Aaron Judge's sweet spot in Yankees lineup is second to none

Aaron Boone's biggest question could be where to bat Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton in the Yankees lineup, but then again, it's no question at all.

Aaron Judge batting second in the Yankees' mighty lineup to open the 2018 season was a good first big move by Aaron Boone. It could put the '17 AL Rookie of the Year in perfect position to avoid anything close to a sophomore slump for his new manager.

Judge takes his 52 home runs from right field and gets to hit right ahead of the only MLB player who homered more times (59) than he did last season, reigning NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton.

Judge's Opening Day against the Blue Jays, his first game in front of Stanton, was typical to what he did for the Yankees for much of last season. Judge struck out, doubled, walked, singled and struck out again. Meanwhile Stanton homered, flied out, doubled home Judge, stuck out and homered again.

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If you're keeping score, Stanton started with an insane (and incredibly small sample-sized) 2.600 OPS, while Judge wasn't too shabby without homering, posting 1.350 in a 6-1 Yankees rout.

That brotherly bash in Toronto will fuel the unreasonably high expectations in New York that they will be the biggest 1-2 punch the game has seen in a long time. Cutting through the hype, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Judge will keep taking advantage of the situation to put up numbers that either match or trump last season's.

Here's what Judge did in 542 at-bats as a rookie: 52 HRs, 114 RBI, .284 batting average, 1.049 OPS. Over his highly successful '17 season, he ended up batting in eight of nine spots in the order for Joe Girardi. Here's a look at Judge's splits from his three most frequent spots:

Batting third: 226 at-bats, 17 HRs, 36 RBI, .238 batting average, .889 OPS

Batting fifth: 110 at-bats, 8 HRs, 17 RBI, .327 batting average, 1.048 OPS

Batting second: 98 at-bats, 13 HRs, 29 RBI, .327 batting average, 1.291 OPS

The numbers clearly show that Judge was at his best at No. 2. Stanton primarily batted second with the Marlins last season, so Boone could have stuck to where both players were more comfortable of late. But unlike Stanton, who batted elsewhere in the lineup only a handful of times, there was a big enough sample size to see the disparity for Judge when he wasn't batting second.

The question came down to who's better protecting whom early in the order. Stanton struck out 163 times last season with 85 walks with 55 more at-bats than Judge. Judge stuck out a major-league worst 208 times in contrast to his 127 walks.

Stanton, a nine-year veteran at 28, has batted everywhere over his career with mostly steady results, save for his spike in '17. Judge, at 25 and yet to establish any year-to-year consistency, was set to benefit more from a more stable position in the lineup.

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When batting second in '17, Judge walked on 21 percent of his plate appearances but struck out on 41 percent of his at-bats. From No. 5, those numbers were 19 percent and 34.5 percent. In the No. 3 hole, those were 19 percent and 41 percent. So those walks and strikeouts are rather similar across the board.

Judge homered, however, once per 7.5 at-bats in the No. 2 hole. Batting fifth, that rate was 13.75 and batting third, it was 13.3.

If Judge can conservatively get 500 at-bats in '18, the projection based on what did batting second in '17 would be 65 HRs and 148 RBI. That's a ridiculous ceiling for his follow-up production, setting up a high floor, too. The strikeouts and walks are bound to go down a little with the average pushing closer to .300 for Judge, assuming Stanton is healthy.

If Boone wants to tinker with where Judge hits, hitting him leadoff — the only spot out of which Judge didn't hit for Girardi last season — makes more sense than either third or fifth.

Consider what Judge did when leading off innings last season: 33 for 97 (.340), 11 HRs, 15 walks, 39 strikeouts, .439 on-base percentage, 1.181 OPS. No one will confuse Judge with Rickey Henderson, but it's tempting to think about Judge's potential to help give the Yankees an early lead.

Boone is intent on keeping Judge and Stanton back-to-back, while Stanton proved how devastating he can be from No. 2 last season. But there's another factor to consider here: incumbent leadoff man Brett Gardner.

Lost in Stanton's mammoth Yankees debut was the fact that Brett Gardner also had his first homer of '18, opening the seventh inning ahead of Judge's single. The left-handed-batting Gardner was hitless against left-handed starter J.A. Happ but he proved how comfortable he is in the lead-off spot after '17 marked his first full-time shot at batting first since '14.

The only other lineup option for Gardner is second, which isn't happening with Judge and Stanton. Moving him down to No. 9 with fewer at-bats to accommodate a Judge slide up to No. 1 also makes no sense.

Every MLB manager would love having to make Boone's call of where to bat Judge in relation to Stanton, but there's no doubt the stats and results should allow the Yankees to set it and forget it.