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October 8, 2003

Can Of Corn

Platoon

by Dayn Perry

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For Game Five of the ALDS, the Red Sox, despite facing one of the toughest portsiders in the game, trotted out Trot Nixon, Todd Walker and David Ortiz--all of whom have notable platoon weaknesses. (Also hammering home similar division-of-labor lessons was that pin factory in "Wealth of Nations," and the annual faulty deployment of Gil Gerard and Loretta Swit in "Battle of the Network Stars.")

That the Red Sox, one of the headiest, most progressive organizations in all of baseball, playing in a game of critical importance, didn't tap into their well-stocked bench in this situation reinforced something for me: the failure to platoon players with notable weaknesses against one side is one of the last great organizational blind spots. And every organization is guilty of it--even those we associate with high levels of efficiency, like the Red Sox, A's, Yankees, Mariners, and Braves.

Red Sox manager Grady Little even went so far as to bat Walker third in Game Two against Barry Zito. (Walker, incidentally, "hit" lefties at a .234/.282/.373 clip for the season.) As a player with limited defensive value, Walker can't muster a compelling case to bat in the third hole when a lefty's on the bump for the opposition. Oakland's puzzling fealty to Terrence Long is just as troubling. With a .236/.270/.329 line for the year against left-handers, he should be escorted off the premises by security and allowed back in the stadium only after the sixth inning whenever the A's are facing a lefty. Even so, Long logged 140 ABs against left-handers this season.

Perhaps the most depraved of platoon sinners this past season was the White Sox. You might think the organization that wisely sat Roberto Alomar (.189/.250/.277 vs. LHP in 2003) against left-handers would have a fairly acute platoon radar, but you'd be wrong. Observe:

  • Carlos Lee hit a meager .218/.274/.358 against lefties in 2003, and despite a clear history of reverse-platoon weakness, the Sox ran him out there for 165 ABs.

  • Catcher Miguel Olivo would've made a nice platoon starter against lefties (.302/.315/.547 vs. LHPs this season), but against right-handers, he was an efficient supply chain of outs (.212/.277/.290, 231 ABs).

  • And then there's Paul Konerko. Konerko, for a player far from the business end of the defensive spectrum, has rarely performed adequately against right-handed pitching, but this year he outdid himself. Against lefties, he was an All-Star (.327/.373/.593); against righties, he was a poor man's Tito Landrum (.187/.272/.299, 294 ABs) and board-certified crap sandwich.

  • Although the Sox made at least some effort at putting Jose Valentin behind the firewall when a lefty was on the mound, they still allowed him 109 ABs of--get this--.131/.190/.196

  • Joe Crede was effective against left-handers (.300/.344/.507), but against righties he was a dish best served not at all (.246/.294/.404).

When apportioning the blame for their failures this season, the White Sox shouldn't overlook their failure to assemble a roster better equipped to platoon those players not suitable for full-time duty.

So when is it permissible to countenance an obvious platoon liability? When it's a young player still assembling his skills for a non-contending team. I'd point to Hank Blalock of the Rangers (.209/.245/.295 vs. LHP), Orlando Hudson of the Jays (.160/.222/.190 vs. LHP) and Jody Gerut of the Indians (.209/.274/.313 vs. LHP) as examples of this phenomenon. These players may never hit lefties, but better to let them test their mettle in rebuilding seasons than to assume that's the case or find out in the heat of a pennant race.

But make no mistake, platoon partners come in all shapes and sizes. In fact, there were a number of seasoned veterans this season who probably could have used a break half the time:

  • Tino Martinez approached some simulacrum of a facsimile of a vague rendering of near quasi-adequacy against right-handers (.281/.358/.446), but he was the same old intangibles-laden, waste-o'-capital we've come to know and love against lefties (.235/.323/.346);

  • John Olerud's semi-sudden decline was readily apparent in his failure against same-side pitching (.239/.318/.310 vs. LHPs);

  • Ditto Ellis Burks (.237/.321/.353 vs. RHPs);

  • Luis Gonzalez had a fine season on balance, but he was a liability against left-handers (.223/.302/.400);

  • Brad Ausmus has defensive chops and a .383 OBP against lefties, but he hits right-handers like Stevie Wonder (.227/.285/.275, 374 ABs)

The point is that, in a league in which the burgeoning popularity and influence of statistical approaches is raising the market value on formerly undervalued talents, teams need to exploit every advantage possible. That's not happening in many cases with regard to players crying out for platoon duty. Of course, these aren't decisions and moves made in a vacuum; you're dealing with highly competitive folks who--by dint of that nature--won't embrace a significant loss of playing time. You can't ignore the human element and the fact that reducing a player's role--especially one to which he's grown accustomed--is at the very least a nettlesome endeavor.

But as teams begin valuing the same prototypes of players, it's something they'll need to do to gain an edge. And so far, it's not being done--even by teams that know better.

Related Content:  The Platoon Advantage,  Platoon

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