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March 25, 2007

Fantasy Focus

Tell Me a Lie and Say That You Rake Lefties

by Alex Carnevale

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Camus once said that the true measure of leisure is having time left over to set your fantasy lineup to take advantage of platoon splits.

In a classic April 2006 article about platoon splits Dan Fox cited Jim Albert and Jay Bennett's book Curve Ball on the subject, which, he wrote, they thought of "as an example of a 'bias situation', where all hitters tend to take advantage to the same degree in the long run (once the vagaries of chance have evened out), rather than an 'ability situation' where differences are governed by individual hitter differences." He then relayed a Strat-O-Matic anecdote that set my blood boiling:

As an aside, the fact that platoon splits are influenced very heavily by small sample size and luck resolves a conundrum my brother and I encountered when simulating seasons with Strat-O-Matic baseball back in the early 1980s.

In the card version of the game you have a 50% probability of determining the outcome of a play based on the hitter's card, and a 50% chance based on the pitcher's card. Players with massive platoon splits faithfully recorded on their cards (say, Keith Moreland in 1983) in single seasons could therefore always be found. On the other hand, most pitchers--usually having faced more hitters and therefore having larger sample sizes and smaller fluctuations--did not have such extreme splits. Consequently, it was usually easy to stack the lineup and neutralize even the best left-handed starting pitchers and be very successful pinch-hitting even against would-be LOOGYs (few of them as there were in the early 1980s). As a result, left-handed pitchers were worth far less than they should have been and teams loaded with left-handers fared worse than expected. Trust me. I managed the 1983 Padres with the lefty trio of starters Tim Lollar, Dave Dravecky and Mark Thurmond who "helped" my team to over 100 losses--19 games worse than their actual record.

OK, Camus never said that, but who's to say he wouldn't have if the Internet, at that moment, was anything more than a nerve ending inside Al Gore's brain?

There's just so much to recommend in taking advantage of a platoon split. Here's a neat way to introduce the idea to friends. You approach a friend who in all likelihood is playing Magic: The Gathering and ask, "Um, hey, did you know that Freddy Sanchez murders left-handed pitching? You're welcome."

Knowing the right moment to make the most of a platoon advantage can be crucial. Here's a few players for whom it pays to be careful which arm releases the pitch.

Kevin Youkilis:

He's still a .290 EqA guy overall, but it would appear he doesn't hit for power against left-handed pitching, as he went .270/.392/.399 during his 2006 campaign, a line that just isn't roto-friendly. This, however, was most likely a one-year trend--his OPS for the past three years against left-handed pitching actually exceeds what he did against right-handers (810 over 798). Given more at-bats, he should be able to surpass his 2005 totals against southpaws. With a player who is already 28, that's all the upside you're likely to see.

Mike Lowell:

Going into the 2006 season, not a single Red Sox corner infielder or DH type was known for raking lefties, and Manny Ramirez has been all over the place against southpaws recently. Enter purported lefty-raker Mike Lowell. Although the effect weakness versus one side has on team hitting is probably overstated (see sidebar), Lowell was the victim of much scrutiny when setbacks followed his best ever overall season in 2004. That year he posted a .298 EqA and was a nine-win player according to WARP.

Just as quickly Lowell hit .236/.298/.360 for a full season, and talk began that he'd lost his bat speed completely. Lowell's overall .284/.339/.475 effort in 2006 was pretty close to his career averages. Where did that bounceback come from?

                2004              2005            2006
overall     .293/.365/.505   .236/.298/.360   .284/.339/.475
v. LHP      .344/.429/.672   .304/.362/.478   .241/.316/.380
v. RHP      .236/.298/.360   .221/.283/.333   .302/.349/.514

This was pretty out of character for Lowell, although it wasn't the first time that his offense was better against the right than the left. Whether this is sustainable is an open question, but more than anything the Red Sox hope his defense holds up, even if his apparent success against righties disappears.

Orlando Hudson:

A switch hitter, Hudson got hot from the right side last year, but this was also a sample-size aberration. His last three years combined from each side:

As a lefthanded batter:        As a righthanded batter:
.276/.339/.437                 .277/.339/.435
Spooky, right? Sources say this may be the subject of the next Hilary Swank movie.

Freddy Sanchez:

A useful infielder, Sanchez had his breakout season in 2006, which was followed by a collective call of "fluke" from most people, and a corresponding echo of "sleeper" from fantheads. Freddy's sparkling line-drive rates aside, he improved from both sides of the plate. What he did against left-handers was just wrong-it's best not to look directly at this triple slash: .442/.460/.581. Scary stuff. If you're in a shallow league, subbing that in once or twice a week could be a fun little surprise for your adversaries...it may only be 120 at-bats, but it's a 120 at-bat stretch that will be legendary in your own mind. He may struggle defensively at second base, but let's hope that doesn't carry over to the plate.

The Cleveland Outfielder Factory:

It's a good thing I would trust Mark Shapiro to platoon me anywhere, because the man the rest of the AL Central calls Shapsy has arranged a group of outfielders who, collectively, struggle against left-handed pitching. This is in the Billy Beane mode--as when after shipping Andre Ethier down the coast to the Dodgers he quipped to the excellent Tyler Bleszinski of Athletics Nation: "At some point, you have to be aware that you're going to have an all left-handed team." ("Quip" may be stretching it, but this isn't Gary Sheffield, it's the best GM in baseball.)

                        Last three years against    2006's pathetic effort
                        LHP in majors

David Dellucci          .185/.284/.321              .200/.292/.550
Shin-Soo Choo           .200/.259/.200              .278/.350/.278
Grady Sizemore          .223/.293/.376              .214/.290/.427
Trot Nixon              .207/.325/.295              .204/.336/.312
Jason Michaels          .300/.385/.444              .291/.349/.450

Even their designated lefty-masher doesn't so much mash as lightly dice. The facts of the case are these: even Tony Soprano couldn't motivate these muckety-mucks to challenge Johan Santana, Mark Buehrle and the Tigers' many lefties. Suddenly I love the Andrew Miller pick that much more.

Lefty mashers have been getting the short end of the stick with teams more inclined to an extra pitcher instead of a bench player. It used to be Matt LeCroy was honored with feasts and sacrifices everywhere he went, but lately it's the Endy Chavez-types getting all the accolades. Who knew the key to sticking was to not hit from either side of the plate?

Fortunately, help is on its way to Cleveland in the form of switch-hitting outfielder Trevor Crowe. Oddly enough, Crowe was originally selected as a 20th-round pick in 2002 by the A's. The Indians nabbed him with 2005's 14th-overall pick after time spent bopping .403/.477/.715 in his last season at the University of Arizona. He spent his first 60 games at the Indians' High-A affiliate.

Trevor Crowe

High-A Kinston
against LHP .366/.489/.507
against RHP .311/.426/.450

Double-A Akron
against LHP .229/.386/.371
against RHP .235/.295/.311

His last 39 at-bats were in Akron, where he struggled in a short trial against older pitching, especially amidst various injuries and a failed second-base experiment. He hasn't quite lived up to expectations, but his time at Kinston indicates he may soon be able to help Cleveland's outfield problem.

With the No. 13 pick in this year's amateur draft, Cleveland might consider targeting someone like Rutgers shortstop Todd Frazier. This year the righthanded hitting Frazier has punished Big East lefthanders. As a cold weather player, splits mean little, if anything, at this point in the season. Still, it's hard to say he's not off on the right foot. At 6'4", 220, scouts are already projecting him as a corner outfielder. Shin-Soo and I will wait for you, Todd Frazier.

Thanks to Jeff Sackmann's minorleaguesplits.com for a wonderful database.

Alex Carnevale is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Alex by clicking here. You can also find his Football Outsiders work here.

Related Content:  The Platoon Advantage,  The Who

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