Why Yankees demoted Anthony Volpe in the lineup and what move should come next

NEW YORK — Since June 1, only the Oakland A’s and Kansas City Royals have gotten less production out of their leadoff spot than the New York Yankees. It didn’t make much sense for the Yankees to continue batting Anthony Volpe in the leadoff spot with his .228 on-base percentage over his past 136 plate appearances while he hit in front of Juan Soto and Aaron Judge. Yankees manager Aaron Boone wasn’t maximizing production in front of the two best hitters in the American League.

So after 76 straight games of leading off, Volpe was dropped to sixth in the batting order for Thursday afternoon’s game against the Cincinnati Reds. Rookie first baseman Ben Rice led off for the Yankees in Volpe’s place.

“I wanted to shake it up a little bit and give Volpe a blow from that spot,” Boone said. “It doesn’t mean he won’t go back in there. I just feel like the at-bats Ben continues to string together here, just trying to optimize that spot and getting guys on base in front of the big boys. I feel like the consistency of the quality of the at-bat we’ve seen from him hopefully lends itself to get on a couple of times in front of the boys.”

It’s a small sample size for Rice since he was called up from Triple A to replace Anthony Rizzo on the roster, but in 37 at-bats, he’s looked like he belongs in the big leagues. He came into Thursday’s game walking more than he’s struck out. He’s crushed fastballs. He’s not chasing pitches out of the strike zone. He’s hitting the ball hard. Everything Rice has displayed suggests he’s more than qualified to hit in front of Soto and Judge. With the number of pitches in the strike zone he’ll likely see in the leadoff spot, Rice could be even better than what he’s shown in the middle of the order.

Dropping Volpe to sixth in the order won’t fix his offensive problems. He needs to either slug or walk more. Volpe opted for a heavy-contact approach coming into this year but doesn’t have the elite contact skills that Cleveland Guardians outfielder Steven Kwan or San Diego Padres infielder Luis Arraez possess. The 23-year-old became the organization’s No. 1 prospect by being a fly-ball hitter who pulled the ball. He threw all of that away this year to become a slap hitter.

“He clearly made some swing changes, adjustments and alterations in the offseason,” Boone said. “We’re talking about a (23)-year-old guy who’s adjusting, growing and learning. I feel like this is all part of the process of him getting to be a more complete product. I think we’re going to look up at the end of the year and see a good offensive player when it’s all said and done. That’s part of the ebb and flow of when you’re making adjustments. The league is making adjustments to you. I just feel like that’s part of the developmental process.”

Volpe was an all-or-nothing power hitter in his rookie season last year. That approach didn’t work for him either — he hit 21 home runs but posted a measly 84 wRC+. He flattened his bat path in the offseason so he could make more contact but it zapped his ability to drive the ball consistently. Boone said he didn’t think Volpe overcorrected this offseason but believes this is part of the process that can make him a “complete offensive player.”

There’s no reason to give up on Volpe yet. Growth isn’t always linear for prospects. Even if Volpe hovers around being an average MLB hitter, he still holds tremendous value for the Yankees because he’s an elite defender at shortstop and a good baserunner. But it wouldn’t be the path the Yankees expected when they called him up to be their starting shortstop to begin the 2023 season. There was more optimism in the bat than his glove. It was a reason the Yankees sat out multiple elite free-agent classes at shortstop. They still hope that with more time, he’ll become a franchise cornerstone. They don’t believe this demotion out of the leadoff spot will negatively affect his confidence.

“We’ve had this conversation about Anthony before. He’s one of the last guys I’m worried about between the ears of being able to handle the ebbs and flows and ups and downs of the season,” Boone said. “It’s been a stretch here of just wanting to — I don’t know if it’s throwing the hot guy in there or whatever. It’s just a critical spot right now ahead of what Juan and Aaron are doing there. I just wanted to try to get the hottest guys getting on base in front of them and taking advantage of that.”

The next lineup change the Yankees should consider is moving Alex Verdugo out of the cleanup spot. Since May 1, Verdugo has a 78 wRC+ and .270 on-base percentage. It made sense for the Yankees to have Verdugo in the cleanup spot when Judge and Giancarlo Stanton were healthy to give pitchers a different look because of his skill set. With Stanton out and the lineup scuffling, Verdugo is not needed in the middle of the order.

“Dugie is going to hit,” Boone said. “It’s just one of those stretches during the course of the year. He’s going through a two-week stretch where it’s been tough and a little bit of a challenge, but he’s one of the last guys I’m worried about when it comes to hitting. He’ll get it rolling here.”

(Photo: Luke Hales / Getty Images)

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