The latest news from Legends Field in Tampa is that Derek Jeter will bat leadoff for the Yankees this season, pushing perennial leadoff man Johnny Damon into the number two hole of the Yankees' vaunted lineup. While at first glance this move by manager Joe Girardi may seem suspect — given Jeter's age and diminished speed — the switch could prove to enable highly lucrative production and results for the Yankees in 2009. Using only historical indicators, the move looks solid. Jeter has always hit well from the leadoff position, sporting a .315 career average when penciled in the top spot. Derek is the perfect catalyst for a Yankees offense that — given the correct utlization of the wide array of abilities provided by the most versitile New York lineup in years — should score quite a few runs in 2009, even without their recently traditional compilation of bulky, one-dimensional sluggers. In actuality, Jeter's reduction in speed is all the more reason to move him up in the lineup. The Yankees are not, and should not, be a team that steals bases. While there is a value to stealing a base — specifically for teams with weaker offensive capabilities that must find alternative ways to move runners into scoring position — the Yankees are a team that, because of their prolific offense, could actually be hurt by an over-abundance of steal attempts. When a club has hitters the caliber of a Mark Teixeira in a position to drive in runs, attempting to steal a base is essentially an unnecessary and inadvisable risk. For the Yankees, Damon's speed is actually far more beneficial out of the number two slot. If the middle of the New York lineup is going to drive in runs, they must first have players on base. In one respect, Damon provides the Yankees with a second player atop the lineup who accomplishes this frequently; his .375 OBP last season actually tops Jeter's mark of .363. From a second perspective, his speed (29 steals in 2008), will greatly reduce the possibility and frequency of double plays, therebye increasing the probability that the Yankees' power hitters will have opportunities to drive men in, when they come to the plate. While the comparison is slightly distorted — given the amount of time both hitters previously spent in their respective spots in the lineup — it cannot be ignored that, while Jeter has the career edge in OBP (.387 to .354) Damon has grounded into 120 less double plays.While traditionally the profile of a leadoff hitter has always included basestealing ability, Bill James and Billy Beane have proved thievery is an attribute that is neither essential nor mandatory. Girardi's methodology may seem radical — both in placing Jeter in a position that is counterintuitive to a traditional profile, and Damon in a hitting slot in which he's seen very few at bats — but a methodological or perhaps "radical" perspective is what the manager needs to save his job after the Yankees missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 1993.And under statistical and strategic scrutiny, the move isn't really all that radical. It's merely another example of the evolution of the thought processes involved in the game. The shedding of old stereotypes and edicts and the emergence of strategy based on the best statistical probabilities with a focus on the goal of optimizinng the best attributes of each component of a given lineup. The concept is simple. For a team to win, they must score runs. To score runs, a team must maximize the number of men that reach base. With Jeter, and then Damon, setting the proverbial table with consistency for the power surge that lurks in the middle of the Yankee lineup, this basic — but frequenly ignored — concept should be fully realized in Girardi's new vision, especially when A-Rod makes his way back into the lineup.
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