The Yankees are averaging five runs per game, good for second the American League (sixth overall), yet it could be better.
The Yankees (12-7) are winning games in spite of their leadoff hitter Brett Gardner's struggles, while Jacoby Ellsbury, who could be hitting No. 1, is currently swinging in the middle of the lineup.
Ellsbury hit 32 home runs in 2011 with the Red Sox, but has not delivered more than 16 in a single season since. In fact, in his 11 seasons in the big leagues, Ellsbury has reached double-digit home runs twice.
The problem is, the Yankees are down two batters - Didi Gregorius and Gary Sanchez - that were expected to be hitting in the middle of the batting order. Further, the Yankees wanted to see how the offense worked when splitting Gardner and Ellsbury up. I was in favor of the split and like Yankees manager Joe Girardi figured Gardner would be best atop the order. I admit I was wrong. Will Girardi do the same?
Ellsbury, seen by Girardi as having more pop in his bat than Gardner, has hit mostly in the No. 4 and No. 5 slots in the lineup this season. Overall, Ellsbury is hitting .314 with a .368 on-base percentage, a .429 slugging percentage and owns a 123 OPS+. Despite hitting in premium run-producing spots in the lineup, Ellsbury has just four extra-base hits and four RBIs and is hitting .182 with runners in scoring position. However, Ellsbury is hitting .333 when leading off an inning. Plus, Ellsbury is making good on his promise to be more aggressive on the bases, stealing six bases in seven attempts.
Meanwhile, Gardner is struggling mightily. In 71 plate appearances, Gardner is slashing .186/.324/.237 with a 62 OPS+. The poor stats trail all the way back to August 2015 for Gardner. Regardless of when the decline began, Gardner is currently failing in the leadoff spot and it begs the question if he should figure out his issues hitting lower in the order.
Once Gregorius and certainly after Sanchez returns, it seems like it would be an optimal time for a lineup shuffle. If the entire lineup is back and healthy, and Ellsbury and Gardner are hitting similarly to how they are now, a change at the top of the order would be warranted.
Waiting for Sanchez to come back to move Ellsbury up to the top of the order may not be necessary. The Yankees can ride the fine starts from Chase Headley, Aaron Hicks or even Starlin Castro in the No. 2 hole after Ellsbury if the Yanks continue to believe Sanchez is the best option in that spot. In turn, the Yankees could slide Gardner down the lineup or sit him more often in favor of Hicks.
Despite Gardner's batting average sitting below the Mendoza line, he is still drawing walks (16.9 percent walk rate) and with less pressure hitting seventh or eighth in the lineup, he could actually provide a boost at the bottom of the order were he to catch fire. Maybe a demotion of sorts will set Gardner straight - maybe it won't - regardless, waiting much longer makes little sense to me.
Ellsbury has demonstrated in the early going that he is the best player to hit at the top of the order at this time. I was wrong and so was Girardi about the top of the order. The proof is in the manager's binder.
Ellsbury's and Gardner's production could flip-flop again, but there is no reason for Girardi to delay making a switch. The return of two prominent bats to the lineup provides the perfect opportunity to take advantage of a chance to optimize the batting order with Ellsbury leading the way.