Seven (straw) arguments for Ellsbury leading off

I am saving you folks a bunch of time making comments by admitting up front that I am creating a flawed statistical argument to support a personal bias and belief. I want Jacoby Ellsbury to lead off for the Yankees. That is what he was signed to do and that is not what he is doing. And since I am not a statistical genius like many of my colleagues here, I can only create weak statistical arguments to support my biased belief. I bet you have never seen an opening paragraph like this one before.

At least I am being honest here. Like many Yankee observers in 2014, I am extremely surprised by the offensive efforts of this team. Offense was not supposed to be a problem this year. And yet it is. The team is 22nd out of 30 MLB teams in runs scored. The team has a 93 OPS+. The offense more resembles last year’s ragtag outfit than a team that was “fixed” in the off season by some key upgrades.

And everyone has different opinions on what exactly is the problem. Frankly, there are many as has been written oft times by our fabulous team of writers. Carlos Beltran hasn’t exactly worked out. Brian McCann has shown recent glimpses of life in what has been a disappointing first campaign with the team. Some blame Derek Jeter batting second. And don’t get started on that one. Jeter is going to bat second all season. Get over it.

Some point to Brian Roberts playing second base. Alfonso Soriano was awful and let go. Third base showed some early results but has faded into Jayson Nix territory.There are lots of things we can point to. But I haven’t seen many point to Jacoby Ellsbury batting third instead of first.

Somewhere about the fifth game of the season, Joe Girardi started experimenting with batting Brett Gardner in the lead off position in the batting order. Most people like him there. Many of our staff voted Gardner as the Yankees’ best offensive player the first half of this season. I picked Mark Teixeira and wOBA seems to back me up. But yes, Brett Gardner is second of the regulars behind Teixeira, so point taken. Girardi’s experiment has become permanent.Call me the exception to the rule on liking Gardner in the lead off spot.

Okay, so here are my statistical (cherry picked) statistics to support my bias:

  1. Gardner strikes out more than Ellsbury. Gardner, in the lead off spot has struck out 21.6% of the time. In a smaller sample size (24 games), Ellsbury struck out 19.1% of the time as a lead off batter. Gardner has struck out 21 more times than Ellsbury this season in a similar amount of plate appearances.
  2. Gardner is too tentative in stealing bases. Ellsbury gets on base and off he goes. Gardner waffles and stalls and then maybe gets around to attempting to steal. Of nine of Derek Jeter’s grounded into double plays (GIDP), only one of them occurred when Ellsbury was the lead off batter. How’s that for a weak stat?
  3. Ellsbury’s on-base percentage as a lead off batter was .354. Brett Gardner’s as a lead off batter has been .341. For their respective careers, Ellsbury is a lifetime .346 OBP guy as a lead off batter, Gardner, .343.
  4. Jacoby Ellsbury is not thriving in the third spot. Is the batting order change that much of a problem for him? Maybe not. But it sure seems to be a problem good enough for my cherry picking. Ellsbury’s OPS as a lead off batter was .834. In the third spot, his OPS has been .714.
  5. In 24 games with Jacoby Ellsbury leading off, the Yankees have averaged 4.5 runs per game. With games not led off by Ellsbury, the Yankees have averaged 3.8 runs per game.
  6. The Yankees have scored eight or more runs only seven times all season. Five of those came in games when Jacoby Ellsbury led off.
  7. The Yankees are 13-11 in games where Ellsbury was the lead off batter and 34-36 when he was not.

Okay, there are obvious flaws in all those statistical arguments. Many factors can come into play (including small sample sizes) for each of those stats. Here is a stat I did not add to my cherry picked stats. The very first plate appearance of the game? Gardner has been sensational. Ellsbury, not so much.

The Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury to lead off games. But I have already mentioned that Brett Gardner has the second best wOBA of the Yankee regulars. So it would not do to drop him to the bottom of the order again. That would be a waste of good wOBA, so to speak. So what to do then? Flip them. Bat Ellsbury first and bat Gardner third.

The strategy is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Brett Gardner also has the second highest slugging percentage of Yankee regulars. His nine homers are third on the team. His slugging percentage is 24 points higher than Ellsbury’s. So why is Ellsbury third instead of Gardner?

Jacoby Ellsbury has been a bit of a disappointment for the Yankees. His best positive so far is that it made the Red Sox’ center field problem a mess. But he is not the player the Yankees hoped he would be. Sometimes, you have to change things up. Ellsbury is not thriving batting third. Try something else. Try putting him where you hired him to be. But more than anything else…right or wrong…it’s what I want.

William Tasker grew up in Bergenfield, New Jersey but has lived in New England since 1975 and in the far reaches of northern Maine since 1990. Tasker is the author of nine (non-baseball related) books and, besides writing here for three years, has written for his own site at www.passion4baseball.blogspot.com since 2003.