On Monday, we ran a piece from Jonathan Judge arguing against the idea of the Brewers platooning Scooter Gennett with a right-handed batter. This got me thinking about something I’ve wanted to write for a while on here but never really got around to, which was making the case generally for platoons. Not to say that I disagree with Jonathan on what he wrote. He made a lot of good points and actually converted me over to his way of thinking on the Gennett platoon issue on a lot of points. We come not to bury Jonathan, but rather to praise him and add to the discussion.
As Jonathan pointed out in the original piece, the biggest reason to platoon players is to minimize the number of batters in the lineup facing same-handed pitchers. Every player is different, but most players do show at least some tendency towards hitting better against pitchers who throw with the hand opposite to side of the plate they stand on. Over the course of a full season, if you assemble a lineup too built around one hand or the other, you can sometimes end up with somewhat lopsided results depending on the handedness of the pitcher faced.
Brewers sOPS+ by the Handedness of Pitchers Faced
Source: Baseball Reference
|Year||VS RHP||VS LHP|
I think too often platoons are looked down upon by fans as something a team only does if they don’t have a guy good enough to start everyday. While that may true in one sense, if a team can find a few spots in the lineup where they can platoon hitters, they may actually be able to better adapt to matchups and avoid being easy prey to certain types of pitchers. Going back to the Brewers example, there was a time when the Brewers’ right-handed heavy lineup was extremely susceptible to any righty with a good sinker or slider. Dave Duncan’s Cardinals were especially adept at beating up on Milwaukee because of how many of their guys threw sinkers.
It looks like the Brewers are going to have as many as 3 positions involved in platoons this year. If Khris Davis struggles at all or either Caleb Gindl or Logan Schafer play too well to sit, it’s easy to see one emerging in left. If the Brewers can’t find someone they want to hand the everyday first base job to, they may well end up giving Juan Francisco or even Hunter Morris a lot of at-bats against right handers and finding someone (perhaps even Sean Halton) to hit against lefties. Finally, it’s completely within the realm of possibility that the Brewers don’t move Rickie Weeks and they decide to pair him and Gennett at second at least for a time.
So, Steve, are you as excited as I am about the possibility of all these platoons?
I don’t know if I’d say that I’m excited, but considering that the cool kids are using platoons to squeeze out extra wins, it’s the least a small market team like the Brewers could do to try to be competitive.
Really, I’m on Jonathan’s side about giving the young guys a chance to develop against same-handed pitchers before placing them in a strict platoon situation. The problem is that a team not expecting to compete can give young players the chance to develop, and Milwaukee’s front office and owner are desperately trying to be a team that can win now, even if you need to squint really hard to see a fringe contender.
The best way to run a platoon for the 2014 Brewers may accomplish two things:
1) Give some young players like Gennett some time off during the season. We saw Jean Segura wear down over the course of 162 games, and it may be more productive to try and get these guys through the year without crashing before the off season.
2) Rickie Weeks doesn’t have anywhere to play if the team commits to Gennett. Weeks could still get time at second, and I’d advocate using him at first with Juan Francisco (assuming that the roster remains constant) where he’d spell a player that is past that platoon hitting development stage.
No, Weeks hasn’t played first base before. He also struggles to play second, especially after his ankle injury in 2011, and now he’s returning from hamstring surgery. If he’s on the team and and the club wants to get some value out of him, it’s a good idea to limit his appearances at second base. Maybe his bat bounces back if he’s put in a position to succeed and some team will inquire about him around the trade deadline. Even if many fans prefer that Weeks is never on the field, the Brewers need to wring some value out of a guy making $12M.
Khris Davis will be an interesting case. He’s a right-handed batter who hit .297/.369/.549 vs. RHP and .244/.320/.689 vs. LHP. That doesn’t scream platoon. He’s awful defensively though, so I’d guess that he’ll rarely see the end of a close game making him more of a defensive platoon candidate.
I’m still not sure exactly what I think about platooning Gennett. I do agree with the general principle of not limiting young players with upside, especially in cases when a team is not necessarily contending. As you pointed out, though, that isn’t really the mindset of the team. They’re trying to play the middle in a lot of ways, giving younger players opportunities while not conceding that they’re out of it for 2014. It makes the decision process a little less cut and dried.
There is also the Rickie Weeks Issue, which always seems to be there and rarely has a clear answer. It seems a foregone conclusion that he’ll be gone after next season, if not sooner, because his numbers have taken such a drastic downturn from his 2009-2011 peak over the last two seasons. That being said, if the team can’t find another team willing to at least take on a good part of his salary for 2014, it seems foolish to just pay him to go away and not at least take the chance, however small, that he could rebound and bring something back in trade later.
As for the other positions, left field interests me quite a bit, not so much because Khris Davis needed a platoon partner last year, but more because Caleb Gindl and Logan Schafer figure to quite possibly be on the team. Both bring a particular skill-set to the table and are young enough that they really would benefit from regular playing time if they’re going to be on the major league roster.
First base is harder to speculate about because we sort of assume they’re still looking around at this point for another piece. The Wednesday Michael Young rumors certainly were interesting from a platoon perspective, if they planned on using him to face lefties so that Juan Francisco could simply concentrate on hitting bombs off of righthanders. Of course, it may come to pass that Francisco plays his way out of the lineup rather quickly and they turn to Hunter Morris. If that happens, I would certainly be in favor of not taking away his at bats against lefties and giving them to someone like Young, unless the team were to find themselves in the middle of a pennant race or something.
There are lots of possibilities here, and even if the team doesn’t decide to strictly platoon guys, having a few spots in the lineup where bench players can get more regular work could help on a number of fronts. Managers, notably the Brewers’ own Ron Roenicke, will often mention how difficult it is to pinch hit without seeing regular plate appearances. Having a bench full of guys who see at least some regular action as opposed to guys who wait daily hoping to get in their one trip to the plate should, at least theoretically, give a team an advantage when it comes time to deploy pinch hitters.
I also really like the idea of using a bench player or two to bolster the defense late in games from time to time. Logan Schafer stepping in late in games for Khris Davis would be a pretty big upgrade defensively. They could also prioritize defense if the team decides to roll with either Francisco or Morris at first and ends up on the market for a right handed platoon partner.
The main thing is to get away from the “we need a set daily lineup” mindset and to start looking to better utilize all 25 roster spots that MLB gives teams. The A’s and Rays have made platooning a big part of their formula for success over the years, and there is no reason to fear using them when you don’t have a daily standout at a particular position.
Andrew Friedmann and Billy Beane are really fortunate* that neither the Rays nor A’s have an enormous fanbase and they’re able to experiment with roster construction. Most fanbases prefer to see consistent line-ups when they show up at the stadium, so selling platoons is difficult because it’s assumed that you’re putting an inferior product out on the field. In reality, platoons make the most sense for small market, low revenue teams because it maximizes production and minimizes cost. With the exception of Ryan Howard, platoon players don’t tend to sign contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
*It’s likely that both would gladly trade that good fortune for the good fortune of $170M payrolls.
The battle for the Brewers is how much they want their young players to grow versus how much they value putting them in the best positions to succeed. If Scooter is completely helpless against lefties, there may be a certain point where his struggles drag down his overall performance. If 2014 is a growth year in Milwaukee, let Gennett, Davis, etc. take their lumps and make adjustments later in the season. But if Mark Attanasio orders a playoff team to take advantage of the final seasons for Aramis Ramirez and Kyle Lohse, then setting up some solid platoons starting Opening Day may be the wisest move for the organization.