Why Aaron Judge hitting leadoff vs. lefties is something Yankees should consider

March 08, 2018
  • By Mike Mazzeo
  • New York Daily News
John Raoux/AP
New York Yankees' Aaron Judge bats against the Detroit Tigers in the third inning of a spring baseball exhibition game, Tuesday,March 6, 2018, in Lakeland, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

 Aaron Judge hitting leadoff against lefties may sound like a crazy idea. But it’s something Aaron Boone has contemplated, and I don’t think it would be a bad idea for the Bronx Bombers in 2018.

 “I’d say it’s possible,” Boone replied Tuesday when asked about No. 99 hitting No. 1 in the batting order when a southpaw is on the mound. “I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s likely, but it’s something that I would view as possible, and it’s something I’ve at least considered and we’ve talked about.” 

 To be clear, Boone has had Judge hitting second in every spring game the reigning AL Rookie of the Year has played so far, and the manager really likes him in that spot, with good reason, as he hit .327/.465/.630 in 98 at-bats there last season. 

 But while Judge may not profile as a prototypical leadoff man due to his stature (6-foot-7) and high strikeout total (208), he does have a leadoff approach. Last season, Judge led the AL in both walks (127) and pitches seen per plate appearance (4.41). His on-base percentage was a staggering .422 in his rookie campaign — including .439 in 113 at-bats against lefties. And 52-home run power plays well anywhere — especially early on, when a starting pitcher is just getting settled in. 

 Regular leadoff man Brett Gardner had excellent splits against righties (.283/.367/.473) in 2017 but poor splits against lefties (.209/.299/291), making the 34-year-old veteran a candidate to sometimes sit and rest when a southpaw is on the mound, which would open up the leadoff spot. 

 Didi Gregorius hit leadoff on Tuesday against Tigers southpaw Francisco Liriano, but he isn’t a legit candidate to hit there during the regular season, Boone said. Gregorius’ 2017 righty-lefty splits are similar to Gardner’s — .295/.325/.523 vs. .264/.299/.354 — and he has an aggressive approach that doesn’t translate to many walks or a high OBP. 

 Switch-hitter Aaron Hicks, Boone said, is probably the best candidate for the job, as he hit .312/.389/.514 against lefties last season over 109 at-bats. Hicks has also hit leadoff before — especially coming up in the minors — and does provide a speed element (10 steals). “I already have an idea of what I’m supposed to do in that spot,” Hicks said. 

 But even Hicks admitted, “I don’t think there’s a true leadoff hitter anymore,” pointing to Houston’s George Springer as a perfect example. Springer was a monster in the No. 1 hole for Houston in 2017, blasting 34 homers to go along with 112 runs scored and a .367 OBP. 

 Ultimately, the idea of Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Greg Bird (career .257/.346/.500 vs. lefties) and Gary Sanchez forming the top-4 is highly intriguing if nothing else, the chance to drop a crooked number right off the bat. It would definitely be new-school, that’s for sure. And the first inning is really the only time a manager can truly set his lineup the way he wants it anyway. 

 Boone did say before the game in a “perfect world” he’d prefer to break up Judge and Stanton with a lefty like Bird or Gregorius, perhaps depending on who is hot at the time. 

 For his part, Judge said the Yankees haven’t approached him about hitting leadoff — which he may have done in high school or Little League, “but it’s been a while.” Still, Judge would be perfectly fine with it if asked. 

 And regardless of where he hits, his approach won’t change. “It doesn’t matter if I’m hitting first or last,” Judge said. 

 The Yankees have a ton of versatile talent at the top of their lineup, which gives Boone a ton of things to consider — including Judge hitting leadoff against lefties, which wouldn’t be a bad idea. 

 “You could shuffle this lineup up, put us anywhere, and it’s going to be a good lineup,” Judge said. “So for me, I don’t really care who’s in front of me or behind me. Last year, I was lucky enough to have Gardy hitting in front of me, and he was on base a lot, which was always nice. But anybody is going to be a good person to have.”