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February 27, 2013

You Complete Me

Four Platoon Candidates for 2013

by Jonah Birenbaum

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Platoons seem to carry an unfavorable stigma among major-league players, and I’d like to submit two hypotheses for the negative perception of them: the unavoidable association with Charlie Sheen and the unflattering premise of a player not being good enough to warrant a spot in the everyday lineup.

The latter is (probably) more damaging to a player’s psyche, but I believe this perception is borne of an imperfect understanding of what a platoon is. A platoon isn’t some scathing indictment of a player’s worth, but rather an astute recognition of ways to maximize value at a given position with the pieces at a team’s disposal.

The Tampa Bay Rays, an organization with a reputation for ingenuity, have one of the league’s more progressive attitudes toward platoons, and have employed them routinely over the past few seasons.  Extracting value out of combinations like Gabe Gross/Gabe Kapler, John Jaso/Kelly Shoppach, and even a three-man platoon of Ben Zobrist/Sean Rodriguez/Matt Joyce, the Rays have been able to optimize production by using players to the best of their abilities and distinguishing between favorable and unfavorable matchups. Incidentally, they’ve made the playoffs in three of the last five years, averaging roughly 92 wins per season over that span.

By recognizing their players’ strengths and weaknesses, other teams can reap similar rewards. Here are four clubs with reserve players that could provide substantial value if they were to be used in platoons this year.

Dodgers: Jerry Hairston Jr. (RHH) for Andre Ethier (LHH)

Hairston, a utility man extraordinaire, is a competent outfielder and represents a defensive upgrade over Ethier, who has proven a liability in right field in every season of his career except 2006, according to FRAA.  More importantly, however, Hairston provides a right-handed hitting alternative to Ethier, whose futility against left-handed pitching is well documented, with little hope of improvement as he nears the age of 31. 

Hairston, despite being on the wrong side of 35, fared well in his 105 plate appearances against left-handed pitching last season, compiling an 800 OPS and a .296 TAv. It’s a small sample, to be sure, but for his career, Hairston’s OPS versus lefties trumps Ethier’s by more than 100 points. Hairston also possesses good contact skills—as evidenced by his 10.1 percent career strikeout rate against lefties—and provides Los Angeles with a leadoff alternative to Mark Ellis.

Why platoon?

Since 2010, only three other qualified hitters have compiled a lower on-base percentage against southpaws than Ethier’s .276 mark. In spite of this, Ethier still stepped to the plate against a lefty 239 times in 2012, a career-high total for the Arizona State product. Ethier did little to vindicate Don Mattingly’s faith, striking out in 26 percent of those trips, while posting a meager 606 OPS. Ethier also demonstrated no improvement in his plate discipline against southpaws, posting a walk rate south of five percent for the second consecutive season.

Indians: Nick Swisher (switch) for Drew Stubbs (RHH)

The Indians don’t have an obvious platoon partner for Stubbs, but Swisher—who played primarily in right field for the Yankees—could serve in a multi-position role similar to that played by Zobrist in Tampa Bay. In this arrangement, Swisher would play first against left-handed opponents, but would slide over to right versus northpaws, with regular catcher Carlos Santana or Rule 5 draft pick Chris McGuiness filling in at first base. If new manager Terry Francona isn’t keen on juggling his defensive lineup every few days, he would need general manager Chris Antonetti to find another lefty. Ezequiel Carrera and non-roster invitee Jeremy Hermida are not likely to hit enough to make the timeshare worthwhile, especially given Stubbs’ superior range in the outfield.

Why platoon?

Despite an impressive power-speed pedigree—he knocked 22 home runs and stole 30 bases in 2010—Stubbs has seemingly resolved to play himself out of an everyday role over the past two seasons, with each of his big-three rate stats declining steadily since that impressive campaign. Much of this has to do with his pronounced inability to hit right-handed pitching.  In 2012, Stubbs’ .198 TAv against righties represented the lowest mark in the league among righty swingers with at least 300 plate appearances. Contact issues continue to plague him, although, admittedly, this is true regardless of the pitcher’s handedness; Stubbs struck out in more than 30 percent of his tripls to the box over the past two seasons, and when these contact problems conspire with a .259 BABIP, as they did in 2012, the combination makes for particularly ugly results. Stubbs was responsible for a .186/.259/.282 triple-slash line against right-handers last season, affording him the distinction of being the only like-handed batter who saw at least 300 at-bats against right-handed pitching despite batting below the Mendoza line.

Blue Jays: Rajai Davis and Mark DeRosa (RHH) for Adam Lind (LHH)

Although Emilio Bonifacio was one of Toronto’s less-heralded offseason acquisitions, his presence on the roster gives the Blue Jays considerable flexibility when it comes to configuring their lineup. For instance, it allows them to put Davis into a platoon with Lind, who has proven entirely inept at hitting left-handed pitching, without exhausting a late-inning defensive replacement or pinch runner. Davis posted a 783 OPS with four home runs in 165 plate appearances versus southpaws in 2012, and owns a .290/.349/.417 career triple-slash line against them. Davis also adds another element of speed to a retooled Toronto lineup that already has plenty of it, thanks to newcomers Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, and Bonifacio. Mark DeRosa, another offseason pickup, could also be a fit. He hasn’t collected more than 104 plate appearances in a season since 2009, but brings a career 843 OPS against lefties and experience at first base, which would allow Edwin Encarnacion to slide comfortably into the designated-hitter role.

Why platoon?

Blue Jays fans had no shortage of things to gripe about in 2012. Injuries. Ricky Romero. Injuries. And yet it still wasn’t enough to divert attention away from Lind, who has struggled to the tune of a .186/.226/.281 triple-slash line against left-handers over the past three seasons, a span that encompasses 390 plate appearances. In case you were wondering, yes, this is the same Adam Lind who won the 2009 Silver Slugger award by hitting 35 home runs and amassing a 932 OPS.  Since that miraculous season, Lind has languished through two sub-.300 OBP campaigns, due in large part to his tremendous failings against lefty pitching.  Since 2011, Lind has struck out in nearly 22 percent of his plate appearances against lefties, while drawing walks in less than five percent of them.  His scuffles culminated in a month-long, mid-season demotion in 2012, and while he did show signs of life upon his return to the big leagues, posting an812 OPS (881 vs. RHP/642 vs. LHP) over his final 59 games, his body of work versus fellow southpaws doesn’t inspire much confidence. 

Twins: Player X (RHH) for Justin Morneau (LHH)

Realistically, the Twins don’t have a viable platoon partner for Morneau. A cursory look at their tentative Opening Day lineup will show you that Minnesota isn’t exactly operating with a wealth of offensive talent. Nonetheless, it’s readily apparent that Morneau hasn’t been the same hitter against left-handed pitching since suffering a concussion in 2010. This weakness probably won’t impact his playing time, as he remains one the team’s core players, but his contract will expire at the end of 2013, and Minnesota will be forced to decide whether he will be part of the team’s increasingly bright future. Should general manager Terry Ryan determine that Morneau can contribute to the Twins beyond this season, he would do well to find a righty-swinging complement while working on an extension.

Why platoon?

Despite respectable career numbers against lefties—728 OPS, .170 ISO—Morneau has been dreadful against them since 2011, eking his way to a 517 OPS over his last 309 plate appearances. Of his 23 homeruns since Opening Day of the 2011 season, only three have come against left-handed pitching, a ratio that bespeaks an anemic .066 ISO. For a little context, names like Maicer Izturis, Juan Pierre, and Jamey Carroll highlight the list of players who netted at least 300 plate appearances while producing less in the way of isolated power in 2012. Morneau’s on-base abilities are lacking, too, as he reached in just 27 percent of his 214 plate appearances against southpaws last season, the worst rate among left-handed batters with at least 200 plate appearances. 

Jonah Birenbaum is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

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