April 17, 2003
Hiding Your Weakness
The Phillies are 9-6, tied for first in the NL East. Even after a couple of low-scoring nights against the Marlins, they lead the world in runs scored. I mention that because this is going to seem like a strange time to pick on their offense. Bear with me.
In my NL East preview, I wrote the following:
"It is interesting to look at the Phillies' lineup and see just how many slots have major platoon issues. Jim Thome and Bobby Abreu routinely lose 150 to 300 points of slugging against lefties, while Polanco and Mike Lieberthal are everyday players in name only; neither hits right-handers well enough to justify his lineup spot or salary. The Phillies might get away with this during the regular season, but it's hard to envision them winning a short playoff series against a good manager, one willing to exploit these weaknesses."
Here are the career platoon splits, through Tuesday, for the eight Phillies starters and their current center fielder. They're listed in the most common order in which they've appeared.
Player Side vs. RHP vs. LHP ------------------------------------------------------ Jimmy Rollins SH .257/.309/.392 .284/.346/.429 Placido Polanco RH .282/.322/.362 .334/.376/.468 Bobby Abreu LH .315/.419/.563 .278/.376/.380 Jim Thome LH .303/.437/.624 .247/.350/.420 Pat Burrell RH .261/.344/.464 .284/.410/.607 David Bell RH .255/.313/.405 .261/.320/.392 Mike Lieberthal RH .257/.318/.427 .321/.398/.551 Ricky Ledee LH .247/.333/.412 .224/.296/.359 Marlon Byrd RH .211/.305/.288 .143/.200/.429Four of the Phillies' starters have OPS splits of at least 200 points, and only David Bell--who's just a fair hitter no matter who is on the mound--lacks a significant split. I've argued in the past that Lieberthal should be a platoon player, although he's paid like and played as often as an All-Star. Ricky Ledee was already in line to share time with Marlon Byrd in center field, and now has two weeks in which to grab a significant part of the job.
The Phillies' lineup is basically two guys who hit lefties followed by two guys who hit righties, followed by three guys who hit lefties. Larry Bowa has elected to let Abreu and Thome hit back-to-back, despite the fact that both players are just a shell of their high-priced selves when facing their own kind.
Other managers have noticed. The Phillies are seeing aggressive relief usage, targeted at the two left-handed hitters, whenever the game is close. Observe:
With Abreu and Thome batting back-to-back followed by three right-handed hitters who, at best, have a career 808 OPS against right-handers, it's a no-brainer for managers to run their bullpens effectively. They can get the platoon advantage on the Phillies' best four hitters without penalty, and as the above sample shows, they're going to do just that.
How significant is this? Well, for their careers, the middle of the Phillies' lineup hits like this:
Those guys are being paid a lot of money. All are in the middle of long-term contracts, and this year they'll make more than $26 million among them. They're expected to be, collectively, a .280/.380/.520 hitter.
But against any sentient manager--what, that's about a dozen, right?--here's what the Phillies are actually getting after the sixth inning:
Maybe that's ungenerous, as at least the first three of these guys have improved somewhat against their bad side. In 2002, here's what the four did against pitchers who throw from the side they hit:
Abreu, Thome and Lieberthal all lose a ton of power, and Thome and Lieberthal lose a lot of OBP. Burrell is coming into his own against right-handers, and is the most balanced of the four at this point. Together, they're a .270/.360/.450 hitter.
Think about that. The Phillies are paying for .280/.380/.520, or roughly speaking, Luis Gonzalez. After the sixth inning, though, what they're getting for their $26 million is .270/.360/.450, or Mark Kotsay. It's a difference of 15-20 runs a season, and it will come in the highest-leverage situations: late in close games.
This isn't a problem that's going to go away. The first 15 games of the season have made it clear that opposing managers aren't going to let the middle of the Phillies lineup beat them with the platoon advantage, so unless Abreu and Thome suddenly develop significant power against southpaws, the Phillies will be playing at a disadvantage all season long.
There's one simple solution here: Separate them, preferably with Pat Burrell. Burrell's career split above hides his improvement over the past three seasons:
The Phillies signed Burrell to a six-year, $50 million contract over the winter, so the argument that he's a young player unprepared to bat cleanup doesn't carry much water. He's a good enough hitter against right-handers that the Phils don't give away much batting him there against righties (an argument you can't make for Lieberthal).
With Burrell hitting between Abreu and Thome, opposing managers would be unable to get multiple free shots with any ambulatory lefty, and would have to choose between making two pitching changes or letting Burrell tee off on a lefty (.311/.469/.664 last year). In reality, moving Burrell between Abreu and Thome will probably pre-empt a lot of the tactical switching, as managers are forced to make a tough decision, as opposed to the easy one an Abreu/Thome 3-4 presents.
Actually, I wouldn't bat Burrell fourth. I'd line them up this way against righties:
SS Rollins RF Abreu LF Burrell 1B Thome C Lieberthal CF Ledee 3B Bell 2B PolancoThe Phillies are giving away far too many at-bats by hitting Polanco second against right-handers and moving the three studs down in the order. Abreu is a tremendous No. 2 hitter: a left-hander with speed who almost never hits into double plays, has the patience to let Rollins--a great percentage basestealer--run and the power to move him around when he doesn't. Against lefties, Bowa can move Polanco to the No. 2 hole and slide everyone else down a slot.
There's an argument that you should bat your best hitters above your other ones irrespective of platoon issues. In many cases, I might agree, but because Abreu and Thome lose so much of their value against left-handers, I think Larry Bowa has to structure his lineup to address that issue. The Phillies may be the best team in the division, but they're not so good that they can watch the middle of their lineup be neutered in 100 late-game situations and not feel it.