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February 15, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Platoon Animals

by Jason Collette

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If only.

The longer you play fantasy baseball, the more often you will find yourself uttering that phrase. If only Mark Reynolds made more contact, he would hit .280. If only James Shields didn't give up so many home runs, he would be a lock for $20-plus in value every season. If only Joey Gathright or Esix Snead could secure a starting role somewhere, they would steal 50-plus bases a season. If you're Frank Costanza, you are livid that after trading prospect Jay Buhner to acquire Ken Phelps, the Yankees let Phelps ride the bench while playing Don Mattingly at first base and Jack Clark at designated hitter.

What escaped the attention of Mr. Costanza was the fact that Ken Phelps was not quite effective against left-handed pitching. Phelps had an 873 OPS against right-handed pitchers in 2028 plate appearances, but his managers rarely let him hit against left-handed pitching, as he had but a 700 OPS against them in 259 plate appearances. In fact, Phelps never saw more than 75 plate appearances against lefties in any one season. It was examples like this that led Bill James to create the Ken Phelps All-Stars, for players who get stuck with a label of things they can’t do while ignoring what they can do.

Clearly, the Yankees saw what Ken Phelps could do: He hit 65 home runs over his final 2.5 seasons in Seattle, so the Yankees gave up Buhner, thinking that Phelps’ power would fit even better with the short porch at Yankee Stadium. If only. Phelps hit for power, with a .551 SLG (.303 TAv) after the deal, but hit just .224 for the rest of that season and even worse in 1989 before the Yankees shipped him off to Oakland, where his biggest hit was breaking up Brian Holman’s perfect game with a two-out ninth-inning home run.

The league is still full of Ken Phelps All-Stars, players who are quite productive as long as their managers limit exposing their faults. Unless you're playing in a sim league like Scoresheet, the “if only” theory does not work out so well for batters with extreme splits, because the more plate appearances these players get against their weakness, the more their overall stat line suffers, pulling down their roto value. For example, Marcus Thames was worth $1 more in 2010 with the Yankees than he was in 2009 with the Tigers despite nearly 100 fewer at bats, as Joe Girardi carefully limited his exposure to right-handed pitching, picking and choosing the types of righties Thames faced rather than penciling him in against all righties.

By this point in Thames' career, managers have a reliable sample of his strengths and weaknesses, and there are more out there like him who shouldn't be playing every day. This generation’s Ken Phelps, Russell Branyan, is a player with such splits who still gets in the lineup most days. He is abysmal against southpaws, and for nearly his entire career, managers refused to play him against lefties--until Seattle and Cleveland, his last two teams, combined to give him 291 plate appearances against lefties over the past two seasons. While the 16 home runs were nice, the 103 strikeouts and .209/.290/.446 line were not.

Some younger players who need to straighten out their splits include Brandon Wood, Chase Headley, Matt Joyce, Sean Rodriguez, Julio Borbon, and Adam Lind. Truth be told, Brandon Wood has frustrated fantasy owners ever since he was first drafted. After 479 plate appearances, he owns a career TAv of just .158 and a negative 3.8 WARP.  He is an odd one in that his career OPS against same-handed pitching (483) is 75 points higher than his OPS against lefties (408). Wood has not shown he can handle hitting anyone regardless of their handedness to this point, and I have my doubts about his ability to hit off of a pitching machine, too. If he were not out of options, he would be back on the farm with the Angels, likely beginning his career as a Quad-A player, but he will be given one more chance this spring to prove he has what it takes to hit at the major league level. A mere 479 plate appearances is not enough of a sample size to completely write him off, but he does not have just the one split to worry about—he has the whole enchilada to attack.

Chase Headley has 1675 plate appearances with the Padres and a career TAv of .275. He has had back-to-back seasons of nearly identical value as a switch-hitter, but switch-hitting does not appear to be helping him much. He has a career slash line of .275/.350/.408 against righties hitting from the left side of the plate, but that slash line plummets to .240/.301/.354 when he hops over to the right side. His efforts against lefties are getting worse, as his OPS against them has dropped from 757 to 671 to 589 over the past three seasons (in a combined 538 plate appearances). He is going to get his plate appearances in San Diego as one of the best players on their roster, but unless he stops that trend against lefties, it is hard to see his fantasy value reaching the $20 plateau in NL-only leagues.

Matt Joyce has but 575 plate appearances in a major league career that spans parts of three seasons, and only 61 of those have come against lefties. In small sample sizes in the minors, Joyce showed an ability to hit lefties effectively, but in those 61 times up against southpaws, Joyce's slash line is just .157/.267/.235. Against righties, Joyce has shown power potential: His .262 Isolated Power against righties was the tenth-best rating of all American League hitters last season, and he had two separate months in which he slugged over .500. As it stands now, Joyce is likely to be platooned in right field with either the switch-hitting Ben Zobrist or fellow youngster Sean Rodriguez.

Like Joyce, Rodriguez’s career has spanned across parts of the past three seasons, but he has not had his playing time limited by handedness yet. His OPS vs lefties is 716 for his career, but (small sample caveats apply) it was 817 last season in 136 plate appearances. Meanwhile, his career OPS against righties is just 647 thanks to problems drawing walks against them. Both players have the potential to be breakout players for the new look Rays in 2011, and I am on record predicting 20/20 potential for Rodriguez, but both have to address issues in their splits to avoid being platooned by the ever-tinkering Joe Maddon. For a deeper dive into approaches of both Joyce and Rodriguez, check out Jason Hanselman’s investigation from this past December.

Julio Borbon’s speed has been enticing to fantasy owners over the past two seasons, and his .284 TAv season of 2009 (with 19 steals in just 46 games!) had fantasy owners excited for a big 2010 season that never happened. The Rangers gave him 468 plate appearances, but his TAv fell to .238 and he stole four fewer bases despite nearly 300 extra plate appearances.  It did not take the league too long to figure out that this lefty cannot hit lefties: In 125 plate appearances, he has hit .236/.280/.291 against them while slashing his way to a .297/.338/.375 line against righties. The Rangers are also carrying Chris Gentry in the outfield as a right-handed outfielder that can play center, so if Borbon does not figure out left-handers soon, he could losing playing time to Gentry. It doesn't help that most of Borbon’s production against right-handers came from 2009, either, and the Rangers have shown they have a short leash for players who aren't producing.

Adam Lind has been extremely productive against righties in his career with a .290/.342/.518 slash line in 1482 plate appearances, but his numbers against lefties have been all over the place. For his career, his lefty slash line is an abysmal .217/.264/.344, but many fantasy owners were predicting a breakout year for Lind in 2010. The Jay hit .275/.318/.461 against lefties the previous season in 179 at bats, buoying his line, and it turns out that was an outlier. Lind’s 2010 slash line against lefties made even Branyan cringe, as Lind hit just .117/.159/.182 over 145 plate appearances. Kudos to Cito Gaston for giving Lind the chance to work his problems out, but the gains that Lind made in 2009 evaporated quickly. Since Lind has shown he can do it once, he has the potential to do it again. The .167 BABIP and the six percent HR/FB rate Lind had against lefties show that there is room for improvement as both are well below his career averages for that split.

Of all of the players on this list, I have the most faith in Lind to take that next step up. In his case, he would be taking a step back up to his 2009 value where he was one of the biggest surprises of the season. All of these players (excepting Brandon Wood) have been rather popular in early mock drafts either due to position or potential, but unless these splits improve, there will be a cap on how much these players can achieve for your fantasy teams in 2011. If only.

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

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