With five weeks of the 2015 MLB season complete, we’ve gotten a pretty good look at the post-Derek Jeter New York Yankees. And sappiness be damned, they just don’t quite look the same without him.

There’s one way, however, that this has been a very, very good thing.

With Jeter safely retired—and evidently disconnected altogether—Yankees skipper Joe Girardi has an option that eluded him in The Captain’s final season in 2014: The option to place center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and left fielder Brett Gardner in the top two spots in the lineup.

So, that’s what he’s been doing. And so far, it’s working like a charm.

After floundering in 2014, the Yankees’ offensive attack has gone retro in 2015. The Yankees came into the week scoring 4.85 runs per game, a massive improvement over last year’s 3.91 runs per outing.

This is a key reason why they’re out to a somewhat surprising 21-12 start that has them in first place in the AL East. And if you’re looking for reasons for why it’s happening, it’s all too appropriate that Ellsbury and Gardner might be Nos. 1 and 2 on the list.

Offensively, the two left-handed batters have been downright terrific in 2015. Courtesy of FanGraphs, here’s where their numbers stood coming into play Monday:

*Important note: All stats past this point are current through play on Sunday, May 10.

In a year in which the average OPS is only .710, Ellsbury and Gardner’s OPS’s highlight them as the clearly above-average hitters that they’ve been. So does wRC+.

For the layman, that’s “Weighted Runs Created Plus,” which measures a player’s total offensive value on a scale where 100 represents average. Ellsbury and Gardner have thus been safely above-average hitters and are certainly outperforming their own standards. Gardner’s 137 wRC+ puts him on pace to beat his 112 wRC+ from 2010. Ellsbury‘s 134 wRC+ puts him on pace to beat his 150 wRC+ from 2011.

And as you’d expect from a pair of speed demons like Ellsbury and Gardner, they’re also tearing it up on the basepaths. As the YES Network noted on Twitter:

Add it all up, and FanGraphs‘ “Offense” metric says Ellsbury has been worth 6.7 runs above average and Gardner has been worth 6.3 runs above average.

That doesn’t quite make them baseball’s top offensive duo, mind you, as that’s less than half of the 28.3 runs above average that slugging Los Angeles Dodgers teammates Adrian Gonzalez and Joc Pederson have combined for. 

But if you go looking for a better one-two punch at the top of a lineup, you’re not going to find one.

Each of Ellsbury‘s 142 plate appearances have been out of the leadoff spot, so his .341 average, .415 on-base percentage and .812 OPS are entirely leadoff numbers.

As for Gardner, 107 of his 115 total plate appearances have come in the No. 2 spot. In those 107 plate appearances, he’s hit .308 with a .394 OBP and an .834 OPS.

So, let’s ask a question: How many other teammates have logged as many as 100 plate appearances in the top two spots in the lineup and, from those spots, have hit at least .300 with at least a .390 OBP and at least an .800 OPS?

Here are your answers:

  • Have hit at least .300: Zero.
  • Have OBP‘d at least .390: Zero.
  • Have OPS’d at least .800: Zero.

As they say, there you have it. In 2015, Ellsbury and Gardner have been a one-two punch unlike any other.

Given that the top two spots in the lineup come up more than any other two spots, this is quite the advantage for the Yankees. And while other teams could hypothetically seek to replicate it by putting their two best hitters atop the lineup, that wouldn’t necessarily mean creating a carbon copy of the Ellsbury-Gardner duo.

For one, it’s not easy to find two guys who can match their speed. But more importantly, it’s not easy to find two guys who have the goods to put said speed to good use.

As Gardner put it to Bryan Hoch of MLB.com: “We take a lot of pride in getting on base, and that’s our job at the top of the lineup. We feel like we’re two leadoff hitters, and we can get on base for those guys in the middle of the lineup and give them RBI opportunities.”

By getting on base as frequently they have, Ellsbury and Gardner have certainly been producing like “two leadoff hitters.” But they’ve also been acting the part, as they’ve been tough outs in more ways than one.

There are two primary guidelines for hitters who desire to be tough outs: Don’t strike out and take your walks. And in this day and age, you can add a third: Don’t give the defense an excuse to shift. 

Ellsbury and Gardner have been doing all three of these things, as we can see here that they’re striking out less, walking more often and going the other way more often than the average hitter:

The value of their walks is self-explanatory. Same goes for balls in play, especially given that both are hitting over .360 on balls in play. And though logic says those averages will come down eventually, they’ll come down slowly if Ellsbury and Gardner maintain their opposite-field dominance. On balls to left field, Ellsbury is hitting .429 and Gardner is hitting .379.

Between what they’ve done in the box and what they’ve done on the basepaths, Ellsbury and Gardner have been about as valuable to the Yankees offense as you’d expect. They’ve scored 47 of the team’s 149 runs. For perspective, the Yankees’ primary one-two hitters in 2014 scored 134 of the team’s 633 runs. We’re talking an increase of roughly 21 percent to roughly 32 percent.

And yes, given that Ellsbury and Gardner were there to fill the top two slots in the Yankees lineup last year, you can’t help but wonder what might have been.

Though Gardner and Ellsbury both saw their share of action in the leadoff spot in 2014, the two appeared in the No. 2 hole only 37 times. The bulk of the No. 2 plate appearances (619 to be exact) instead went to Jeter.

That didn’t go well. In hitting just .256 with a .617 OPS, Jeter qualified as the seventh-worst hitter in MLB. Largely as a result of that, the Yankees’ No. 2 spot—which is arguably the most important spot in the lineup—finished ranked No. 21 in wRC+.

Hindsight isn’t needed to see that this was a problem. People in the media (such as Andrew Marchand of ESPN New York) started questioning Jeter’s spot in the lineup in early May. As time went on, it became fair to wonder, as Howard Megdal put it at SB Nation, if “one player’s historic contribution to the team and/or ego was seemingly being put ahead of team goals.”

For his part, Girardi tried to defend Jeter’s ongoing role in the No. 2 spot. But every time he did, he effectively confirmed that Jeter’s past was taking priority over his present. In June, his rationalization for continuing to bat Jeter second was that he was “a guy who’s [always] responded.” In September, Girardi defended Jeter on the basis that he had always “been clutch” when the pressure was highest.

Apart from some short-lived hot streaks here and there, Jeter never made good on Girardi‘s confidence. And though it certainly wasn’t the reason, having such an easy out in the No. 2 hole was certainly a reason why the Yankees scored fewer than four runs per game for the first time since 1990.

Maybe things would have been different if Ellsbury and Gardner had been the one-two punch from the get-go. Both ended up being solidly above-average offensive producers, so maybe the Yankees would have avoided scoring fewer than four runs per game. And had they avoided that fate, they might have won more than 84 games and had a shot at giving Jeter a proper send-off in October.

Maybe, indeed. But with the way things are going now, that serene sound you’re hearing is the water underneath the bridge. 

The way they’re hitting this year, it certainly doesn’t look like the Yankees missed their final chance at getting the most out of Ellsbury and Gardner’s respective primes by denying them the opportunity to be a one-two punch in 2014.

Better yet, the 2015 Yankees look more deserving of such an awesome one-two punch than the 2014 Yankees. Unlike last year’s Yankees, this year’s Yankees have healthy and effective versions of Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira. They also have Michael Pineda to play the ace role vacated by Masahiro Tanaka and an elite bullpen capable of protecting any lead.

Having Ellsbury and Gardner atop the lineup would have made the 2014 Yankees better. But this year, having them atop the lineup is making the Yankees legitimately dangerous.


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

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