Barry Zito‘s career has been declared over by a goodly chunk of the baseball universe, and he made his second unimpressive start yesterday. The Giants southpaw allowed eight hits, including two homers, and two walks in five innings, a virtual replay of his Opening Day start against the Dodgers.
You might give him a pass this time, because of the opponent. The Brewers are a trendy pick to win an improving NL Central, with a fantastic homegrown core and what they hope will be an improved defense and bullpen this year. The Brewers hit for a ton of power, strike out a lot, and walk a bit less than you’d like; it’s a combination that might potentially create a small OBP issue. Overall, however, it’s a good baseball team building on 2007’s success and leveraging some excellent player development, which makes the Brewers one of the game’s great stories.
However, within that offense there’s a pretty big split. The Brewers are a good team against righties, what with lefty bomber Prince Fielder anchoring the order. However, the team’s potential to beat up on southpaws should have United Nations peacekeepers on alert. Last year, they collectively eviscerated lefties to the tune of .288/.360/.499, a far cry from their .252/.316/.439 mark against right-handers. This is even with the great and powerful Fielder posting an 1100/834 OPS split versus righties and lefties.
Let’s look at this in more detail. What follows are the Brewers lineups against lefties and righties, more or less, with the players’ career stats (through 2007) against that side:
vs. RHPs AVG OBP SLG vs. LHPs AVG OBP SLG Rickie Weeks .249 .345 .403 Rickie Weeks .250 .392 .433 Anthony Gwynn .257 .307 .320 Gabe Kapler .288 .340 .468 Prince Fielder .290 .381 .570 Prince Fielder .256 .339 .489 Ryan Braun .282 .319 .526 Ryan Braun .450 .516 .964 Bill Hall .262 .310 .461 Bill Hall .270 .350 .484 Corey Hart .270 .315 .486 Corey Hart .313 .389 .544 J.J. Hardy .251 .308 .383 J.J. Hardy .297 .359 .558 Jason Kendall .297 .374 .387 Jason Kendall .297 .379 .418 Source: Baseball Reference.com
Which one would you rather face? The Brewers have a serious OBP issue against right-handed pitchers, and even if you concede that Corey Hart is getting better, it is not a particularly good lineup against righties. I’ve been yammering about Bill Hall for years, and the facts remain that a .310 OBP from a third baseman is more problem than solution. If nothing else, Ned Yost needs to switch Hall and Hart in the lineup, and I would be inclined to play Craig Counsell-or better still, some traded-for option-at third three days a week.
This exercise understates the balance issue. In about three weeks, Mike Cameron will take over for the Gwynn/Kapler platoon in center field, leaving the Brewers with just one left-handed batter in the lineup on most days. Cameron fits right in: he has a .246/.333/.434 career line against righties, .265/.363/.480 against lefties. You can spot Gabe Gross on occasion, but playing him in center field next to Ryan Braun is more science experiment than practical baseball strategy.
Now, I’ll readily concede that platoon splits are a personal hobby horse, and that it’s possible I spend too much time worrying about lineup balance. On the other hand, look at the numbers above, and remember that with the exception of Braun and Gwynn, you’re dealing with multiple seasons’ worth of playing time. These stats pretty accurately reflect the skill sets of the players involved, and what they say is this: the Brewers’ success in 2008 may come down to how many lefty starters they see. They’ve faced three so far, and Zito was the only one to make it through five innings. The three righties they faced had much more success: two quality starts and a six-inning, four-run effort. The team’s platoon split through six games is a joke: .333/.383/.583 vs. .283/.345/.425.
The latter line isn’t bad, of course; the point here is that the Brewers are so much better against left-handers that teams would do well to tweak their rotations to keep their southpaws away from the Brew Crew. The Cubs might be stuck, given that they have two lefties separated in their rotation; it may be hard from them to avoid running Lilly or Rich Hill out there against the Brewers for the rest of the season. On the other hand, the 200 points of OPS they’ll pick up should balance the problem of tweaking the rotation.
Other teams, however, should regard a trip to Milwaukee as a chance to push the rotation back a day by using a right-handed spot starter and pushing back that lefty. Maybe you don’t do it with Johan Santana or Cole Hamels, but the rest of the league’s southpaws are better off if they get kept away from the Brewers this year. In an election year, Milwaukee lists further to the right than any potential candidate for office.