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April 24, 2014

Pebble Hunting

Platoonies Never Say Die

by Sam Miller

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In 2013, Mike Carp was limited to a strict platoon—88 percent of his plate appearances came against right-handers, up from 77 percent the year before—and, just months after Boston acquired him from offense-starved Seattle for mere cash considerations, he produced a better OPS than Adrian Beltre. I’m going to assume this happens to everybody who moves into a strict platoon. They just immediately become way better than we ever thought they would. Way, way better. Every single player.

So April 24 is too early to draw a lot of conclusions about players who have become better or worse since last year, but maybe it’s not too soon to see changes in how managers are using their players. Who are this year’s new platoon superplatooners? A few of the players who have seen the biggest jump in at-bats against opposite-handed pitchers this April:

Travis Snider
Career platoon advantage: 83 percent
2013 platoon advantage: 91 percent
2014 platoon advantage: 99 percent

Last year, Clint Hurdle managed to get Garrett Jones the platoon advantage 95 percent of the time (the highest in baseball) and get him 440 plate appearances (more than any player who topped an 88 percent platoon advantage). This year, he has managed to get Snider 66 plate appearances against righties and just one against lefties—that one coming in the eighth inning with the Pirates already up by four. (Snider flied out to deep center field against Wei-Chung Wang.) A big reason for this is that the NL Central has very few left-handed starters, and the Pirates have faced only one left-handed starter this year—a fortunate break for a team whose park favors left-handed batters. But it’s not just that, as Snider has also been pinch-hit for in nearly half the games he has started. And in his four pinch-hitting appearances, two have come just after a pitching change was made, eliminating any chance that the other team could counter his announcement with a move to a lefty.

The good news is that Snider has almost perfectly matched his career line against right-handers so far. The bad news is that Snider has never been a particularly distinguished righty-masher, and his .259/.317/.414 line with the platoon advantage will never merit a book chapter.

Lonnie Chisenhall
Career: 81 percent
2013: 88 percent
2014: 97 percent

Like Snider, Chisenhall has been kept from all but one lefty-on-lefty matchup (Phil Coke, sixth inning, close game, groundball single). And, like Snider, Chisenhall plays for a manager and/or organization that makes the most of the platoon advantage. The Indians have had the platoon edge in 77 percent of their plate appearances this year; the next-best team can manage only 71 percent, and only nine teams top even 60 percent. Ryan Raburn and Mike Aviles are among the top 20 right-handed hitters for keeping the platoon edge, and left-hander Nyjer Morgan is near the top for lefties. Of the dozen hitters with at least 20 plate appearances on the club, just one (Yan Gomes) has had the platoon advantage less than half the time; meanwhile, 11 teams have failed to keep the edge at least half the time.

So far, the difference between Chisenhall and Snider is that Chisenhall is hitting .400/.447/.571 when he gets to face right-handers. That’s floated by a .538 BABIP. He should keep doing that.

Rickie Weeks
Career: 25 percent
2013: 31 percent
2014: 65 percent

The Brewers moved toward a platoon at second last summer, before Weeks hurt himself, and the former Rookie of the Year third-place vote-getter entered spring training as a) the Brewers’ second-highest-paid hitter and b) no lock for playing time. “Not that he's complaining,” wrote Tracy Ringolsby in March. “That's not his way.” Of course, it takes time to adjust to any new role, and Weeks is starting to adjust—he’s now complaining just fine: "It is what it is, I guess. I don't want it like this. I'm just going to hush my mouth about it…. It has been (difficult). But I don't want to say too much about it. I feel good right now (at the plate). It's just that at-bats are kind of far between. You've got to stay aggressive but sometimes it's hard to stay aggressive with one at-bat."

Weeks has been awful, regardless—his O-Swing rate this year is more than double what it was last year—and at this point it’s more likely he loses his half of the playing time than steals back the half he lost. Weeks has been dropped to eighth in the lineup even against lefties; Scooter Gennett, meanwhile, has been moved up to second in the lineup when he plays.

Jon Jay
Career: 76 percent
2013: 78 percent
2014: 92 percent

Even in his down year last season, Jay hit .291/.363/.386 against righties, as most of his depression came with a career-worst season against lefties. The Cardinals traded for Peter Bourjos in the offseason, and between that and the crowded St. Louis outfield situation, Jay seemed free to be him. But Craig has the fifth-worst WARP in baseball this year (and the worst WAR, per Baseball-Reference), so Jay has started to get starts in right field; and Bourjos is batting just .178/.245/.289 after an 0-for-3 on Wednesday. It seems likely that Jay will end up getting more starts than Matheny had sketched out.

Lucas Duda
Career: 73 percent
2013: 71 percent
2014: 87 percent

Probably the best candidate on the list for a well-contained Carp-like explosion. If Duda had been exposed to just this rate of righties throughout his career, his OPS would be around 25 points higher than it is—which would turn him into, roughly speaking, Kendrys Morales. Would you believe it just occurred to me how hard it is to write a lot of words about players in platoons.

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

Related Content:  Platoons,  Platoon Players,  Platoon Advantage

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