Commentary

Brett Gardner, not Jeter, should lead off

Outfielder is Yankees' best option at top spot, but who will tell the captain?

Updated: August 19, 2010, 10:03 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees are a better team with Brett Gardner leading off.

Everything about him says leadoff hitter: good speed, high on-base percentage, ability to steal bases, knack for creating havoc -- and runs -- on the basepaths.

And even if it's just a small sample, the record says definitively that when Gardner is at the top of their lineup, the Yankees are more likely to win. Eight times this season Joe Girardi has written Gardner's name at the top of his lineup card.

Seven of those times the Yankees won. And in those games, Gardner is hitting .387 (12-for-31) with eight runs scored and three walks. (For a more detailed numerical analysis of Gardner's value as a leadoff hitter, see Mark Simon's blog entry.)

The problem, of course, is the Yankees already have a leadoff hitter. And not just any leadoff hitter, but one of the 10 greatest Yankees in history -- a player to whom they owe much of their great success over the past 15 years.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Andrew Burton/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter spent most of his career batting in the No. 2 spot. Is it time for a switch back?

Now, who would like to break the news to Derek Jeter that the Yankees have someone who can do his job better than he does?

If only numbers alone could tell a story, or render a decision, or ease the transition of an aging player whose skills no longer suit him for the role he has become accustomed to.

Of course they don't. There is a human element here; a matter of convincing a justifiably proud player that it would be better for all concerned if he accepted a change of role.

The Yankees beat the Detroit Tigers 9-5 on Wednesday night at the stadium, in a game that featured one sexy red herring of an issue -- the Beanball War -- and two legitimate areas of concern that need to be addressed.

One is the bullpen, which once again performed admirably, even spectacularly under some trying conditions. In both the seventh and eight innings, the Tigers loaded the bases with one out. Through the efforts of Kerry Wood and David Robertson, they held the Tigers to just one run. Even if Joe Girardi will never acknowledge it, clearly both K-Wood and D-Rob have leapfrogged Joba Chamberlain as his go-to guys late in a game. (Chamberlain pitched a good sixth in relief of Dustin Moseley, however.)

The other issue, of course, is what to do with the top of the lineup once Alex Rodriguez and Lance Berkman return from injuries and Girardi no longer has a convenient justification for moving Jeter out of the spot he has virtually owned for the past two seasons.

And, even if you convince Jeter that Gardner is better suited for the Yankees' leadoff spot, where do you move him in the batting order?

It has been well documented, here and elsewhere, that Jeter hits the ball on the ground more than he hits it in the air. More often, in fact, than any other player in baseball this season. As we have seen all year, and especially Monday night, he has developed a disturbing penchant for hitting into the double play.

So you don't really want to bat him second -- where, ironically, he has hit more often than anywhere else in his career -- either, because what's the point of the speedy Gardner leading off if the guy behind him is statistically likely to hit the ball on the ground?

No. At this stage of his career, the place for Jeter is lower down in the lineup. But how low can you go without risking insulting Jeter, or worse, embarrassing him?

In some ways the ideal spot for him would be ninth -- where once the lineup flips over he would essentially become a second leadoff hitter, and Gardner would be hitting behind him. But you can't ask Derek Jeter to hit in a spot now reserved for the likes of Ramiro Pena.

Could you hit him seventh, between Berkman and Jorge Posada? Maybe so. Or eight, between Posada and, say, Curtis Granderson? That would give Girardi the alternating lefty-right-lefty mix he likes in his lineup late in the games, which makes it so difficult for the opposing manager to play mix-and-match with his bullpen.

Anyway you handle it, it will be a delicate negotiation -- even if it's one that needs to be initiated.

Gardner was hit by Jeremy Bonderman's first pitch of the game Wednesday, in apparent retaliation for his hard slide into second baseman Carlos Guillen during Jeter's game-ending double play Monday. After Jeter struck out, Gardner scored on Mark Teixeira's 27th home run of the season.

Three innings later, Gardner created his unique brand of mayhem in a more conventional manner, stroking an RBI double to left and then racing home from second on a pair of throwing errors, on the same play, by Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera and second baseman Ramon Santiago.

Although home plate umpire Eric Cooper issued a warning to both benches after Bonderman plunked Gardner on the right calf, Gardner didn't seem to mind.

"If they want to hit me and put me on base, I'm happy with it as long as it don't hurt," he said. "I don't know if it was intentional or not. If it was, so be it. If it wasn't, so be it."

Gardner was just glad to have done what he does best -- score. He also likes leading off a game, although he chooses his words carefully, knowing full well the implications of them.

"Well, that's what I've always done, for the most part, coming up, you know?" he said of leading off. "I guess my game is suited to it. That, or down at the bottom of the lineup. But it doesn't matter to me. Just being in this lineup and playing here is fun enough. We got a lot of good hitters in this lineup. It doesn't matter where I'm hitting."

Oh, but it does. Right now, Gardner is hitting for a higher average than Jeter (.287 to .276). He has a higher on-base percentage (.383 to .340). He walks more often (53 to 44), strikes out less (72 to 78), steals many more bases (34 to 14), is almost impossible to double up (four as opposed to Jeter's 17). And in contrast to Jeter, who often swings out of his shoes at the first pitch he sees, Gardner works the count better than any Yankee in the lineup.

Face it, if we were discussing any other player than Derek Jeter, well, we wouldn't be having this discussion.

But since we are, aren't you glad that it's someone else's job to broach the subject with Jeter? Someone like Girardi, who is as protective of his players as any manager I've ever covered, but also not afraid to make the hard choices he believes will benefit his team.

This is going to be one of his hardest choices of the season. But one that, sooner or later, he's going to have to make.

The Yankees are a better team with Brett Gardner as their leadoff hitter.

It's about time someone on the Yankees broke the news to Derek Jeter.

Game notes:Tigers manager Jim Leyland was ejected after the eighth inning for arguing that Cooper should have ejected Chad Gaudin for plunking Cabrera, who had hit two home runs off Dustin Moseley, when he led off the eighth. Obviously, Cooper did not think Gaudin had acted intentionally because he ran the manager instead of the pitcher. And Girardi, predictably enough, jumped to the defense of Gaudin, who never got an out, allowing a single to Johnny Damon and walking Jhonny Peralta before giving way to David Robertson, who put out the fire. "I asked Chad point blank, 'Did you do that on purpose,' and he said no," Girardi said. "I know it looks bad, but I believe him in my heart. But it did get ugly out there." Leyland deflected all inquiries with a terse "Next question." ... Kerry Wood, who looks like a find, came into the seventh after Boone Logan allowed two hits and struck out Santiago and Ryan Raburn to strand the bases loaded and keep Cabrera from coming to bat. ... Mariano Rivera, who should have had the night off, was forced to work the ninth when the Tigers closed it to 9-5 and pitched a 1-2-3 ninth in a non-save situation. ... Robinson Cano hit his 23rd HR of the year following Teixeira's first-inning blast -- the fifth time this year the Yankees have gone back-to-back and the second time this week. Posada and Granderson did it Saturday in Kansas City. ... Granderson remains red hot, hitting his 13th homer in the fifth inning and second in two days. ... Alex Rodriguez took batting practice in the indoor cage and, according to Girardi, "felt great," but has yet to attempt running on his strained left calf. His status remains day to day. ... Berkman's sprained right ankle is still sore, and the DH doesn't expect to play until this weekend versus Seattle. ... With Tampa Bay beating Texas 8-6 and Boston beating the Angels 7-5, the AL East standings remained unchanged, the Yankees and Rays tied for first, the Red Sox 5½ back. ... Pitching matchup for Thursday's matinee: Phil Hughes (14-5, 3.94) vs. RHP Rick Porcello (5-10, 5.53). First pitch, 1:05 p.m. ET.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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