The Yankees have an interesting leadoff hitter dilemma brewing entering 2024

MLB: New York Yankees at Kansas City Royals
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

When Yankees‘ manager Aaron Boone writes down the lineup card for Opening Day, who he hits at the leadoff spot will be the subject of conversation for weeks. In fact, I wouldn’t be all that surprised if the conversations ran through the entire season, especially given the questions regarding their veterans and rookies. I took a crack at writing down my lineup order, and while I led off Juan Soto, he’ll find himself hitting second or third most likely. We’ll still discuss his viability as a leadoff hitter, but they do have a myriad of options who could emerge as permanent tablesetters.

From young players looking to break out next season to veterans looking to re-establish their value, the Yankees are going to have some interesting choices to make at the top of their lineup.

A Potential Platoon at the Top of the Lineup

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees
Aug 18, 2023; Bronx, New York, USA; Boston Red Sox right fielder Alex Verdugo (99) hits a double in the first inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Two of the names that have emerged as the most popular options to lead off for the Yankees are Alex Verdugo and DJ LeMahieu, who share a lot of similarities as contact-first hitters. Aaron Boone hinted at flipping Judge and Soto in the order based on who was leading off, and it could have been a hint at a potential platoon between DJ LeMahieu and Alex Verdugo at the top of the Yankees’ batting order.

We don’t need to do much digging to see that Alex Verdugo leading off against righties and DJ LeMahieu leading off against lefties would make the most sense, but are there situations where the Yankees should deviate? Well, LeMahieu has had better numbers against right-handed pitching with the Yankees, and that’s not even a 2019-2020 thing, as he posted a 105 wRC+ in 2021 and 111 wRC+ in 2022 against right-handed pitching.

It’s high-velocity pitching that befuddles LeMahieu, with a .266 wOBA against fastballs at or above 95 MPH, and Verdugo’s excellent against high-velocity could determine the platoon here as well. Perhaps the Yankees go based on who is hitting better as the season goes on, and if we were to pick the leadoff hitter based on previous-year performance, the slightly better OBP and wRC+ leans in the direction of DJ LeMahieu.

Projections believe that Alex Verdugo will hover around a 106 wRC+, whereas median projections are a little bit lower on DJ LeMahieu, so who should the Yankees choose? Based on how Aaron Boone likes to split up the left-handed and right-handed batters in the lineup, I think it would make sense to go with LeMahieu at the top of the lineup. Juan Soto would hit second, and Aaron Judge would hit third, which is more important than the difference between LeMahieu and Verdugo.

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MLB: New York Yankees at Kansas City Royals
Oct 1, 2023; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; New York Yankees first baseman DJ LeMahieu (26) is congratulated by a teammate after scoring during the sixth inning against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

That being said, if the Yankees rely on a platoon at the top of their lineup, it would likely result in immediate advantages early in games, and since both hitters are so patient, they could take advantage of a wild pitcher. Historically speaking, starters have their highest walk rates in the first inning of a game, but pressure to throw strikes would exist with Soto or Judge behind them. The easiest pitch to command is usually a fastball, and maybe that creates a reason to go to Verdugo instead.

He fares much better against fastballs than LeMahieu does and perhaps that’s a reason to go to Verdugo instead at the top of the order, even if it means Judge hits in front of Soto. Hitters who are first in the batting order see four-seamers and sinkers roughly 3% more than the average, and considering the impact of hitting in front of Soto and Judge, that number could be even higher. One could argue teams would just pitch to a hitter’s weaknesses, but a pitcher doesn’t always have that command to go to non-fastballs as frequently.

It’s an argument that could go back and forth between the two, but who is to say they’re the only two batters we could see at the top of the lineup next season?

Trying Out Gleyber At the Top of the Lineup

mlb: toronto blue jays at new york yankees, gleyber torres
Sep 19, 2023; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees second baseman Gleyber Torres (25) follows through on an RBI double against the Toronto Blue Jays during the first inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Gleyber Torres had an excellent 2023 season due to a well-balanced approach that allowed him to run the lowest strikeout rate on the team (14.6%) and smash 25 home runs. His swing decisions improved, and he was more patient at the plate while still remaining aggressive enough to take advantage of mistakes over the heart of the plate. These developed tools allowed him to balance his contact and power, and this could be the perfect hitter to set the table for the Yankees.

He swings at pitches over the heart of the plate as often as the average hitter while swinging at pitches out of the zone less and whiffing less. This resulted in the highest walk rate of Gleyber Torres’ career over a full season (10.0%), and his .347 OBP was the best mark for any Yankee in 2023. If the team wants to lean into the on-base aspect of this argument, then Gleyber Torres should run away with the job, but here are some issues with leading him off.

Across 146 plate appearances last season, Torres had a 96 wRC+ and 4.8% walk rate as the leadoff hitter, and he holds a career 82 wRC+ across 43 games at the top of the lineup. He could be more comfortable in the middle of the lineup, where he can operate without having to worry about seeing a lot of pitches or setting the table. He’s also the kind of hitter who profiles well with runners on base due to his high contact rates and great power, as it means you’ll likely get a ball in play in those situations.

It’s still something the Yankees should look into; there’s an argument that you could make that Torres will find comfort at the leadoff spot with familiarity in the role. With that being said, I still believe he’s more suited to hit fourth or fifth in the lineup, depending on how the Yankees choose to split up the lefties and righties. Another experimental route for the Yankees could be trying some of their young bats at the top of the lineup.

Can the Yankees Rely on Youth At the Leadoff Spot?

mlb: boston red sox at new york yankees, anthony volpe
Aug 20, 2023; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees shortstop Anthony Volpe (11) hits a game tying three-run home run in the seventh inning against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Volpe struggled mightily last season at the dish, and there are clear reasons why he won’t be considered for a leadoff spot in the lineup on Opening Day. The Yankees need Volpe to cut down on his 27.8% strikeout rate from 2023, but that could boil down to pitch recognition and the ability to make good swing decisions. He ranked in the 44th Percentile in Chase Rate (28.9%) while not swinging a lot in-zone, and he let some very hittable pitches by that could have caused issues with contact rates.

When thrown four-seamers or sinkers in the heart of the zone, Volpe swung 71.2% of the time while the league-average hitter swung 72.5% of the time at those pitches, which isn’t a massive difference, but it’s not what you expect from an ‘aggressive’ hitter. Whether Volpe has to jump on hittable pitches or be selective, it can’t be a process at the plate where he’s stuck in between hitting for power or trying to get on base.

The Yankees are likely going to utilize Anthony Volpe as a bottom-of-the-order bat, but the ability to generate damage contact coupled with a new hitting coach could result in a breakout season. If he were to put up a wRC+ around 110 next season and provide an OBP hovering in the .330-.340 range, the Yankees would have their top-of-the-lineup hitter for the next decade.

Blazing speed makes Volpe an enticing player for a leadoff role, and the Yankees need to let him run wild on the bases, given how efficient he can be. He’s universally pegged for about a 2-3 WAR projection in 2024, but a good year at the plate would almost ensure a 3-4 WAR value. The Yankees want speed at the top of their lineup, something that LeMahieu, Verdugo, and Torres cannot provide, especially given how prone Juan Soto is to double plays, given his ground and lack of mobility.

The pressure that Anthony Volpe would place on a pitcher by creating a stolen base threat while Juan Soto or Aaron Judge hit could cause some mistakes over the heart of the plate. Spencer Torkelson, who had a 75 wRC+ in his rookie season, found a way to rebound for a solid-but-not-great 107 wRC+, an increase of 32 points that came partially because of James Rowson, who was an assistant hitting coach with the Tigers last season.

“They came out to hit with me a couple of times, and they’re awesome…They gave me some tips and tricks — try this, try that. And some felt good, some didn’t, and then go from there.”

– Spencer Torkleson prior to 2023

Perhaps having James Rowson helps Anthony Volpe with a second-year leap, and if he were to have the same increase in wRC+, it would result in a 116 wRC+. This isn’t to say that because Spencer Torkelson succeeded with James Rowson, Anthony Volpe will, but rather that he’s likely better-suited to connect with players than the instability the Yankees had at the hitting coach position last season. Another young hitter who could emerge next season at the leadoff spot? Well, it could be a few months until we see him.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at New York Yankees
Sep 9, 2023; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees center fielder Jasson Dominguez (89) at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Jasson Dominguez is one of the most talented hitters in Minor League Baseball, to put it bluntly, as the swing decisions and raw power are remarkably enticing. The 20-year-old outfielder didn’t get to play his first season of professional baseball because Minor League Baseball was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and he struggled in 2021 as he spent time in both the Florida Complex League and Single-A. He’d spend 2022 rising up the system, posting a 135 wRC+, and climbing all the way to Double-A with the Somerset Patriots.

He had just 176 games of professional experience heading into 2023, and after a slow start in Double-A, the Martian would go on a tear and make swift work of all pitching he faced, regardless of the level of competition. His swing decisions are excellent, rarely chasing out of the zone while remaining aggressive in the strike zone, and that makes it remarkably difficult for pitchers to handle the switch-hitting phenom.

After demolishing Triple-A pitching, he posted a 162 wRC+ and smashed four home runs in just eight games with the Yankees at the Major League level. He could certainly be a top-of-the-lineup threat as a switch-hitter and speedy runner, as his aggression on the bases and improved feel for contact make his profile extremely well-rounded. Jasson Dominguez is talent personified, and the Yankees would have one of the most dynamic young players in baseball when he returns from his elbow surgery.

If you ask me, Jason Dominguez will lead off for the Yankees by season’s end, the talent is just so good, and I think he profiles very well for that part of the lineup. It remains to be seen who will emerge as their leadoff hitter for the 2024 season, but they certainly have a lot of options to look over before and during the season.