Early in the season, the Yankees had a bit of a pickle. After ousting Gleyber Torres from shortstop, re-signing Anthony Rizzo and trading in for Josh Donaldson and Isiah Kiner-Falefa, the Yankees had five infielders for four positions and 10 players for nine fielders. Add to that the fact that Donaldson and Giancarlo Stanton need regular days as designated batsmen to stay sane, and the lineup became the kind of problem you’d see in the qualitative thinking section of a standardized test.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Yankees played their 30th game of the season, which means we finally have a reasonably decent sample size to see how Aaron Boone and co. solved their late-night mystery. So far they’ve been able to keep everyone fairly consistent in the lineup.
Note: Screenshot taken from baseball reference on May 12; Marwin Gonzalez and Tim Locastro, the two true backups who haven’t been part of the regular rotation nearly as often, have started six games and three games, respectively.
Everyone but the catchers has started at least two-thirds of the team’s games, with the Yankees’ key hitters — Aaron Judge, Stanton, DJ LeMahieu and Rizzo — starting about 85-95 percent of the time. For something that probably needs at least a little bit of daily rebalancing (see, for example, Aaron Hicks’ time on the paternity list last month and Joey Gallo’s injury two weeks ago), it’s remarkably well balanced. How did you achieve that?
To see how the Yankees managed to solve their lineup puzzle, I looked around the Baseball Reference’s defensive lineups and batting order pages to see what patterns I could find. As it turns out, there are a few rules that governed the daily lineups, although an outsider like me can’t tell how conscious they are.
Play the Lefty/Righty matchups
The most basic lineup rule is arguably the most basic of all: respect the left/right pairings. Rizzo has only sat out twice all year – it’s not coincidental that left-handers Bruce Zimmerman and Daniel Lynch were opposing pitchers. All but three of Gallo’s days off have come with a left-hander up the hill – and on two of those days he was injured. Meanwhile, Judge, Stanton, and LeMahieu only prevailed against right-handed starters.
Well, that rule doesn’t apply to the bottom (Torres, IKF, the Catch Platoon) — IKF plays pretty much every day as the only true shortstop on the roster, while Torres sits more often to keep LeMahieu’s slugger in line. Likewise, it doesn’t affect the lineup’s token switch hitter (Hicks) for obvious reasons. However, when it comes to the top of the leaderboard, handedness plays a big part in planning days off.
Regular DH days for Donaldson and Stanton
It’s no secret that both Stanton and Donaldson have grappled with the injury virus in recent years. Stanton hasn’t played more than 140 games since 2018, while Donaldson has struggled with calf injuries on and off since 2017. Though the Yankees have switched designated hitter spots frequently this year, the pair have filled the role nearly three-quarters of the way through.
Both Stanton and Donaldson have played more on the field than DH’ed this year; Specifically, Stanton has started 14 in the outfield and 13 as a DH, while Donaldson has occupied the hot corner 16 times and been the DH nine times. However, they don’t spend too many consecutive days in the field. Each player has only started in the field once over three consecutive days (Donaldson April 16-19, Stanton May 8-10). In fact, Stanton has only played on three other occasions in a row, on April 14th and 15th, April 26th and 27th, and April 29th and April 30th. Also, during the May 8 doubleheader, each player only played on the field during one game, although Stanton was doing DH in the other.
Aside from those two, a fairly wide range of players have taken on designated hitter duties, with Judge getting half-days off three times, LeMahieu and Torres twice each, and Rizzo once.
Richter slowly get used to the middle
Since Aaron Judge first occupied midfield in early June, he has increasingly transitioned into an outfielder who plays mostly right field, rather than a right fielder who can play center in a pinch. In fact, the Yankees were best with Judge in the middle of the stretch, using what Peter called “the Death Star lineup.”
At the start of this season, the plan from the start was to give Judge regular mid-reps – in fact, they only waited until the second game of the season to do so. Not only was he the primary backup out there when Hicks took his seat, he also switched to center when Stanton played outfield. In fact, it’s become so regular that in its first month, Judge only started a handful more games on the right (15) than on the middle (10).
Although the Yankees aggressively centered Judge, they were still careful not to put him there too much. He has only played in midfield twice in a row, on April 26th and 27th and May 9th and 10th. Also, he had a day off before the first pair of games, after which he started in right field, served as DH and then had a day off – the second pair was flanked as intended in the intervening days of bats.
When you add it all up, the Yankees have found a way to maintain a productive lineup on the field every day without throwing any of their main hitters off rhythm. It remains to be seen what the adjustment will be if one of the starters inevitably takes a longer term injury, but this system also helps keep the likelihood of that from happening. Whichever way you look at it, the Yankees have a good problem on their hands.