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Wild Card: The Art of the Platoon
One of the more alarming trends in roster construction in the past year or so has been the increasing willingness of teams to carry 12, even 13 pitchers on their 25-man roster. The Rangers were one of a few that carried 13 for parts of 2006, and the Orioles fully intended to break camp this year with 13 hurlers and a three-man bench only to have their plans foiled by Ramon Hernandez's oblique injury, which forced them to replace that 13th pitcher with an extra catcher.
One would assume an unintended consequence of these ever-expanding pitching staffs and correspondingly shrinking benches would be a dearth of position-player platoons. Surprisingly, that hasn't been the case. A quick survey of the games played thus far this season reveals that more than half of major-league managers have at least one player on their team whose starts are dependent on the handedness of the opposing starting pitcher.
The practice of platooning -- which, in it's simplest form, is splitting the starts at a given position between a left-handed and a right-handed hitter based on the handedness of opposing starting pitcher, with the opposite-handed hitter drawing the start in each game -- dates back to at least the late 1880s, though it didn't gain full support until Casey Stengel used it to great effect with the dynastic Yankees of the 1950s. Stengel picked up the habit after being platooned himself by his manager and mentor John McGraw during his playing days as a left-handed outfielder for the New York Giants. Stengel's success helped popularize the strategy, which is designed to optimize the offensive production of positions manned by hitters who just can't seem to figure out same-handed hurlers. The continued success of his followers -- including Earl Weaver, whose Orioles won three consecutive AL pennants from 1969 to 1971 while featuring a catching platoon of lefty Elrod Hendricks and righty Andy Etchebarren, and direct Stengel disciple Billy Martin, who managed the Detroit Tigers to the AL East title in 1972 while maintaining platoons at six different positions -- helped make it a commonplace practice.
Still, for all of its advantages, there are three potential problems with platooning:
1) A young hitter that struggles against same-handed pitchers might yet learn to hit them, but never will if he doesn't get to face them;
2) Since the majority of pitchers are right-handed (just 27 percent of all at-bats came against lefty pitching in 2006), the right-handed hitting half of any given platoon runs the risk of growing cold on the bench;
3) Being reduced to part-time roles tends to bruise egos.
That last point seemed to be a problem in Milwaukee this spring when it was announced that veterans Geoff Jenkins, a lefty hitter, and Kevin Mench, a righty, would be platooned in left field so that young prospect Corey Hart would not have to surrender his position in right field. Brewers' skipper Ned Yost has stuck to his guns on the left-field platoon thus far, with Jenkins starting only against righties, but has given into the complaints of Mench, the righty on the short-end of the platoon, by using him in place of fellow righty Hart against the odd right hander in the early going. With Hart heating up, however, Yost may soon have to stick to the plan in right field as well.
Even the best hitters in the game suffer a certain decline in production against same-handed hitters (or in the case of switch hitters, hit better from one side than the other). Barry Bonds, for example, has an OPS 100 points lower against lefties than righties over the course of his 22-year-career. Given that and the risks of stunting a hitter's progress, having his bat go cold, or simply ticking him off, it behooves managers to only platoon players with rather extreme differentials between their abilities to hit left-handed and right-handed hitters. With that in mind, I thought I'd take a look at the 22 pure platoons currently being employed in the major leagues to see which most represent an efficient use of team resources.
To do this I'll use a makeshift stat I'll call "Split" based on a very helpful statistic called GPA or Gross Production Average. GPA, like OPS, is a combination of a hitter's on-base and slugging percentages, but unlike OPS, which simply adds them together, GPA gives appropriate weight to OBP (which, since it's essentially the rate at which a hitter avoids making outs, and outs are the only limit placed on a team's ability to score runs, is by far the most important single offensive statistic in baseball). More skillful number crunchers than I have figured out that weighing OBP 1.8 times as much as slugging results in the best representation of a hitter's actual value. Thus the formula for GPA is GPA = (OBP*1.8 + SLG)/4. The division by four serves the aesthetic purpose of placing the stat on the same scale as batting average, with a .300 GPA being very good, a .200 GPA being very bad, and a .260 GPA being roughly average.
Split, then, will be the difference between a hitter's GPA against opposite-handed pitchers and their GPA against same-handed pitchers. Thus, if righty-hitting Bob Smith has a .280 GPA against lefties and a .240 GPA against righties, his Split is .040. At the same time, if Smith had a reverse split of the same degree (meaning he hits his fellow righties better than lefties), he'd have a -.040 Split.
As the season is still less than 10 percent finished and some teams, such as the Mariners, have faced just one lefty all year, I'll use hitters' career statistics to determine their Splits to avoid small sample issues. Here are the pure platoons currently being employed in major league baseball:
1B: L – Scott Thorman (.044), R – Craig Wilson (.046)
LF: L – Ryan Langerhans (-.013), R – Matt Diaz (.015)
Bobby Cox launched the Braves' dynasty in 1991 with platoons at first, second, shortstop, and left field, but his current left-field scenario is rather pointless. Diaz, the better overall hitter, should be the full-time starter.
C: L – Paul Bako (.062), R – Alberto Castillo (-.043)
The O's are trying to make the best of a bad situation with Hernandez on the DL and these two scrubs as their backup options, but, despite hitting from different sides of the dish, Bako and Castillo are similarly effective against righties and lefties. Manager Sam Perlozzo would be better off hoping one of them gets hot and sticking with him until Hernandez is activated.
SS: S – Cesar Izturis (-.012), R – Ronny Cedeño (-.033)
LF: L – Cliff Floyd (.024), R – Matt Murton (.045)
RF: L – Jacque Jones (.066), R – Ryan Theriot (.032)/R – Mark DeRosa (.052)
The Cubs have only faced two lefties this year, but the above seems to be the pattern Lou Piniella is following. Izturis and Cedeño are both awful hitters and Lou's platoon only makes things worse. The Floyd-Murton combo in left makes more sense, but the 25-year-old Murton deserves a chance to play every day. The best fit here is the right-field platoon, though it remains to be seen exactly whom Piniella is going to pair up with Jones. Theriot and DeRosa are currently battling over the second base job, but both have experience in the outfield as well. The best solution would be to make the 27-year-old Theriot the everyday starter at second and use veteran utility man DeRosa as the short side of the right-field platoon, enabling him to also fill in elsewhere when needed, as he did last year for the Rangers when he wasn't platooning with Hank Blalock at third base. The only concern is the quality of Theriot's defense at the keystone.
1B: L – Scott Hatteberg (.034), R – Jeff Conine (.030)
C: S – Javier Valentin (-.048), R – David Ross (.012)
Jerry Narron has used switch-hitter Valentin as the lefty half of his catching platoon for reasons that defy explanation. Valentin's split is so strong and Ross's so small that the Reds would actually be better off inverting their catcher platoon and starting Ross against righties and Valentin against lefties. The early returns show Ross struggling and Valentin excelling, but that's unlikely to continue. Ross should be the everyday catcher.
RF: L – Trot Nixon (.079), R – Casey Blake (.018)
LF: L – David Dellucci (.076), R – Jason Michaels (.035)
The Indians started the season with Nixon in a complex platoon with righty-hitting first baseman Ryan Garko (.039) that had Blake bouncing between right field and first base and playing every day. The only problem with that setup was that Blake was playing everyday at the expense of 26-year-old Garko, whose major league sample isn't large enough to justify limiting him to a platoon just yet.
2B: L – Kaz Matsui (.005), R – Jamey Carroll (.018)
Matsui had an insane split last year (.116). A more beneficial platoon they haven't fully committed to yet would be to split right field between lefty Brad Hawpe (.055) and righty Jeff Baker (.035).
1B: L – Sean Casey (.021), R – Marcus Thames (.004)
Casey isn't the hitter he used to be. Thames, who had a breakout season as well as a slight reverse split (-.015) last year, should be the starter.
RF: L – Luke Scott (.013), R – Jason Lane (.013)
Phil Garner would be better off riding the hot hand than worrying about handedness here.
Kansas City Royals
LF: L – Mark Teahen (.040), R – Reggie Sanders (0.36)
The Royals have also been working in righty-hitting infielder Esteban German (.017) against lefties, though German should really be starting full time, and just might if Dayton Moore can find a taker for second baseman Mark Grudzielanek.
Los Angeles Dodgers
RF: L – Andre Ethier (.006), R – Brady Clark (.005)
There's no reason for the Dodgers to be platooning Ethier with an inferior hitter such as Clark, even if Clark is just a stand-in for the injured Matt Kemp (who has a strong reverse split anyway, making that version of this platoon even more harmful). This is another symptom of the Dodgers' institutional distrust of their emerging prospects.
LF: L – Geoff Jenkins (.053), R – Kevin Mench (.056)
Mench can complain all he wants; this is the most sensible platoon in baseball.
New York Yankees
1B: L – Doug Mientkiewicz (-.006), R – Josh Phelps (.026)
Phelps hits righties as well as Mientkiewicz, who, like Sean Casey, isn't the hitter he used to be anyway. With Chien-Ming Wang, one of the four most extreme groundball pitchers in baseball, returning from the DL, there would be a certain logic to a defensive platoon that would have Minky starting behind Wang and possibly Andy Pettitte, regardless of the opposing pitcher. Failing that, Phelps should be the full-timer here.
RF: L – Travis Buck (NA), S – Bobby Kielty (.038)
Kielty is a switch-hitter in name only. Buck is a 23-year-old rookie who's 2 for 3 against lefties in his major league career and probably deserves a shot at a full-time job.
St. Louis Cardinals
2B: L – Adam Kennedy (.032), R – Aaron Miles (.006)
LF: L – Chris Duncan (.077), R – So Taguchi (-.002)
RF: S – Scott Spiezio (.017), R – Preston Wilson (.003)
Miles may seem like a poor partner for Kennedy, but he does hit lefties better than Kennedy (career .240 GPA to Kennedy's .224). The same is not true of Taguchi and Duncan, but then Duncan's stats are inflated by his small-sample success last year. As for Wilson, his split has become more extreme in recent years (.041 in 2005, .056 in '06), so that right-field platoon makes more sense than the career numbers above would indicate.
San Diego Padres
LF: L – Termel Sledge (.066), S – Jose Cruz Jr. (.022)
Switch-hitter Cruz serves as the right-handed half of this effective platoon.
Other Notable Platoon Players
The Marlins are working righty-hitting outfielder Cody Ross (.096) in against lefties. The Giants are working in outfielder Todd Linden (.037) against lefties and first baseman Ryan Klesko (.072) against righties. The Phillies are doing their best to sit right-hitting third baseman Wes Helms (.037) against righties. The Dodgers are trying to sit switch-hitter Wilson Betemit (.071 in favor of him hitting lefty) against lefties.
Finally, with DeRosa in Chicago, lefty hitting Rangers third baseman Blalock (.074) is playing every day, which, given his career .210 GPA against lefties after four full seasons and overall declining production, is detrimental to the Texas offense. It would behoove the Rangers to approach the Royals about a deal for German.
D'OH!After praising Zack Greinke and Felix Hernandez as potential Cy Young candidates in last week's Wild Card, the two combined for the following line in their starts this past week: 1 IP, 5 H, 7 R, 4 BB, 1 K, 0-2, 63.00 ERA. Was it something I said?
Cliff Corcoran is the co-author of Bronx Banter.
Labels: Wild Card
posted by SI.com | View comments |
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