Why Aaron Judge wants to bat third in Yankees’ lineup and hit behind Juan Soto

TAMPA, Fla. — Aaron Boone joked that Aaron Judge has badgered him for six years about wanting to hit third.

“Even in the year he hit 62 (home runs) when we were a little bit beat up there in the second half, I was leading him off,” the New York Yankees manager said. “It wasn’t so he could get the home run title; it was where we were lineup-wise and injury-wise with what made the most sense. But he always sneaks in a ‘What about third?’ quite a bit.”

As of now, Judge is getting his wish, with Boone planning to slot the slugger third in the lineup behind DJ LeMahieu and Juan Soto.

“I feel like if we can get a couple more guys on base in front of me, a couple of speedsters, I feel like that’s gonna help us produce more runs,” Judge said Tuesday. “If you got a guy like DJ leading off who’s gonna get on base, put the ball in play, work the count, especially if you have a little speedster in front of me, either bunt him over, move the guy over, get the guy in scoring position, then me in the three-hole can drive somebody in. But it might be a little old-school thinking on my part. Some of the guys I watched growing up, the best hitters were hitting third, and the run producers were three and four. But I don’t know. I don’t know why it means so much to me. I just want to find a way to help the team any way I can. If that’s me hitting third, it’s me hitting third.”

Where Boone will slot Judge in the lineup has been a topic of discussion since the team traded for Soto. Looking across the league, most teams’ best hitters bat second: Shohei Ohtani, Freddie Freeman, Corey Seager, Paul Goldschmidt, Julio Rodríguez and Judge. There are some exceptions to that strategy. Ronald Acuña Jr. leads off, and Bryce Harper, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and José Ramírez hit third for their teams.

But if you’re looking at a who’s who of the top players in the sport, they’re usually slotted into that two-spot in the order. The thinking behind this is simple: Teams want their best players to receive the most possible plate appearances with either runners on base or fewer than two outs. And for the first time in the live ball era, the No. 2 hitter this past season was the most productive spot in the batting order. You might be mumbling to yourself about how Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Albert Pujols and Ken Griffey Jr. batted third and there’s no reason to change something that has decades of data supporting that theory.

Think of lineup construction another way: The higher a player is in the order, the more plate appearances he will get. That adds up throughout the season. Most Yankees fans would acknowledge that having Judge get an additional 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50 more plate appearances would be a good thing for the team, considering the damage he can do in a single at-bat.

And if LeMahieu can be the second-half version of himself, when he posted a 129 wRC+ and was the on-base machine he has mostly been since signing with the Yankees, their top third of the lineup will be dangerous. But if LeMahieu looks like the first-half version of himself, when he posted a 77 wRC+, it wouldn’t make sense to keep him there because the Yankees wouldn’t be maximizing the run-producing potential they have with Soto and Judge. It might be unconventional, but even having Soto and Judge Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the lineup would be interesting because the former is the best get-on-base player in the sport and Judge is the best slugger. No matter what Boone does with his leadoff spot, making sure another high-on-base-percentage hitter is in front of Soto and Judge would make the most sense.

When crafting the daily lineup, though, it might just come down to who the opposing starting pitcher is that day. The Yankees have prioritized lineup balance this offseason, and who’s hitting two or three could depend on whether the starter is a righty or lefty.

“Balance,” Boone said when asked what he weighs when thinking of Soto or Judge in the two-spot. “I think every team is a little bit unique. Sometimes you see the best hitter hitting first; sometimes he’s hitting third, fourth, second. Since I’ve been here, I’ve probably hit (Judge) three-quarters of the time in that two-hole and certainly like him there. But when I start to look at the rest of the lineup and the layout of it, just trying to, where you can, achieve balance. So that goes into it a little bit with those two guys, but I do feel like they’re interchangeable in those two, three spots.”

Because Judge has an old-school mentality when it comes to lineup construction, his ideal configuration would also feature a burner on the basepaths at the top of the order. The Yankees have that in shortstop Anthony Volpe, who likely will be the de facto “second leadoff hitter” in the ninth spot. On Volpe, Judge said, “Down the road, I think he’s going to be a great top-of-the-lineup guy for us.” Volpe has been in Tampa throughout the offseason with Judge, and the 2022 MVP said he has liked what he has seen out of the second-year player’s bat path and how he’s been working on an all-fields approach.

On the final day of the regular season, Judge mentioned how he felt like the team wasn’t emphasizing numbers he believed were important, like batting average, runs and RBIs. Having Soto hit in front of him could help make Judge’s traditional numbers better than ever.

“You get a guy like Soto, if he hits two, or if I’m hitting second and he’s hitting third and he’s driving me in, I’ll take either of those outcomes because that means we’re scoring runs,” Judge said. “However, Boonie is going to come up with the lineup. I know he puts a lot of thought into that. He asks a lot of us players how we feel about certain things. He knows that matters to us. I’ll be happy anywhere Soto hits. I’ll be happy as long as he’s in the lineup every day.”

Tuesday afternoon, the Yankees got a preview of how that could look. Nestor Cortes became the first pitcher in the world to face Judge and Soto back to back in the new-look Yankees lineup. Cortes joked that his performance against the sluggers would “feel like a tryout again.”

If it had been a tryout, Cortes would be an instant selection for the varsity team. He struck out Soto in each of his three plate appearances, giving the fans in attendance at George M. Steinbrenner Field nothing but whiffs in his first practice as a Yankee.

But there’s nothing to fear about the combination of Judge and Soto in the Yankees’ lineup. They’re two of the best hitters in MLB, and come Opening Day, the Yankees will have one of the most dynamic duos in the sport.

“Those two spots in the lineup, as long as they stay healthy, we shouldn’t have to worry about because of who they are and what they consistently do,” Boone said.

(Photo: New York Yankees / Getty Images)

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