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March 25, 2015

Every Team's Moneyball

Cleveland Indians: Yay Handedness!

by Nick Wheatley-Schaller

Every day until Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus authors will preview two teams—one from the AL, one from the NL—identifying strategies those teams employ to gain an advantage. Today: the handedness games of the Brewers and Indians.

Week 1 previews: Giants | Royals | Dodgers | Rays | Padres | Astros | Rockies | Athletics | Yankees | Mets

Week 2 previews: Nationals | Tigers | Pirates | Mariners


CLEVELAND INDIANS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

PECOTA Team Projections
Record: 81-81
Runs Scored: 705
Runs Allowed: 705
AVG/OBP/SLG (TAv): .255/.320/.400 (.267)
Total WARP: 26.9 (7.0 pitching, 19.9 non-pitching, including 0.0 from pitchers)

Terry Francona has quickly gained the trust of the Indians' often untrusting fan base due to his amiable personality, the enthusiastic reports from his players, his humble scooter, and his success on the field. When Russell Carleton looked at how different managers grade in helping their players survive the grind of a 162-game season, Francona placed at the top of the list. Those things are all great, but they are not the only ways that Francona has helped the Tribe win 177 games over the past two years. One specific strategy that Francona gets some credit for is giving his hitters the platoon advantage more often than any other team in baseball.

Since 2013, MLB hitters have had the platoon advantage in 55 percent of plate appearances, but Indians hitters have it 72 percent of the time. That adds up to 1,117 plate appearances above the league average per season, or 6.9 per game. The A's are the only team to come even close to Cleveland, gaining the advantage 6.4 times per game above to league average:

Year

Team

Plat Adv PA

PA

Plat Adv PA Above Avg

PAPAAA/Game

2013

CLE

9294

12827

2234

6.9

2013

OAK

9129

12814

2077

6.4

2013

SEA

8307

12522

1415

4.4

2013

TOR

8077

12734

1069

3.3

2013

SDN

7854

12474

989

3.1

2013

SFN

7901

12603

965

3.0

2013

NYA

7831

12567

915

2.8

2013

PHI

7772

12636

818

2.5

2013

MIN

7774

12860

696

2.1

2013

HOU

7476

12585

550

1.7

2013

TBA

7298

12834

235

0.7

2013

CHN

6953

12499

74

0.2

2013

BOS

7189

12986

42

0.1

2013

NYN

6846

12768

-181

-0.6

2013

BAL

6726

12563

-188

-0.6

2013

ANA

6806

12917

-303

-0.9

2013

KCA

6519

12654

-445

-1.4

2013

CIN

6510

12714

-487

-1.5

2013

WAS

6486

12671

-488

-1.5

2013

SLN

6425

12569

-493

-1.5

2013

TEX

6498

12749

-519

-1.6

2013

ARI

6521

12806

-527

-1.6

2013

DET

6545

12927

-570

-1.8

2013

COL

6225

12747

-791

-2.4

2013

LAN

6142

12817

-912

-2.8

2013

PIT

6089

12783

-946

-2.9

2013

CHA

5937

12572

-982

-3.0

2013

MIA

5751

12556

-1159

-3.6

2013

ATL

5620

12533

-1278

-3.9

2013

MIL

5126

12597

-1807

-5.6

This is not a phenomenon that started with the arrival of Francona, however. From 2010-2012, when Manny Acta managed the Tribe, Cleveland led baseball by gaining the platoon advantage 66 percent of the time.

Teams can gain the platoon advantage in three ways:

  1. Use lots of lefties, who have the platoon advantage the majority of the time due to the abundance of right-handed pitchers
  2. Use lefties and righties strategically, maximizing their PA against same-handed pitching
  3. Use lots of switch-hitters

In those years, the Tribe managed to lead baseball in getting the platoon advantage when you remove all plate appearances by switch-hitters, while sending switch-hitters to the plate at the fifth-highest rate. Hover over the circles on the graph below to see how each team fared in those two statistics:

To compare how much of that non-switch-hitter platoon advantage was from simply using lots of lefties and how much was from using lefties and righties strategically, I calculated the league-average rate of platoon advantage for both lefties and righties in each year, then compared that to each hitter's actual rate of platoon advantage to come up with "Platoon Advantage PA Above Average." Here are the numbers for each Indians hitter with at least 150 PA over those three years (league-average numbers are weighted by number of plate appearances in each season):

Note the green bars on the positive side: most of the Indians' right-handed hitters were used against lefties more often than league average, but that was counterbalanced by Cleveland using their lefties frequently against left-handed pitchers, giving batters like Shin-Soo Choo the platoon disadvantage far more often than an average lefty. If you hover over each player, you can see their actual platoon-advantage rate and the MLB average for their hand weighted by PA in each year. You'll notice that even though Choo's platoon-advantage rate was far below the league average for lefties and Shelley Duncan's was far above the league average for righties, Choo's raw platoon-advantage rate was still higher than Duncan's (66 percent to 44 percent).

I aggregated those totals for each team to determine how much of their platoon advantage came from using players strategically and how much came simply from having lots of left-handed hitters. Note that this includes all players, not just those with at least 150 PA.

When you adjust for handedness, the 2010-2012 Indians' non-switch-hitter platoon advantage completely disappears, as the frequency of their lefty-lefty matchup entirely removes the advantage they received from using righties strategically. Yet the Indians still enjoyed the highest rate of platoon advantage PAs by non-switch-hitters of any team in baseball because they batted so many lefties.

The next year, the Indians added not only Terry Francona, but Nick Swisher (free agent signing), Ryan Raburn (another free agent), and Mike Aviles (trade with Toronto) as well. With Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana already established as regulars, Swisher became the third switch-hitting member of the lineup. They continued to be careful with their right-handed hitters, in particular newcomers Aviles and Raburn. This led to a higher number of PA with the platoon advantage when adjusted for handedness. They still sent lefties to the plate in over 60 percent of PA taken by non-switch-hitters, but were surpassed by Seattle in that category:

So Francona kept the team at the top of the platoon-advantage rankings by using all three methods:

  1. Continuing to use lots of lefties
  2. Using those lefties a bit more carefully so as to not constantly hit them against same-handed pitching
  3. Use even more switch-hitters than before

Now, one might have been worried that their league-best switch-hitter usage would fall off when they traded Asdrubal Cabrera to the Nationals at the 2014 Trade Deadline. However, this was not an issue for the Indians for few reasons:

  1. In return for Cabrera, they received Zach Walters, a switch-hitting utility player
  2. They replaced Cabrera in the everyday lineup with Jose Ramirez, another switch-hitter
  3. Their top prospect, shortstop Francisco Lindor, is also a switch-hitter

Now that Francona has proved he can manage his lefties and righties more effectively than Acta did while continuing to keep lots of lefties and switch-hitters in the everyday lineup, Indians fans can rest assured that the Tribe will continue to see lots of offensive matchups against opposite-handed pitching. Swisher's poor 2014 performance puts a question mark on how much they'll actually get from their switch-hitters next year, but Lindor's potential should provide some hope. All in all, it's important to remember that there are many ways to accomplish something as seemingly simple as getting the platoon advantage.

Nick Wheatley-Schaller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nick's other articles. You can contact Nick by clicking here

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