August 19, 2009
The Left Wing
When Cliff Lee takes the mound tonight against the Diamondbacks, it will be the 70th time this season that the Phillies have started a game with a southpaw. Even having swapped out Jamie Moyer for Pedro Martinez last week, the Phillies are on pace to have right around 100 games started by lefties this season, with a chance to be just the third team since the 1994-95 strike to reach that figure. If you assume Lee, Cole Hamels, and J.A. Happ make all their starts the rest of the way, the Phillies would have to get just two starts by Moyer to reach 98, and four by the veteran to make 100. If they get to 98 starts by lefties, they'd be the 31st team since 1972 to have at least 60 percent of its games started by lefties.
Bil Burke cranked out the list of teams who were lefty-heavy. The following are the 19 that reached the century mark:
Year Team LHSP % Top Three Lefty Pitchers 1983 Yankees 127 78.4 Shane Rawley, Dave Righetti, Ron Guidry 1975 White Sox 124 77.0 Wilbur Wood, Jim Kaat, Claude Osteen 1979 White Sox 116 73.0 Ken Kravec, Rich Wortham, Ross Baumgarten 1974 Orioles 116 71.6 Ross Grimsley, Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally 1982 Royals 113 69.8 Larry Gura, Paul Splittorff, Vida Blue 1980 White Sox 111 68.5 Britt Burns, Steve Trout, Ross Baumgarten 1980 Yankees 110 67.9 Tommy John, Ron Guidry, Tom Underwood 1977 Orioles 109 67.7 Rudy May, Ross Grimsley, Mike Flanagan 1991 Braves 109 67.3 Charlie Leibrandt, Steve Avery, Tom Glavine 1982 Yankees 109 67.3 Ron Guidry, Dave Righetti, Tommy John 1984 Royals 109 67.3 Bud Black, Larry Gura, Charlie Leibrandt 2004 Royals 108 66.7 Darrell May, Brian Anderson, Jimmy Gobble 1991 Angels 107 66.0 Mark Langston, Jim Abbott, Chuck Finley 1987 Phillies 106 65.4 Shane Rawley, Don Carman, Bruce Ruffin 2003 Athletics 105 64.8 Barry Zito, Ted Lilly, Mark Mulder 1977 Pirates 104 64.2 John Candelaria, Jerry Reuss, Jim Rooker 1973 Mets 102 63.4 Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack, George Stone 1979 Giants 101 62.3 Vida Blue, Bob Knepper, John Curtis 2008 Indians 100 61.7 Cliff Lee, Jeremy Sowers, C.C. Sabathia
There are clusters in there. You have the 1980-83 Yankees, led by Ron Guidry, Tommy John and Dave Righetti. The 1974, 1975, and 1980 White Sox are amusing for making the list three times in six years, but only Ross Baumgarten represented twice among the top three guys (Kravec and Wortham both started for the 1980 team as well). Charlie Leibrandt shows up for two different teams, and Cliff Lee will be part of two, though not a top-three guy, if the Phillies get there.
Now, the interesting thing is that these teams were collectively better than average. They played to an aggregate winning percentage of .519 (1592-1478). Six of the 19 teams won their division, eight won 90 games, and just seven finished below .500. I've spent a lot of time arguing that the industry's obsession with left-handed pitching is misguided, but it does seem that teams getting a lot of starts from left-handers are better than ones that don't. If you expand the dataset to all teams getting at least 60 percent of their starts from lefties, you actually improve the overall winning percentage (to .520) and add in some postseason teams. Teams getting at least 60 percent of their starts from left-handers, well under five percent of all teams in the years under discussion, have made the postseason 30 percent of the time.
That brings us to the Phillies, who have a 4½-game lead in the NL East over the Marlins, and a slightly smaller lead over the wild-card pack. They're probably going to the postseason, and when they get there, it seems highly likely that they'll start left-handers in the top three slots in their postseason rotation. Lee is their best pitcher, Hamels was the best pitcher in last year's postseason, and J.A. Happ has outpitched Joe Blanton so far this season. This is less common, but not unheard of. Just among the teams on the list above, you have the 1991 Braves, who started all three of their southpaws in both the ALCS and World Series. The 1985 Royals started Leibrandt, Bud Black, and Danny Jackson in both of their postseason series. The 1980 Yankees were swept in the ALCS, starting lefties in all three games. The 1973 Mets used their three lefties to get by the Reds in the NLCS.
Christina Kahrl found that it's not unheard of for teams who aren't lefty-dominant in the regular season to start three lefties in the playoffs, often because they've acquired a top left-handed starter in season-just like this year's Phillies. The 1997 Giants played three post-season games, all of which were started by lefties (Kirk Rueter, Shawn Estes, Wilson Alvarez… yes, that was a playoff rotation). The 1996 Yankees used Andy Pettitte, Jimmy Key, and Kenny Rogers-the latter to ill effect in all three of his postseason starts-on their way to a title. The 1995 Reds played seven post-season games and used Pete Schourek, John Smiley, and mid-season addition David Wells to start all seven.
Having come this far, it's worth mentioning that there's a team from the other end of the list, a counterexample, playing this season as well. The 53-66 A's have gotten 71 starts from lefties in their first 119 games. It is, however, unlikely that they will get to 100 starts or even 98 (the 60 percent mark), as injuries to Josh Outman and Dallas Braden have them with just two lefties, Brett Anderson and Gio Gonzalez, in the current rotation, and it's more likely that Anderson gets shut down as the season comes to a close than that any injured lefty bounces back.
The Mariners are at 69 out of 119, but have shut down Erik Bedard, traded Jarrod Washburn, and demoted Jason Vargas. The Blue Jays are at 68 of 117, and with three lefties in the rotation are another injury to Scott Richmond-with Brian Tallet replacing him-from having a shot at 100. The Indians are at 65 of 118, and it seems like they have 14 soft-tossing lefties in their rotation, but they're likely to ride Fausto Carmona and Justin Masterson for the rest of the year. Only Zach Jackson and his nearly-6.00 ERA at Triple-A looms as a lefty replacement for either.
Starting three lefties in a postseason series is uncommon, but it does happen. It's certainly not a barrier to success, as the '85 Royals and '96 Yankees won championships that way. The Phillies are not heading into October behind any kind of historical eight-ball… although they are going to be running a bit of a risk when it comes to specific matchups. The Dodgers, who they could potentially play as early as the Division Series, hit lefties better than any NL team, posting a .289/.376/.436 line against them. The current wild-card leaders, the Rockies, are second in the NL in OPS against southpaws. The Cardinals have poor season statistics against lefties (14th in the NL in OPS) but their revamped lineup, with Matt Holliday and Mark DeRosa, is much more dangerous against them than the season-total stats indicate. How the NL postseason matchups fall, and it may be October 6 before we know for sure who plays whom, could dictate the Phillies' fate.