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March 10, 2011

Painting the Black

Plate Appearances and Games Started

by R.J. Anderson

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In September of 1975, Orioles manager Earl Weaver took a new approach to the platoon concept. Instead of alternating lineups based on throwing arms or batted-ball tendencies, Weaver decided to maximize his offense and defense at the same position within the same inning. It may sound complicated, but the execution is genius for its simplicity.

Weaver waited until rosters expanded before putting his plan into motion. Shortstop Mark Belanger could really pick the ball, but his at-bats left something to be desired: good results. During a stretch of road games, as an adaptation, Weaver placed the shortstop position at the top of the order, but Belanger would not enter the game until the bottom of the first. Weaver essentially used a pinch-hitter up front in his lineup. Although the player, Royle Stillman, officially started the game, Belanger would play all of the defensive opportunities and run the bases when Stillman reached. By doing so, Weaver took away a plate appearance from one of his worst hitters while maintaining his defense’s integrity.

In Weaver’s fascinating book, Weaver on Strategy, he notes that Belanger was none too pleased with the arrangement. Ultimately, though, Stillman reached base in more than half of those plate appearances, giving the O’s a short-lived advantage, as Weaver would not deploy the arrangement again for a few seasons.

Thirty-five years later, another Orioles’ shortstop became a victim of disappearing plate appearances. The graph below plots every position player with at least 50 starts –not appearances, but starts, an important distinction—and their plate appearances for the 2010 season. Most of the data points fit the intuitive relationship between the two. The more starts a player gets, ostensibly the more plate appearances he will rack up. With one noticeable exception:

Cesar Izturis even has a unique data-point marker representative of his team’s colors. Izturis started 142 games and racked up a little more than 500 plate appearances (513). Unsurprisingly, Izturis is the only player with more than 140 starts who recorded fewer than 550 plate appearances. Nevertheless, it does not appear Izturis was the target of Buck Showalter toying with various machinations, much to the dismay of innovative lineup enthusiasts everywhere. Here is how Izturis’ starts break down:

  • 126 complete games (including eight extra inning games);
  • Three times removed in the ninth inning;
  • Nine times removed in the eighth inning;
  • Four times removed in the seventh inning.

Overall, nothing unusual for a player of Izturis’ (limited) skill set. After all, he is a plus defender at a premium position who does not field or run the bases well enough to make up for his lacking offensive abilities. As such, the answer to where Izturis’ extra plate appearances went is rather obvious. With the exception of a handful of games, Izturis batted in the eighth or ninth slot of the Orioles’ order last season. The common rule of thumb is that a batter will lose 18 plate appearances each time he drops down a slot in the lineup, so Izturis’ final plate appearance tally will be predisposed to deflation based simply on his batting slot.

Aiding the process of limiting Izturis even further is his own offense. The Orioles had one of the worst team on-base percentages in baseball last season (a feat that Izturis contributed to), meaning their batters are naturally going to record fewer plate appearances than those hitters on good offensive teams. While those two factoids alone provide enough reason for Izturis’ staggered total, another factor comes into play, as the Orioles did pull Izturis early on those 16 occasions. Sometimes it meant he lost out on a plate appearance, other times multiple plate appearances, since bringing Izturis into a game he didn’t start to hit is foolish, there was no way for him to artificially enhance his trips to the plate either.

Limiting the offensive exposure of a horrible hitter by any other means is a good idea, but not when the driving mechanism is the team’s woeful on-base percentage. With the case of Izturis’ vanishing plate appearances out the way, here are a few other players who saw disagreements in their trips to the plate and their games started:

  • Wes Helms recorded 287 plate appearances on 52 starts, more than some players with 20-plus additional starts, like Tommy Manzella, Humberto Quintero (both of the Astros, oddly enough), thanks to 48 appearances as a pinch hitter which inflated his plate appearance total.
  • The Angels not only had the player with the most starts who finished with fewer than 250 plate appearances (Brandon Wood with 67) but also the player with the second most starts too, as Jeff Mathis started 62 games.
  • Austin Jackson had 140 starts, yet wound up within eight plate appearances of Jose Bautista, who started every game but one, thanks to his catbird seat in the lineup.
  • Josh Wilson is the only player to start more than 100 games and finish with fewer than 400 plate appearances, as he finished with 388. Bengie Molina is the next lowest, at 416.

 The takeaway lesson is that lineup slot and offense quality seems to matter more than in-game managerial tinkering. It's a tidbit that should help Belanger rest easier.

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Cesar Izturis

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