December 23, 2011
Platoon Problems Cost Playing Time
What is the number one killer of fantasy seasons? Not spouses, not kids, not careers, but playing time. It is a simple process: you see the player and the playing time and you try to draft as many plate appearances as you can because players cannot produce counting statistics if they are not in the lineup. The easiest way for a player to lose playing time is to get injured pulling a hamstring on the basepaths or landing awkwardly diving for a ball. With some players, this seems like an inevitable event, while others who are viewed as stalwarts of health still manage to get with the injury bug from time to time. It is simply out of the control of some players because even the best preventive maintenance cannot stop every injury, and we have all seen fitness freaks get hurt while the soft-bodies waddle along on the field and never get hurt.
What players do have control over—at least to some extent—are their splits. Some players display issues hitting same-handed pitchers while some have reverse split where they handle those players just fine but can’t handle opposite-handed pitchers. There are more right-handed pitchers in baseball than lefties so, ideally, if a player is going to have any kind of drastic splits issue, we want that player to be left-handed so he will get the majority of playing time if used in a platoon situation by his manager. A good left-handed hitter that struggles with lefties can still get 450 or more plate appearances in a season, but someone who struggles with right-handed pitching is either going to lose playing time in that kind of platoon or get overused against the pitching he struggles against and pull down your ratios while offering little help to your counting categories.
Using one-year sample sizes to identify these players with splits is not wise because players can pull a season out of their nether region and surprise you. Wilson Betemit, for example, is a career .246 hitter against left-handed pitching with an OPS of just 684. In 2006, he saw 81 plate appearances against lefties and hit .189 with a 574 OPS. In 2010, the Royals decided to give him another 88 plate appearances and he rewarded their bravado by hitting .312 with an OPS of 930. They went back to that well again with 96 more plate appearances this past season, and he hit .236 with a 607 OPS.
Instead, using at least three seasons of data gives us a larger baseline to work from while understanding there can still be a lot of room for volatility within that kind of timeframe, especially for right-handed hitters. Betemit has seen 472 plate appearances against lefties, and while his overall numbers are low, he has had one good season and could very easily have another. That said, players tend to gain reputations and managers tend to credit (or discredit) players because of their platoon splits more than they should, so even if a player has an insufficient sample to really give us a clear indication as to his ability versus a certain hand, his manager might deem it sufficient enough to begrudge him playing time against that kind of pitcher. With that in mind, here some players who have trouble hitting left-handed pitching over the past three seasons:
That table does not even include someone like Seth Smith who has only had 239 plate appearances in his entire career against lefties, as the Rockies have clearly decided (right or wrong) that he cannot handle left-handed pitching. Smith has hit .202 with a 588 OPS during that time, striking out in 21 percent of his plate appearances with an ISO 111 points lower than it is against right-handed pitching. His name is currently in trade rumors with the team signing Michael Cuddyer, so maybe a new team will give him more of a chance to hit lefties. The reputation and scouting reports are still going to follow him from Denver, though, so even a change of scenery may not result in any more playing time for him. Joyce had received similar treatment from the Rays to date, although comments from management this off-season point to the team giving him more chances. These splits are concerning, but these players are still on the strong side of the platoon so the playing time lost due to matchups should be somewhat limited.
On the other hand, here are the hitters over the past three seasons that have struggled to hit right-handed pitching:
The most notable names here are Lowrie and Rodriguez, both which are actually being considered for a majority of the playing time at shortstop for their teams. Lowrie has Angel Sanchez behind him on the depth chart, who is not the type of hitter that is going to demand playing time in a platoon situation, but it is important to recognize that Lowrie’s offensive upside in Houston could be limited if he continues to struggle hitting right-handed pitching as he has so far in his career (just realize that we’re dealing with a very small sample with him). Rodriguez has defensive specialist Reid Brignac behind him, and those two, along with Elliot Johnson, shared the position throughout 2011 in between Brignac’s demotion to Durham. Rodriguez is very adept at hitting left-handed pitching but has struggled mightily hitting righties any time he has been given the chance. John Perrotto’s beat column on Wednesday noted that Rodriguez is the favorite to win most of the playing time, but if his struggles continue and Brignac’s bat comes back to its 2010 form, that playing time commitment could disappear.