COMMENTARY | They may go down as one of the oldest one-two righty-lefty lineup combinations in history, but Derek Jeter (38) and Ichiro Suzuki (39) could also be the spark that the New York Yankees are looking for in a season of, as the team's general manager recently predicted, fewer home runs.
The Yankees were second in the majors last season with 804 runs, more than half which came by way of the long ball. The club hit a team-record 245 home runs -- 31 more than any other ball club. However, with Alex Rodriguez not due back until after the All-Star break and the departures of Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez, and Eric Chavez, the team will have to rely on creating runs, something that starts with the top of the order. It's also where Joe Giradi has a lot of flexibility.
No one expects Jeter to repeat last season's performance when he led the American League in hits (216) and finished the season with a .316 batting average. But in 150 games, he excelled in the leadoff role and most Yankees fans would take anything close to an encore performance.
In agreeing to a trade to New York last season, Ichiro accepted a move down the batting order, but he quickly earned a place toward the top of the lineup behind Jeter. He recently said that he has "a new sense of determination" and can't wait to get back to New York. When he returns, he'll likely see some at-bats at the leadoff spot -- where more than 90 percent of his career plate appearances have been.
Another option in the leadoff spot is Brett Gardner, who was lost most of last season to an elbow injury. His strikeout totals -- about once every six plate appearances since 2010 -- don't exactly make him your typical leadoff hitter. But his speed on the bases and patience at the plate -- he averages more than four pitches per plate appearance -- align nicely. On those days that Ichiro leads off, I suspect Giradi may have the left-hand hitting Gardner bat ninth, giving Jeter the potential of having at-bats with both Gardner and Ichiro on the basepaths, an ideal "small ball" situation.
On those days that Jeter rests, another option for the second spot is Kevin Youkilis, who batted there 75 times last season. Although generally thought of as a down-the-lineup option, Giradi may want to move "The Greek God of Walks" up in the order against right-handed starters if Youkilis, coming off the worst season of his career, can rediscover his old batting stroke. Youkilis' career OBP against righties (.417) is 46 points higher than his numbers against lefties.
I like Giradi's options at the top (and bottom) of the Yankees' lineup, especially if the team makes it into the postseason. Yankees fans don't need to be reminded that the team floundered in the American League Championship Series when its reliance on the long ball resulted in New York's failure to score a single run in 20 straight innings against Detroit. For the series, the Yankees scored a total of 3 runs in 39 innings.
In the Division Series against Baltimore, the team didn't have trouble scoring, but most of the team's scoring didn't come from home runs. The Yankees hit four home runs in five games against the Orioles, about half their regular-season rate.
Howard Z. Unger is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn, New York. For the past 15 years, he has written about sports, media, and popular culture. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, New York Post, and New York Times.
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