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Who's No. 1?

Jeter, not Damon, should bat first in Yankees' lineup

Posted: Tuesday February 14, 2006 12:10PM; Updated: Tuesday February 14, 2006 12:11PM
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The Yankees already had the league's best leadoff hitter: Derek Jeter.
The Yankees already had the league's best leadoff hitter: Derek Jeter.
David Bergman/SI
Top of the Heap
Top 2005 OBPs, batting leadoff
Rk. Player Team AB OBP
1. Derek Jeter Yankees 638 .391
2. Brian Roberts Orioles 558 .384
3. Johnny Damon Red Sox 621 .367
4. Chone Figgins Angels 529 .356
5. Grady Sizemore Indians 534 .353

The Yankees will open camp this week with a thoroughly set roster and the sum of their chances over the next seven months reduced to this: How are Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina throwing the ball on Oct. 1? New York's Spring Training is a snoozefest, unless you get jazzed about Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright battling for a spot in the rotation, updates on the health of Ramiro Mendoza or the chronicles of Felix Escalona. But I do see one obvious problem with this team that people seem to be ignoring: Johnny Damon should not bat leadoff.

Slice it any way you want, but Derek Jeter is a better leadoff batter than Damon. The problem with the 2005 Yankees wasn't the top man in the batting order -- they led all of baseball with a .379 OBP in the leadoff spot; Damon's Red Sox were sixth at .363 -- it was that GM Brian Cashman foisted Tony Womack on manager Joe Torre, who was foolish enough to give Womack 146 plate appearances in the two hole. Womack returned a .529 OPS in that slot, ranking 73rd among the 74 players with 100 plate appearances hitting second. (Ruben Gotay of Kansas City was, insult of insults, worse than Womack.)

Still, there is this idea, much of it borne from the creative mind of Scott Boras, that Damon is the missing piece, the uber-Knoblauch and nouveau-Rickey to make the Yankees champions again. But know this: Jeter was better at getting on base last year than Damon (.389, .366), was better leading off innings (.409 OBP, .365) and, for as much noise about Damon being someone who spoils good pitches, saw more pitches per plate appearance than Damon (3.82, 3.72). Jeter also holds a healthy margin over Damon in career OBP (.386, .353). And remember, Damon's numbers are bound to regress slightly just by leaving Fenway Park.

Further, if Torre bats Robinson Cano ninth and Damon first, he's making the job of every opposing manager much too easy in the late innings. AL managing is almost entirely about securing matchups from the seventh inning on. Torre would rarely get his best hitters late at-bats against offhanded pitchers (i.e., right-handed batters against left-handed pitchers). He would have those two lefthanded hitters, Cano and Damon, followed by possibly three right-handed hitters: Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield.

Flip Damon and Jeter and you get left-right-left-right-right. Now what can the opposing manager do? He either burns through his bullpen quickly or he concedes an advantage, such as leaving in a left-hander to face Jeter.

I know we're talking about All-Star players, not platoon players. And I know the batting order has far less impact on how many runs a team scores than the reams of copy devoted to it would have you believe. But if you could gain even slight advantages, wouldn't you do so?