March 25, 2015
Every Team's Moneyball
Milwaukee Brewers: Nay 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.
In each of the last two seasons, the Milwaukee Brewers have had the platoon advantage in a lower percentage of plate appearances than any other team:
That's because they take a huge percentage of their plate appearances from the right side—72 percent of the time in 2013, and a preposterous 80 percent of the time in 2014. They’re loaded with right-handed batters, and part of the cost of that decision is not having the platoon advantage often at all. Before Scooter Gennett took Rickie Weeks’ job in 2014, there was a significant stretch during which the Brewers didn’t regularly start a left-handed batter.
On the other hand, the Brewers had the platoon advantage 53 percent of the time when they were on the mound in 2014, the highest rate in the league:
You can probably guess how this came to pass. A league-high 88 percent of batters faced came with a righty throwing for Milwaukee last season, which is actually lower than the 90 percent of righties throwing in 2013. Randy Wolf was the last southpaw to throw as many as 100 innings for the team, and did so in 2012.
This might seem a strange juxtaposition. The Brewers appear to value the platoon edge with their guys on the mound, but not mind giving it away at the plate. The platoon advantage either matters or it doesn’t; there’s no evidence that it somehow affects one side of the batter-pitcher confrontation significantly more than it affects the other (apart from left-handed batters having a harder time hitting same-handed pitching that right-handed batters do). What is it that the Brewers are trying to exploit here?
In a word, I propose, what they’re exploiting is cuteness. The Athletics, Rays, Indians, and Pirates—the four teams who, in terms of market size, payroll restrictions, and business models, compare best to Milwaukee—are famous for building rosters that feel as though they were lovingly carved from a delicate sheet of paper-thin cherry wood. There are ample platoons, bullpens loaded with matchup options, and arm-slot variations, crafted with a very delicate, finely calibrated balance. The Brewers, by contrast, seem focused on the greatest accumulation of talent they can manage, with almost no regard whatsoever for secondary considerations. In 2011, they were willing to start Yuniesky Betancourt at shortstop in order to add Zack Greinke to the front of their rotation. They signed Aramis Ramirez, Kyle Lohse, and Matt Garza to multiyear free-agent deals with eight-figure annual values, gleefully gathering up players other teams must have seen as valuable, but for whom they couldn’t find a good fit. General manager Doug Melvin just seems to want good players.
The 2015 Brewers will be, by their standards, a balanced bunch. Gennett is now, more or less, the full-time second baseman. Trading Marco Estrada netted the team Adam Lind, a left-handed righty-masher of a platoon first baseman. Gerardo Parra won’t start often, but will lead a bench with two left-handed bats and switch-hitting infielder Luis Sardinas. The team let Zach Duke leave in free agency, but replaced him by signing Neal Cotts to complement Will Smith from the left side in the bullpen. Still, the top five batters in their lineup (on most days) will bat right-handed and they won’t employ a lefty starter. Many teams would view these things as a problem. The Brewers don’t.
Good right-handed hitters are, in one way, better than good left-handed batters. The former are being slightly underrated by whatever aggregate stats one might use to evaluate them, because they have the platoon advantage roughly half as often as a left-hander does, and often less than 30 percent of the time overall. Righties are also less affected by the platoon split itself, which makes them less vulnerable to matchup arms out of the opponent’s bullpen. If you really want to give the front office some credit, you could point out that there has never been a better time, in all of baseball history, to be a right-handed batter. It’s possible the Brewers are so far ahead of everyone else that they’re reaping the benefits of staying away from lefties before anyone else. I doubt it, though. It seems to me that they’re mostly about finding good players, and not passing up the opportunity to acquire them just because of the hand with which they throw, or the box from which they bat. That’s a devilishly simple formula, but potentially a wise one. With the farm system thin and the core aging quickly, Melvin needs to remain committed to that paradigm in order to remain flexible and competitive over the next few seasons.