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February 11, 2009
You Could Look It Up
It's reader request week here at YCLIU. Thanks to subscriber Shaun, we'll start with the Phillies, but we'll end up traveling all around time and space. Earlier this week, Shaun wrote in to observe this:
With the departure of Burrell and the arrival of Ibaņez, the Phils will have at least three batters in the middle of the order who are left-handed hitters. Rollins and Victorino are both switch-hitters who are more comfortable left-handed. Then you have Feliz and whoever is catching will hit right-handed, but at relatively low production rates. Coming off their bench and for injuries, you are pretty much looking at nothing but left hands at the plate... Can the Phils win with so many left-handed batters? I am just curious to know how teams with such a lopsided lineup have turned out in the past. If you could, profile one older team or compare and contrast with a new.
Shaun's question is interesting, in that teams do search for balance in the lineup between left-handed and right-handed hitters. The reason why is obvious: a team overly left-handed is subject to dominance by left-handed pitchers, while an overly right-handed lineup is at a less pronounced but still significant disadvantage against right-handed pitchers.
That said, there are reasons to think that this fear may be exaggerated. While the platoon advantage/disadvantage is nearly universal, we also know, as Casey Stengel and others have said, that good pitching stops good hitting, and vice-versa. That is, the platoon benefit in a batter-pitcher match-up is not automatic-if a pitcher is to dominate a hitter, he also must execute. All too often we have seen managers call on third-rate lefty relievers to face a Prince Fielder or David Ortiz, only to discover that it would have been better to go with a first-rate right-hander. As such, it stands to reason that a good unbalanced lineup would be superior to a balanced lineup composed of weaker hitters.
With the help of BP's data-master Bil Burke, I compiled a list of the 50 most left-leaning lineups of all time. These 50 teams devoted the greatest percentage of team plate appearances to lefty swingers. The list contains teams of every outcome. There are 11 post-season teams, the most recent being the 2002 Diamondbacks (the 2001 champs are there as well). There are two 100-game winners (the 1915 Red Sox and 2001 A's) and two 100-game losers (the 1906 Braves and 1936 Phillies). The most left-handed team of all time was the 1946 Washington Senators, who devoted 66.2 percent of their team plate appearances to lefty hitters, including some very good ones like first baseman Mickey Vernon, center fielder Stan Spence, and right fielder Buddy Lewis. That team finished fourth in the league, going 76-78, because the rest of the lineup, though exceptionally left-handed, wasn't very good, and the pitching was the worst in the league.
Here are the top 10 of all time, and the top 10 from 1950 to the present:
The Most Left-Handed Hitting Teams of All Time LHB RHB SHB Year Team PA PA PA LHB% RHB% W L OPS+ ERA+ Notes 1946 Senators 3945 1962 52 66.2% 32.9% 76 78 105 90 1929 Senators 3821 2109 67 63.7% 35.2% 71 81 91 98 1935 Senators 3973 2329 0 63.0% 37.0% 67 86 97 82 1935 Pirates 3673 2300 0 61.5% 38.5% 86 67 104 120 1921 Indians 3830 2293 141 61.1% 36.6% 94 60 114 110 1915 Red Sox 3543 2316 6 60.4% 39.5% 101 50 104 117 Won WS 1937 Senators 3776 2468 15 60.3% 39.4% 73 80 93 97 1923 Indians 3658 2492 0 59.5% 40.5% 82 71 104 87 1906 Braves 3232 2220 0 59.3% 40.7% 49 102 86 85 1907 White Sox 3382 1711 627 59.1% 29.9% 87 64 93 109 1901 Reds 3183 2038 171 59.0% 37.8% 52 87 93 76 The Most Left-Handed Hitting Teams, 1950-Present LHB RHB SHB Year Team PA PA PA LHB% RHB% W L OPS+ ERA+ Notes 1978 Tigers 3656 2643 0 58.0% 42.0% 86 76 103 106 1988 White Sox 3389 2380 270 56.1% 39.4% 71 90 88 96 1981 Padres 2324 1281 579 55.5% 30.6% 41 69 100 88 1977 Tigers 3397 2107 673 55.0% 34.1% 74 88 94 103 1952 Browns 3276 2710 15 54.6% 45.2% 64 90 91 95 2000 Athletics 3479 2938 15 54.1% 45.7% 91 70 110 102 Won AL West 2001 Athletics 3429 2785 171 53.7% 43.6% 102 60 107 121 Won AL WC 2001 D'backs 3372 2967 7 53.1% 46.8% 92 70 101 120 Won WS 2002 D'backs 3345 2456 515 53.0% 38.9% 98 64 100 116 Won NL West 2004 Brewers 3269 2817 101 52.8% 45.5% 67 94 88 102
Oddly enough, the top three unbalanced teams are all Senators clubs, but from three different decades. Perhaps remarkably, the Senators show up 10 times in the top 50, far more than any other single team. Given that the Senators were owned and run by the same guy for that entire period, it's likely that there was some calculation that went into overbalancing the left-handed side of the team.
Intriguingly, among the Senators' teams on the list are the 1929 through 1932 teams, but not their pennant-winning 1933 club. However, the 1932 club was also not overwhelmingly left-handed, ranking 34th on our list with a southpaw PA percentage of just 54.8, and the change between the 1932 and 1933 roster in terms of lefty/righty balance was largely limited to a reduction in the role of left-handed 43-year-old outfielder and future Hall of Famer Sam Rice from part-time starter to pure pinch-hitter, with some of his former work going to right-handed hitter Dave Harris.
The change to Harris has some indications for the Phillies. The 1929 through 1932 teams were seemingly not handicapped by their left-handedness. These were, in context, slightly above-average offenses, generally about third in the league in terms of productivity, but lagging far behind the Yankees and A's of the period, who were fielding sluggers like Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx. When the Senators had pitching, they were a very tough club, winning over 90 games from 1930 to 1932 before breaking through to the pennant with 99 wins in 1933, a year the Yankees and A's still topped them in offense but happened to roll out horrible pitching staffs.
The Senators were playing in a pitching league that was less slightly left-handed than, say, the current NL, with lefty pitchers starting 26 percent of all games and pitching 25 percent of all possible innings. (Last year, lefties started 830 of 2,588 NL games, or 32 percent, and throwing 28 percent of all possible innings.) Yet, for the Senators, some of those left-handed innings were disproportionately tough-the A's had Lefty Grove and the Yankees had Lefty Gomez. Harris was a nice platoon hitter (in 703 PA for Washington from 1930-1932, Harris batted a strong .318/.414/.529, numbers that become even more impressive when considered in the context of the team's very difficult home park), and though he didn't have his strongest season in 1933, the shift of a few turns at bat away from the left-handed Rice could have helped the Senators win some key games.
The Phillies will see more of Johan Santana, Oliver Perez, Scott Olsen, and John Lannan than they might like this season, and would probably benefit from having some Harris-like options of their own to go with Jayson Werth, who abused port-siders to the tune of .303/.368/.652 last year, hitting a home run off of them every 9.7 at-bats (let's see him do that again). Certainly newly minted $54 million-man Ryan Howard could stand to be protected from the tougher southpaws, though it should be noted that Santana, Olsen, and Lannan have given him very little trouble to date. Perez, though, has held him to two hits in 22 at-bats, striking Howard out 14 times.
These localized caveats aside, being overly left-handed seems to have been an innocuous distinction. Roughly two-thirds of the lineups in the top 50 most-left-handed teams were average to above-average at scoring runs. Of the five teams on the list from 2000 to present (the 2000-2001 A's, 2001-2002 Diamondbacks, and 2004 Brewers), four went to the postseason and one won the World Series. Those teams on the list that had good left-handed hitters scored well, those that devoted playing time to poor left-handed hitters, like the 1988 White Sox (with Steve Lyons, Ozzie Guillen, and Darryl Boston), or the 2004 Brewers team that gave 712 PAs to a .244/313/.364-hitting Scott Podsednik, those teams failed to score. Even when the good offenses for which we have platoon data were hindered by left-handed pitching, it was only relative to how well they did against right-handers. They more than held their own, and given the distribution of plate appearances against left- and right-handers (corresponding to roughly a 25-75 split) the advantage was still on the side of the offense far more often than it was not.
In short, the Phillies should be okay. Sure, they would be better off if they could replace Pedro Feliz and Carlos Ruiz with strong right-handed hitters like Mike Schmidt and Carlton Fisk, but they would also be better off if they replaced them with two left-handed hitters of superior quality. Just as the Yankees of the early 1930s, who have three slots in the top 50, didn't see their offense suffer despite giving too many times at bat to lefties like Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and the A's of earlier this decade didn't suffer for investing their offense in Jason Giambi and Eric Chavez, so the Phillies would be rewarded for viewing the overall offensive potential of their players before worrying about possible platoon consequences.