by collecting nine hits in 12 at-bats. He went 7-for-8 in Wednesday's doubleheader, and followed that up with a two-hit performance on Thursday that saw him drive in three runs and go yard for the first time since August 19.
Not everyone noticed, but Ichiro was slumping for a while there. In 24 games between August 21 and September 16, Ichiro hit just .250/.273/.281. He began September by starting in just eight of the 15 games in which he appeared.
Joe Girardi won't be stashing Ichiro on the bench again anytime soon. Given the way Ichiro is swinging the bat, well, that would just be silly, wouldn't it?
“You look at what Ich is doing, we’re going with the hot hand,” said Girardi before Thursday's game, via the New York Daily News.
With Ichiro in line to start every day, that means it's Andruw Jones' turn to ride the pine. That solves that problem.
Now all Girardi needs to do is rearrange his lineup so he has Ichiro batting first and Jeter batting second.
Girardi has only batted Ichiro leadoff and Jeter in the No. 2 hole twice since Ichiro was acquired in late July. He's generally avoided doing so for a couple key reasons.
One is that Girardi made it clear when Ichiro was acquired that the team had plans for him to remain slotted in the bottom of the everyday lineup.
"Our lineup has been pretty set. That's where we decided to put him," said Girardi, noting that Ichiro understood what his role was going to be and that he was OK with it.
Secondly, Girardi hasn't hit Ichiro leadoff because that's Jeter's spot, and he's obviously handled it quite well throughout the course of the season. He's hitting .323 with an .810 OPS on the season, and his numbers when batting leadoff are mirror images of those numbers. It's largely thanks to Jeter that Bombers leadoff hitters rank third in the American League in OPS.
But as I argued in a piece that I published on Wednesday, there's an opportunity right in front of Girardi's nose just waiting to be seized. There are damn good reasons for him to go for broke and make Ichiro and Jeter his permanent 1-2 tandem.
There are virtually no complaints to be made about Jeter's ability to get on base. He can still hit, obviously, and he's on track to post his highest on-base percentage since his excellent 2009 season.
The one thing Jeter can't do so well anymore is run. He's swinging the bat as well as ever, but he's no longer a threat to steal as many as 30 bases in a season, something he did as recently as 2009.
Ichiro has also lost a step or two over the last couple years, but it's clear enough that he's still a threat when he's on the basepaths. He's stolen 25 bases this season, including four on Wednesday night.
That's an impressive feat in and of itself. It's even more impressive when you consider the fact that all four steals came after the sixth inning in the nightcap of a doubleheader that saw Ichiro play a total of 18 innings.
Making things happen on the basepaths hasn't been the Yankees' forte this season, and there are more than a few logical explanations for that.
Jeter is older and slower. Brett Gardner has been injured virtually the entire season. Curtis Granderson has speed, but he hasn't been able to use it largely because his OBP has plummeted this season and he's spent much of the year hitting in front of the Yankees' big guns.
But let's face it: The Yankees have missed the stolen base this year. It was a big part of their offense in 2011, and it helped them average 5.35 runs per game. The Yankees rank 12th in the AL in steals this year, and they're only averaging 4.83 runs per game. Their offense is built on the long ball, and not a whole lot else.
Granted, Ichiro can steal bases just as well batting out of the No. 8 spot as he can batting out of the leadoff spot. The dilemma, however, is that his speed is too easily wasted as long as he's hitting at the bottom of the Yankees' order. Thursday's game is a perfect example, as Ichiro failed to touch home plate even after stealing those four bases.
Ichiro's speed would be put to better use at the top of the lineup, where he would be backed up by Jeter and the likes of Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez. They can move him along a lot better than the Jayson Nix's and the Chris Stewart's of the world.
But bear in mind that Ichiro's speed doesn't just make him a stolen-base threat. It's an asset that the Yankees can put to use in other ways, especially if they have Jeter hitting directly behind him.
In essence, an Ichiro-Jeter duo at the top of the order would be a classic top-of-the-order combination. Ichiro is a pesky, speedy hitter who can put a lot of pressure on both pitchers and defenses. All he has to do is make contact. Jeter is very similar in that regard. He's actually on pace to post the lowest strikeout rate of his career according to FanGraphs, and it's not exactly a well-guarded secret that he specializes in going the other way.
It wouldn't exactly be Yankees baseball, but you can easily imagine Ichiro swiping second base with Jeter at the plate and then coming around to score on a single. One can also easily imagine Ichiro taking off from first base with Jeter at the plate and Jeter then punching a base hit through the right side of the infield. If defenses adjust to that, Jeter has more than enough bat control to adjust and hit it where they ain't.
This is an offensive wrinkle that the Yankees haven't featured this season, in no small part because their usual No. 2 hitters haven't fit the mold typically associated with No. 2 hitters.
Granderson has spent more time than anybody in the No. 2 hole this season, and he's largely responsible for the fact that the No. 2 hole has produced more strikeouts than any other spot in the Yankees' lineup this season. He's had a very Adam Dunn-like season.
The No. 2 hole has been Swisher's home recently, and at first he took to it very well. In September, however, he has just a .543 OPS and a roughly 24 percent strikeout rate. He's quietly transformed into something of a Granderson clone.
If Girardi slots Ichiro and Jeter in front of Cano and A-Rod full-time, he can move Swisher down to the No. 5 hole, where he has a .979 OPS this season. Granderson, meanwhile, should probably stay in the No. 7 hole, where he has put together a 1.016 OPS in limited action.
The Yankees' lineup would therefore take on a different look. There'd be versatility at the top, a couple of solid RBI hounds in the middle, and power at the back end.
That's a lineup that could do some damage. More damage, I'll wager, than a lineup that features Ichiro in the No. 8 hole, Jeter in the leadoff spot, and everyone else scattered in different places on a day-to-day basis.
It may sound like I'm assuming too much. But hey, it's worth noting that the Yankees' collective OPS has fallen from a pre-break .796 to a post-break .761. Their OPS is .724 in September. All signs point towards a change needing to be made, and sooner rather than later.
Girardi has done a fine job of experimenting with different lineups, but most of the combinations he's tried have been glued to the team's refusal to be anything other than a power-oriented team. The problem is that the power of this Yankees team comes and goes, and things can get really ugly when it goes.
Committing to Ichiro and Jeter at the top of the lineup full-time is the best way for Girardi to force teams into worrying about more than just how to keep the Yankees in the yard.
So to speak, it's a way for him to open up his playbook.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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