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NY Yankees: Predicting Ideal Starting Lineups Halfway Through Spring Training

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NY Yankees: Predicting Ideal Starting Lineups Halfway Through Spring Training
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After two-and-a-half weeks in Tampa, Fla., the New York Yankees have just about reached the midway point of 2014 spring training.

Thirteen games have already produced a number of good signs for the team's positional players, and considering health is one of those cliche "major question marks" this year, it's a boon that recoveries are smoothly underway with no setbacks thus far.

And as someone like Yangervis Solarte has shown us (9 G, 10-for-17, 2 HR, 6 RBI), the next 18 games will provide plenty of time for new trends to emerge and for current ones to either continue or prove nothing more than March aberrations.

For the skipper, Joe Girardi, we're familiar with the common questions marks for non-pitchers: Will they break camp with a two-man depth chart of backup infielders who form a carousel behind the four infield spots?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Solarte, after hitting a home run against Pittsburgh; Feb. 26

After Brendan Ryan, will the other just fill a third base platoon, leaving the Yanks to get creative if Mark Teixeira or Brian Roberts needs a day off? Or might they sign a more definitive backup first baseman prior to Opening Day?

But there are also—quite plain and simply—questions.

Girardi essentially has four leadoff hitters to choose from in Jacoby Ellsbury, Derek Jeter, Brett Gardner and Roberts. He can realistically pencil in either of Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann or Teixeira to the Nos. 3-5 spots in the order.

Then he's got two valid designated hitters consisting of Alfonso Soriano, who had something of an offensive renaissance in the second half of 2013, and Ichiro Suzuki, who remains an asset on the basepaths even as his career is in sharp decline; they can share DH from opposite sides of the plate, and either could still play a reasonable corner outfield.

Scott Iskowitz/Getty Images

After that, it's a matter of filling the bottom third with two of those four leadoff candidates and the third baseman, and then deciding how it shakes out 7-9.

With a lineup comprised of so many switch-hitters, the Yankees could have a number of combinations to shuffle players up and down based on right- or left-handed pitching.

With that, I've played manager and made a preliminary set of predictions for the starting lineups—one versus a right-handed starter and the other versus a lefty. Going a step beyond simply predicting the most likely scenarios, though, these cards represent the most "ideal" starting lineups. 

I've taken into account career splits and averages, as well as some spring stats where they're relevant. But more importantly, I've chosen to focus on a few statistics and metrics in particular in order to build two "optimal"—yet realistic—starting lineups that make the most of the pieces Girardi can work with in 2014.

Before the lineups, here's a little context for the ultimate choices.

 

Valuing Runs

If these lineup predictions are a sort of "scientific method" for the 2014 Yankees, consider the question we're asking to be not just, "What are the best lineups" or even, "What are the most productive lineups"; instead, "What lineups will score the most runs?"

Three of the statistics I've chosen to focus on are batting average, on-base percentage and weighted runs created plus (wRC+).

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Batting average is easiest to understand, and you'd want your best hitters (for average) most saturated in the top half of your lineup. With the other common knowledge that you win ballgames by scoring more runs—and you're more likely to score runs with runners occupying bases—on-base percentage is of significance for making additional batting-order decisions.

And wRC+ is a great way to view a player's offensive value based upon runs. As opposed to wRC, wRC+ ("plus") takes into account ballpark, league and year factors—it's "weighted"—making it more applicable for comparing players across different situations.

And with the "plus," it denotes the percentage of runs a player creates relative to league average, which is 100, so that a 120 wRC+ means a player created 20 percent more runs than league average. wRC also takes wOBA (weighted on-base average) into account, which itself is the best all-encompassing, weighted stat for reaching base.

 

Blueprint of Runs for Successful Teams 

In 2013, three of baseball's final four teams—the Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals—were in the top four in MLB for average, OBP and runs, and the Birds were seventh in wRC+.

Among all 30 teams, take a look at how the Yankees stacked up against those rankings:

2013 Season Rankings
Team BA Rank OBP Rank Runs Rank wRC+ Rank
Boston Red Sox .277 2nd .349 1st 853 1st 115 1st
Detroit Tigers .283 1st .346 2nd 796 2nd 113 2nd
St. Louis Cardinals .269 4th .332 3rd 783 3rd 106 7th
New York Yankees .242 24th .307 23rd 650 16th 85 28th

FanGraphs.com

And here's a look at the final four teams in 2009, the most recent time the Yankees were World Series champions:

2009 Season Rankings
Team BA Rank OBP Rank Runs Rank wRC+ Rank
New York Yankees .283 2nd .362 1st 915 1st 117 1st
Los Angeles Angels .285 1st .350 3rd 883 2nd 108 3rd
Los Angeles Dodgers .270 4th .346 4th 780 11th 102 8th
Philadelphia Phillies .258 23rd .334 14th 820 4th 103 6th

FanGraphs.com

No surprise the Yankees led the league in each of those categories in 2009, and you might feel wRC+ doesn't strengthen the picture in this case—especially since they hit 244 homers.

But it should catch your eye—and exemplify the value of creating runs—that the Phillies, who were National League champions, were eighth worst for batting average and only 14th best in OBP, yet they scored the fourth-most runs and had the sixth-best wRC+ in MLB.

 

Considering Home Runs via HR/FB

Finally, a quick discussion on home-run-per-fly-ball rate (HR/FB), which factored into my decisions below, and is certainly a useful stat for slotting whom we consider "power hitters" up or down in a batting order.

But it's also interesting because of some recent dichotomies in narrative—namely the one that has some projecting Ellsbury to hit 30 home runs versus those just as certain he'll total just 10.

The focus here isn't to "predict" how many home runs each player will hit in each lineup; instead it's to understand each player's career splits to get a better sense of the likelihood in 2014 and using that information in making batting-order decisions on a more "micro" level. 

First, here's FanGraphs' contextualizing chart for HR/FB, who describe the utility of the stat: "While a player’s raw total of home runs will tell you something, their HR/FB ratio can be useful in providing context about how sustainable their power is."

HR/FB Context
Excellent 20.0%
Great 15.0%
Above Average 12.5%
Average 9.5%
Below Average 7.5%
Poor 5.0%
Awful 1.0%

FanGraphs.com

In other words, that idea of "sustainability" plays a profound role when a guy like Ellsbury hits 30 home runs in one season but hasn't reached 10 a single other time in his career.

This is interesting since many have argued that he should hit 30 homers because he once reached that total and that, barring injury, he'll have the benefit of a right-field wall sitting just 314 feet from home plate. 

But here's what you might consider: In 2011, when he hit 30, he had a HR/FB rate of 16.7 percent, which was third among MLB center fielders. But his career average is just 8.4 percent, which is 37th among MLB center fielders since his rookie year in 2007.

So he could reach 30 in 2014, but you'd be better banking on just getting healthy production from him at the top of the order.

 

The Lineup Against a Right-Handed Pitcher

The way some sciences might preclude "in a vacuum" for making analysis that avoids other variables, these lineups are based on the Yankees' ideal "vacuum" scenario of having (close to) optimal health by Opening Day.

Here's the starting lineup against a right-handed starter, with career-average splits against righties included:

Lineup vs. RHP
No. Player Pos. Bats BA OBP SLG HR K% BB% HR/FB wRC+
1 Jacoby Ellsbury CF L .302 .353 .460 54 12.3 7.0 9.6% 115
2 Derek Jeter SS R .296 .362 .407 98 14.7 8.0 11.1% 108
3 Carlos Beltran RF S .281 .366 .498 214 15.9 11.9 16.0% 127
4 Mark Teixeira 1B S .268 .359 .518 244 17.8 11.3 17.9% 126
5 Brian McCann C L .285 .363 .495 132 13.3 10.6 13.1% 125
6 Alfonso Soriano DH R .270 .315 .505 287 21.3 5.1 15.5% 110
7 Kelly Johnson 3B L .244 .335 .424 45 22.3 11.6 12.3% 103
8 Brian Roberts 2B S .288 .357 .433 71 13.2 9.8 6.3% 109
9 Brett Gardner CF L .273 .354 .386 19 16.9 9.9 5.7% 103

FanGraphs.com

Some have called for Gardner, a left-handed batter, to hit second against a righty because of the matchup. I've gone with Jeter for two reasons: First, I'm taking into account the politics of Girardi's decision-making process—that he'll instead pencil in the Yankee captain who's beginning the final year of his career.

The second reason is that Jeter has better numbers than Gardner against righties in all of these categories—except for walk rate, where neither of them brings enough positive upside anyway, with Jeter at about "average" and Gardner somewhere between average and "above average."

Based on weighted runs created, this lineup's Nos. 3-6 spots illustrate a perfect progression from Beltran and on down: If the No. 3 hitter is the most valuable all-around hitter, Beltran has the best wRC+ and OBP against righties of the four. Teixeira bats cleanup with the best HR/FB rate and best slugging percentage against righties

Then I'd stagger McCann ahead of Soriano; but not because of the politics of his securing the No. 5 role. My decision, as you'll see with the different-looking lineup against lefties, has to do more with creating runs.

The new Yankee catcher has a career 125 wRC+ against righties, while Soriano has a 110. McCann, against righties, also has a staggeringly better walk rate, much better OBP and slightly better batting average.

Scott Iskowitz/Getty Images
McCann in a 2014 spring training at-bat; March 1

As for the decision to include Soriano against a righty: I'm taking his power numbers over the idea that Ichiro is DH because of the matchup, and you could bring in Ichiro as a late-game substitution (and move Beltran to DH) or start him when Soriano needs a rest. 

Where should Gardner bat?

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The bottom third of the order is predicated on the decision to bat Gardner ninth, as a secondary leadoff hitter. It's a role Girardi likes for the speedy left fielder (160 games started as No. 9, 237 games as No. 1 for career), and I believe that for Opening Day it's the most pragmatic decision after Ellsbury and Jeter occupy the first two spots. 

Finally, the decision to slot Johnson ahead of Roberts is the only choice realistically based—albeit minimally—on spring stats.

For his career, Johnson basically doubles the HR/FB rate of Roberts and betters his walk rate. And through a few weeks of spring training, Roberts is 2-for-14 with one RBI, while Johnson is 5-for-14 with two doubles, a homer and five RBI.

 

The Lineup Against a Left-Handed Pitcher

The first lineup probably looks standard to most and could have been chosen without parcelling out a single number. 

My card against lefties, however, takes the same ideas into account for an "optimal" lineup, but it may have some deviations from the most likely one.

You'll notice I've flipped Jeter and Ellsbury, switched Soriano and McCann and slid Roberts up to No. 7 while substituting Eduardo Nunez for Johnson:

Lineup vs. LHP
No. Player Pos. Bats BA OBP SLG HR K% BB% HR/FB wRC+
1 Derek Jeter SS R .341 .412 .507 59 12.1 9.6 16.7% 147
2 Jacoby Ellsbury CF L .286 .343 .390 11 13.9 6.6 5.3% 96
3 Carlos Beltran RF S .286 .356 .530 91 14.9 9.8 14.3% 131
4 Mark Teixeira 1B S .300 .389 .541 97 16.1 11.7 18.4% 142
5 Alfonso Soriano DH R .282 .351 .530 98 20.9 9.2 15.1% 126
6 Brian McCann C L .259 .319 .424 44 17.2 6.8 11.7% 99
7 Brian Roberts 2B S .262 .342 .377 19 13.9 10.8 4.1% 92
8 Eduardo Nunez 3B R .272 .313 .414 6 11.1 5.7 5.9% 95
9 Brett Gardner LF L .253 .346 .368 4 20.6 11.4 3.1% 96

FanGraphs.com

According to MLB.com's Brian Hoch, it seemed pretty clear a few weeks back that Ellsbury would own the leadoff role: 

But my projection is to place the better career hitter against lefties in the leadoff spot. For his MLB career, the Yankees captain has created a whopping total of runs compared to Ellsbury, and the former Boston center fielder is actually below league average.

Add that to the fact that Jeter hits for exceptionally better average, gets on base more and walks more against lefties.

Should Jeter bat leadoff against lefties?

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That said, the best counterargument could be the idea of allowing Ellsbury to settle into a singular role for the 2014 season—and one where he has primarily, and exceptionally, played for his career—and I would find trouble disagreeing with that preference.

That same argument could be made to keep McCann in the No. 5 hole for the entire season. But again, his 99 wRC+ against lefties is far below Soriano's 126. Soriano has a better OBP, walks more and slugs over 100 points better against lefties.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

As for Nunez's name appearing in the lineup, remember that Brian Cashman said the following of the situation at third base about a month ago, per The Star-Ledger's Jorge Castillo: "At third base, right now, we have Kelly Johnson along with a cast of characters that are going to compete for that spot on the right side. We look for it to be a platoon situation, a lefty-righty situation."

The decision to include him, then, is based on Girardi sticking with that platoon and upon Nunez winning the spring competition for that last backup infield spot. Johnson actually hits better for his career against lefties than Nunez, but it seems Girardi isn't yet set on the idea of Johnson as an everyday third baseman.

As for Nunez's competition, I love Solarte's hot start, but I'm not buying that he begins the year on the 25-man roster, having never appeared in the big leagues.

Dean Anna's had a great beginning to camp as well (5-for-14, 3 R, 5 BB), but similarly, it's hard to imagine him in the Bronx before a more necessary situation in which injury inevitably befalls the Yankees infield. 

After them, it's Scott Sizemore, who's looking to make a comeback from multiple ACL tears. He's just 2-for-5 with a double this spring, so the sample size from 2014 doesn't tell us much. But I'm favoring and predicting Nunez at the midway point of the spring.

So far, he's 4-for-17 with a double, a booming homer and two RBI. And while defense is an issue with Nunez, he was much better at third (2 E, 2 DRS, 1.0 UZR/150) last year than compared to short (12 E, -28 DRS, -40.7 UZR/150).

He's also coming off an excellent second half of 2013, where he hit .284/.321/.426 with 20 RBI and 101 wRC+. In September and October, moreover, he hit .295/.321/.487 with two homers, seven doubles, a triple and 119 wRC+. And in 14 games at third last year, he hit .296/.321/.500 with five doubles, two homers, six RBI and 123 wRC+.

Finally, I'm slotting Roberts ahead of Nunez because of his higher OBP and nearly double the walk rate against lefties.

The decision also adds balance following the Nos. 3-6 hitters with the potential for Roberts, Nunez and Gardner to go lefty-righty-lefty to round out the order. 

 

All statistics and metrics courtesy of FanGraphs, and spring training statistics courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.

Peter F. Richman is a Featured Columnist for the New York Yankees and a lifelong fan. You can join him on Twitter:

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