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August 8, 2001

The Daily Prospectus

Overplayed

by Joe Sheehan

Last week, I pointed out that Eric Karros has been pretty bad against right-handed pitchers this year. Earlier this season, I mentioned Brian Jordan's problem with righties in making the case that he should be platooned.

I got to wondering about how many players there are like this, guys who have regular jobs, but who really should be platooned. The platoon advantage is real (c.f. The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1988 for a good study of the issue) and almost all players will hit better with the platoon advantage than without it. Of the myriad statistical splits we have access to these days, it's still the most important one, both for the size of the sample involved and the way it reflects an actual ability or lack of same.

Now, don't get me wrong: I don't think you can platoon everywhere. Trying to do so at more than about three positions would lead to unimaginable problems. But when players slip to a performance level that would get your attention if it was their overall performance, you have to wonder if they're hurting more than they're helping when they play against the guys they can't hit, especially when that performance doesn't appear to be a sample-size fluke.

The aforementioned Jordan has a .310 OBP against righties this season; that's horrible for a corner outfielder. That performance comes on the heels of a .283 OBP against them in 2000. Over two years, it's a sub-.300 OBP in about 75% of his plate appearances, which is Womackian.

He's not the only one. Over the last four seasons, Matt Williams has posted OBPs of .306, .295, .322, and .311 against right-handers. He has more power than Jordan, but not much: in only one of those seasons has he slugged even .440 against northpaws. Williams has struggled with injuries, and perhaps making him a part-time player is one way to keep him healthy and maximize his performance. If Craig Counsell gets some of his playing time, it will help the D'backs offense. Similarly, Reggie Sanders' OPS split of 748/1006 makes a good case for more David Dellucci in right field.

After being the Jays' everyday DH for most of his two seasons with the team, Brad Fullmer has seen his playing time against left-handers dwindle of late. He hasn't had a .300 OBP against southpaws since 1998, and his performance this season has been putrid: .191/.219/.281 in 91 plate appearances. If he picks up the label "platoon player," he'll have earned it.

An odd quirk in baseball is that left-handed hitters are often prone to picking up a "platoon" label, even when it's not warranted, while comparable same-side performance from right-handed batters is often overlooked. This is in part because players who can't hit right-handers can find this fact obscured by their raw totals. Kevin Young, for instance, can't hit righties: .218/.293/.393 this year, .256/.307/.414 last year. But he had 88 RBIs last year and is on pace for more than 80 this year, and keeps finding his way into the lineup in part because of a reputation as an RBI man.

Not to pick on a couple of guys I've been accused of disliking, but the two most publicized Mariners have some platoon issues. Bret Boone has a .301 OBP against left-handers, right in line with his established performance level. He is hitting them for power, with a .500 slugging percentage. Really, though, his MVP-candidate season has been built on his crushing left-handers to the tune of .490/.541/.808. I'm not suggesting he be platooned, but I am saying that his inability to reach base against righties may become an issue, and is a significant flaw in his game.

He's not the only popular Mariner hiding a blemish. Ichiro Suzuki pretty much plays every day, but his platoon split is as dramatic as that of any regular in the game:

vs. RHP: .352/.384/.489
vs. LHP: .285/.316/.382

Ichiro walks a bit more on his own power against lefties, but it's not a significant difference. His core skill--hitting singles--takes a beating, though, and his power slips a bit. All this makes him a below-average player against lefties, and a disaster at the top of the order.

These are just a few samples of players who aren't thought of as platoon candidates, but whose performance indicates that they might be playing more than they should. I'm sure your favorite team has a guy like this: send me your candidate at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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

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