March 25, 2015
Every Team's Moneyball
Cleveland Indians: Yay Handedness!
Every day until Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus authors will preview two teams—one from the AL, one from the NL—identifying strategies those teams employ to gain an advantage. Today: the handedness games of the Brewers and Indians.
Terry Francona has quickly gained the trust of the Indians' often untrusting fan base due to his amiable personality, the enthusiastic reports from his players, his humble scooter, and his success on the field. When Russell Carleton looked at how different managers grade in helping their players survive the grind of a 162-game season, Francona placed at the top of the list. Those things are all great, but they are not the only ways that Francona has helped the Tribe win 177 games over the past two years. One specific strategy that Francona gets some credit for is giving his hitters the platoon advantage more often than any other team in baseball.
Since 2013, MLB hitters have had the platoon advantage in 55 percent of plate appearances, but Indians hitters have it 72 percent of the time. That adds up to 1,117 plate appearances above the league average per season, or 6.9 per game. The A's are the only team to come even close to Cleveland, gaining the advantage 6.4 times per game above to league average:
This is not a phenomenon that started with the arrival of Francona, however. From 2010-2012, when Manny Acta managed the Tribe, Cleveland led baseball by gaining the platoon advantage 66 percent of the time.
Teams can gain the platoon advantage in three ways:
In those years, the Tribe managed to lead baseball in getting the platoon advantage when you remove all plate appearances by switch-hitters, while sending switch-hitters to the plate at the fifth-highest rate. Hover over the circles on the graph below to see how each team fared in those two statistics:
To compare how much of that non-switch-hitter platoon advantage was from simply using lots of lefties and how much was from using lefties and righties strategically, I calculated the league-average rate of platoon advantage for both lefties and righties in each year, then compared that to each hitter's actual rate of platoon advantage to come up with "Platoon Advantage PA Above Average." Here are the numbers for each Indians hitter with at least 150 PA over those three years (league-average numbers are weighted by number of plate appearances in each season):
Note the green bars on the positive side: most of the Indians' right-handed hitters were used against lefties more often than league average, but that was counterbalanced by Cleveland using their lefties frequently against left-handed pitchers, giving batters like Shin-Soo Choo the platoon disadvantage far more often than an average lefty. If you hover over each player, you can see their actual platoon-advantage rate and the MLB average for their hand weighted by PA in each year. You'll notice that even though Choo's platoon-advantage rate was far below the league average for lefties and Shelley Duncan's was far above the league average for righties, Choo's raw platoon-advantage rate was still higher than Duncan's (66 percent to 44 percent).
I aggregated those totals for each team to determine how much of their platoon advantage came from using players strategically and how much came simply from having lots of left-handed hitters. Note that this includes all players, not just those with at least 150 PA.
When you adjust for handedness, the 2010-2012 Indians' non-switch-hitter platoon advantage completely disappears, as the frequency of their lefty-lefty matchup entirely removes the advantage they received from using righties strategically. Yet the Indians still enjoyed the highest rate of platoon advantage PAs by non-switch-hitters of any team in baseball because they batted so many lefties.
The next year, the Indians added not only Terry Francona, but Nick Swisher (free agent signing), Ryan Raburn (another free agent), and Mike Aviles (trade with Toronto) as well. With Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana already established as regulars, Swisher became the third switch-hitting member of the lineup. They continued to be careful with their right-handed hitters, in particular newcomers Aviles and Raburn. This led to a higher number of PA with the platoon advantage when adjusted for handedness. They still sent lefties to the plate in over 60 percent of PA taken by non-switch-hitters, but were surpassed by Seattle in that category:
So Francona kept the team at the top of the platoon-advantage rankings by using all three methods:
Now, one might have been worried that their league-best switch-hitter usage would fall off when they traded Asdrubal Cabrera to the Nationals at the 2014 Trade Deadline. However, this was not an issue for the Indians for few reasons:
Now that Francona has proved he can manage his lefties and righties more effectively than Acta did while continuing to keep lots of lefties and switch-hitters in the everyday lineup, Indians fans can rest assured that the Tribe will continue to see lots of offensive matchups against opposite-handed pitching. Swisher's poor 2014 performance puts a question mark on how much they'll actually get from their switch-hitters next year, but Lindor's potential should provide some hope. All in all, it's important to remember that there are many ways to accomplish something as seemingly simple as getting the platoon advantage.