TAMPA, Fla. — Now batting leadoff . . . Aaron Judge?
The slugger spent much of spring training hitting second, the batting order position he’s likely to occupy during most of the regular season.
But with the Red Sox throwing lefthander Brian Johnson on Friday afternoon, Aaron Boone changed things up — to say the least — by putting Judge atop the order. The lefthanded-hitting Brett Gardner, a more prototypical leading man, hit ninth.
“There’s all different types of leadoff hitters,” the 6-7, 282-pound Judge said with a smile.
Judge, who hit 52 homers last year and said he might have hit leadoff “in a high school game once,” certainly qualifies as something different.
Still, Judge, who had the second-highest on-base percentage in the American League last season at .422, said, “It’s just another day. No big deal.”
As it turned out, the Yankees had only five hits on Friday in a 5-0 loss to the Red Sox — two by Gardner. Judge went 1-for-4.
Boone had downplayed the possibility of batting Judge leadoff on Thursday morning in Fort Myers and said, “I wouldn’t expect that.” The only time he would even consider doing it is against a tough lefthanded starting pitcher. But he at least had pondered it earlier in spring training, and with the Yankees facing a tough lefty in the Blue Jays’ J.A. Happ next Thursday in the season opener, he gave it a test run Friday.
During the 2 1⁄2-hour bus ride back to Tampa late Thursday afternoon, Boone called Judge and said he wanted to give it a try. “I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t feel like he was on board with it,’’ Boone said, “and he was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ ”
The primary benefit, he said, are the difficulties it might present to an opponent later in the game because of how the lefthanded batters and switch hitters are dispersed.
On Friday, for example, it was righties Judge and Giancarlo Stanton to start, followed by lefty Greg Bird, righty Gary Sanchez, switch hitter Aaron Hicks, lefty Didi Gregorius, righty Brandon Drury, switch hitter Neil Walker and the lefty Gardner.
“Just combination-wise, I actually think it makes a lot of sense with splitting up our three lefties, three apart. You kind of neutralize a [lefty bullpen] specialist potentially, with our switch hitters sprinkled in there,” Boone said. “It is something that I think could work . . . to just kind of give each guy the best protection and the best matchup potential. I think that way makes a little bit of sense. I thought today, with a lefty going late in camp, I at least wanted to do it to get that part of it out of the way.”
But Boone made it clear that having Judge lead off still is very much an experiment.
Could it happen Opening Day? “I don’t know,” Boone said. “We’ll see.”
General manager Brian Cashman said it was not something dictated by the front office.
“Boone asked the questions to our staff about ‘hey, what’s the best lineup configuration that would produce the most runs?’ and that type of stuff,” Cashman said. “He’s asking for a lot of information. Today’s an example of when he processes that information and decides to take that next step, he wants to see what it looks like. This is all his initiation based on a lot of information he’s receiving and asking for.”
Having a power hitter leading off isn’t without precedent. The most recent example is the 2017 Astros, who had George Springer in that spot. The World Series MVP had a .284/.369/.525 slash line, 34 homers and 84 RBIs in 137 starts as the leadoff hitter last season.
Cashman said the concept isn’t so new, recalling the words from his mentor, Gene Michael, nearly 30 years ago.
“I remember back in the day before all the analytics and stuff, Gene Michael used to tell me, ‘You want your best hitters to get the most at-bats. Period,’ ” Cashman said. “That’s the best lineup construction in its simplest form. Again, we’ll just see how it feels, simple as that.”