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February 3, 2011

Purpose Pitches

The Sorry State of Platooning

by Christina Kahrl

I've been arguing for a few years now that a kind of tactical stasis has become the rule of the day on offense, in part because of the foreshortened rosters teams stick themselves with as a result of the 12-man pitching staff. One consequence has been the decline or increasing rarity of stable platoons. It's fairly hard to build all that many platoons in the first place, with rosters limited to three non-catcher reserves on most American League teams, and four in the National.

That's not to say there isn't plenty of pursuit of platoon advantages among contemporary major-league skippers. You can still have the floating platoon guy, the player who might be the adaptable righty-batting tweener or just an outright thumper. The Rockies' Ryan Spilborghs didn't platoon in right or left — instead he platooned in both, splitting time with Brad Hawpe and Seth Smith and Carlos Gonzalez, and making two-thirds of his 78 starts against lefties. Marcus Thames platooned for the Yankees, making 44 of 57 starts against lefties, but he wasn't paired up with any one player, as his lineup assignments drifted between DH and the corners.

But that isn't much like the famous platoons of old, whether you want to bring up Gene Woodling and Hank Bauer on the Yankees of the '50s, or John Lowenstein/Gary Roenicke with the Orioles of the last '70s and early '80s, or Rance Mulliniks and Garth Iorg with the '80s Blue Jays. An honest-to-goodness platoon has to involve some actual element of job-sharing. That's what we don't see a lot of any more.

Consider the Yankees' situation in center field last year. Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner were not a platoon in center, although you can credit Joe Girardi for being smart in how he employed the latter as the former's caddy. Outside of Granderson's 24-game absence on the DL, Gardner started just 14 games in center (or less than 10 percent), and conveniently enough 13 of those wound up being when an opposing lefty was on the mound. That's just smart, but it's important to remember that Granderson still drew the majority of the starting assignments against opposing lefties in center when he was active, making 36 such appearances among the 123 total games he started, out of a total of 138 games he was active for. That isn't a platoon, that's just having the common sense to make sure that the regular who hit just .234/.292/.354 against lefties in 2010 (and .215/.274/.346 career) just happens to miss Cliff Lee or Dallas Braden on his rest days.

Similarly, there are things that look like they might be platoons if you just glance at the rosters, but in actual practice, they're not. Ozzie Guillen had the lefty-batting A.J. Pierzynski and the righty-batting Ramon Castro as his catchers, but AJP was basically an everyday player, while Castro started two-thirds of his games against right-handers. Similarly, Andruw Jones and Mark Kotsay didn't really function as a DH platoon — Jones was the fourth outfielder and happened to draw more starts against lefties, while Guillen used the extra lineup slot to give Paul Konerko and Carlos Quentin plenty of days off from fielding.

All of which is to say that two-dude/one-position platoons have become something of a novelty, unsurprisingly enough in light of roster pressures. They may exist on rosters for a particular series or for as much as months at a time, but they tend not to last as each roster morphs and adapts to its front office's latest idea of the best, healthiest, or most adaptable bench and combination of players in a particular span of time. With so few roster spots invested in position players, true platoons were already going to be rare, but having to afford maintaining them across a season makes them even rarer still, especially if both or either dance partners in a duo trips.

For example, Manny Acta opened the Tribe's ill-fated 2010 campaign with one definite platoon, at second base, between Luis Valbuena and Mark Grudzielanek. All very sensible, right? It's a classic Weaver theory in action, creating a useful solution where you otherwise lack a good everyday player, with the added benefit of partnering up a veteran who had an exceptional reputation on the deuce with a young, semi-interesting infielder imported from the oft-raided Mariners organization. This solution lasted all of two months before Acta and the brass had to pull the plug. Grudz's comeback attempt guttered out with a terminal case of the common old, while Valbuena failed to deliver anything beyond left-handedness; Tim Flannery and Jerry Royster of the mid-'80s Padres this was certainly not. In contrast, while Lou Piniella similarly opened his season with Jeff Baker and Mike Fontenot platooning at the keystone for the Cubs, when top prospect Starlin Castro came up, the Cubs had a good everyday player to pair up with Ryan Theriot up the middle; sensibly enough, they ditched the platoon and moved Theriot across the bag.

Some managers are clearly willing to platoon, but didn't exactly have stable or good selections to work with. Bobby Cox, long given to employing platoons during the course of a long, Cooperstown-bound career, may have wanted a platoon arrangement in left field for the Braves last season. Unfortunately, injuries, ineffectiveness, and slumps busted up his combinations of Melky Cabrera and Matt Diaz, and later Eric Hinske and Diaz. After Nate McLouth tanked, the outfield in the two non-Heyward slots became a morass of pick 'em that never settled on any particular combination.

In Houston, Brad Mills wound up with a loose two-position platoon down the stretch, between first-base prospect Brett Wallace and veteran outfielder Jason Michaels, with Carlos Lee bouncing between left and first. The Brewers' Ken Macha was willing to spot first Jim Edmonds and later Chris Dickerson for Carlos Gomez in center, not that it spared him the axe.

You could argue that the Indians had another notional platoon at DH, between Travis Hafner and the sporadically spotted Racer X, because Pronk and southpaws increasingly don't mix (with TAv marks of .222, .237, and .260 the last three years). However, this notion is more like the Granderson/Gardner example — it wasn't a true platoon, but an exercise in resting the big guy on days when a lefty just happened to be pitching. Unfortunately, like so much else with the Indians' season, it went badly wrong, as Pronk had to make a trip to the DL, while Racer X's unsecret identity flitted from Matt LaPorta to Shelley Duncan to Jayson Nix to oh-screw-it-shoot-me-now-we're-so-done.

A similar mess could be found in describing the Twins' platoon-ish assignments for Jim Thome at DH, who made 60 of his 78 starts against right-handers and did most of his damage against them (.302/.455/.698). After the initial Brendan Harris/Nick Punto combo at third broke down, however, and Justin Morneau got hurt, Ron Gardenhire stopped being cute with his lineup cards. He didn't have to be, as it turned out, but how he uses Thome this time around will be fun to follow as the season unfolds.

In Washington, Jim Riggleman's player usage patterns floated, as he tried to work around a shortage of clear-cut regulars worth sticking with. While he doled out middle-infield assignments to Cristian Guzman, Ian Desmond, and Alberto Gonzalez, Riggleman consistently kept Adam Kennedy in a platoon role, mostly at second base, while also pointedly using Roger Bernadina against right-handed pitching. He initially had Mike Morse in a platoon role, but when Morse started swinging a hot bat, he was handed a regular job, starting 50 games in the last two months.

OK, that sort of survey yielded fairly grim results, leaving the question: How many actual platoons lasted something like a full season in 2010? Perhaps as a function of having at least two bodies on a roster assigned to man one lineup slot, the most stable working platoons involved catching combos. The Braves used Brian McCann and Dave Ross as a platoon over the full season, with Ross starting 29 of his 33 games against lefties, while the Phillies inverted the handedness balance with lefty Brian Schneider caddying for Carlos Ruiz, and getting good value out of each. Since both Schneider and Ross have worn down in everyday roles but shined in narrow platoon jobs, you can credit both organizations for reinvesting both backstops with value by bringing their overexposure as regulars to an end.

Beyond those two receiving tandems, in Detroit you had Jim Leyland repeating his past willingness to craft lefty/righty catching combos, like Mike LaValliere and Don Slaught with the Pirates 20 years ago. With the Tigers, he resorted to using Alex Avila and Gerald Laird in a platoon that, as with the great Pirates' combo, split the playing time evenly, as Avila got 80 of his 84 starts against right-handed pitching. Unfortunately, this wasn't Sluggo and Spanky II, since Avilaird may just as well have left things with Heloise platonic — after combining for just a .220 TAv, Avila and Laird certainly weren't bringing any wood to the party.

In-season, we had a couple of quickly adopted platoon situations that turned out well for teams, and figure to stick as long as everyone keeps hitting. The Mets platooned Josh Thole once he came up, and you can expect that to happen again in 2011 with Ronny Paulino to pick up the other half of the job. The Rays' in-season decision to stick with John Jaso and Kelly Shoppach behind the plate finally freed them from their endless frustrations with Dioner Navarro. Shoppach's bat didn't come around, but Jaso's season managed to pull the Rays' receivers up to a combined .236 TAv.

But there's a limit to which you can go with describing some things as “platoons” in terms of catching combos. Sure, the Brewers' lefty-batting George Kottaras made 45 of 60 starts against right-handers, while the Cubs' Koyie Hill made 52 of 60 while switch-flailing. But in each case, their hitting is such that it's less a matter of employing them to good effect on offense — since that's clearly impossible — than just carrying a caddy whose one virtue as a hitter was that he wasn't a right-handed batter, and maybe he'd run into a few hits along the way. Sure, they were part of platoons after a fashion — just not good ones.

That said, in the annals of last year's platoon feats, there were three in particular that still deserve respect, although all three represented temporary in-season solutions instead of lasting fixes. First, there's Bud Black's outfield selections while skippering the Padres, especially as he had to work around Kyle Blanks' injury and Ryan Ludwick then showing up and not doing any damage:

 

Dude
Starts vs. RHPs
TAv vs. RHPs
Starts vs. LHPs
TAv vs. LHPs
Will Venable* 95 .278 6 .195
Scott Hairston 43 .236 35 .253
Tony Gwynn Jr.* 67 .206 5 .293
Chris Denorfia 35 .273 37 .291
Aaron Cunningham 16 .221 14 .359
Oscar Salazar 6 .256 21 .237
Matt Stairs* 17 .059 - .281

Maybe it's just the fact that I'm easily entertained by some things, but that's fun to look at, because other than Venable, it's hard to describe any of these guys as guys with big futures ahead of them. Sure, they all have their uses, and some of them have futures that extend beyond next season. Li'l Gwynn's numbers versus lefties can be chucked as small-sample antics; he was the center-field glover who helped keep the proposition working through his fielding prowess. But considering the brio of Black's broad-spectrum sampling, who knew that the ex-pitcher was a first-order mix master second to no other?

Perhaps the second-best creative platoon of 2010 was Joe Maddon's other in-season lineup confection, because it was a two-position, three-player combination that didn't involve just first base and an outfield corner or DH. Utilizing Ben Zobrist's remarkable adaptability as a roving supersub, Maddon basically created a second-half right-field/second-base platoon between Matt Joyce (.262/.386/.524 vs. RHPs, with 60 of 63 starts coming against them) and Sean Rodriguez (.282/.358/.466 vs. LHPs, with 38 of 92 starts). Not unlike the Cubs' promotion of Castro last year wiping out the Mike Fontenot/Jeff Baker combo, this platoon stands in danger of losing its right to exist with the impending arrival of Desmond Jennings, but perhaps between Manny Ramirez's next injury and Johnny Damon's flagging production, it'll make an in-season comeback.

In the end, though, the most impressive platoon of 2010 reflected the needs of the day, emphasizing flexibility across almost a third of a team's position players and three different lineup positions. Not that Bruce Bochy needs any additional trophies on his mantel, but his in-season experiment with a Travis Ishikawa/Aaron Rowand cross-positional platoon that involved four players (including Aubrey Huff and Andres Torres) and center and right fields as well as first base was a thing of boxscore beauty for almost a quarter of the season. Bochy resorted to the quartet's combinations on July 3, and he ran with it through August 14. In that time, the offense cranked out 4.9 runs a game, and helped propel the club from ducking around .500 into a 27-12 stretch.

Of course, we shouldn't get too carried away with the power of platooning. Keep in mind, that was also around the time they stopped putzing around with Buster Posey at first base, and Pat Burrell was just getting going; the platoon was an amusing sidelight as Bochy tried to squeeze every bit of offensive value out of the hand he'd been dealt. Isn't that what skippering is supposed to be all about?

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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