Are the Phillies Missing Right-Handed Power?

On Saturday, a commenter left a few comments in favor of trading for Michael Young. The responses (including mine) were mostly snarky, but the suggestion that the Phillies need right-handed power is not uncommon — even Mitch Williams said as much on MLB Network. So I think it is a topic worth discussing.

The claim that the Phillies need right-handed power is another way of saying “opposing teams should be punished for bringing in a LOOGY”. One does not want to organize his lineup such that the opposing manager can bring in his LOOGY for three or four hitters. Having an order that alternates left- and right-handed hitters punishes the opposing team in the following ways that a lineup of same-handed hitters would not:

  • Forces the LOOGY to face a right-handed hitter if the manager wants him to face the other lefties; or,
  • Allows your left-handed hitter to face a tired starter or a right-handed reliever; or,
  • Forces the opposing manager to burn through more relief pitchers than he would like (Tony La Russa style)

The Phillies’ lefties actually handle left-handed pitchers quite well. Chase Utley, surprisingly, has a higher career wOBA against southpaws than he does against right-handers. Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez are both around the league average, each posting a career .329 wOBA.

The other side of it is that Howard is extremely productive against right-handed pitchers. His career wOBA against right-handed pitchers (.424) is 95 points higher than it is against lefties. To put that in perspective, Miguel Cabrera had a .429 wOBA and Michael Cuddyer was at .329 during the 2010 regular season.

In the scenario where the Phillies trade prospects and/or Major League players for Young and his remaining $48 million, we need to ask ourselves if it is really worth the trouble. Remember that these LOOGY situations only come up once per game. Even if it occurs in every game, we are still only dealing with 162 plate appearances per player, quite a small sample size.

By comparing the Phillies’ wOBA splits to the league averages, we can find out approximately how many runs the Phillies are gaining or losing in each match-up. wOBA is converted into runs with the following formula:

( ( Player’s wOBA – League average wOBA ) / 1.15 ) * Player’s PA

We’ll start with Chase Utley:

  • vs. LHP as LH: ( ( .390 – .314 ) / 1.15 ) * 162 = 8.1 runs
  • vs. RHP as LH: ( ( .382 – .325 ) / 1.15 ) * 162 = 10.7 runs
  • Difference: 2.6 runs in favor of facing LHP

Ryan Howard:

  • vs. LHP as LH: ( ( .329 – .314 ) / 1.15 ) * 162 = 2.1 runs
  • vs. RHP as LH: ( ( .424 – .325 ) / 1.15 ) * 162 = 14.0 runs
  • Difference: 11.9 runs in favor of facing RHP

Raul Ibanez:

  • vs. LHP as LH: ( ( .329 – .314 ) / 1.15 ) * 162 = 2.1 runs
  • vs. RHP as LH: ( ( .367 – .325 ) / 1.15 ) * 162 = 5.9 runs
  • Difference: 3.8 runs in favor of facing RHP

Michael Young:

  • vs. LHP as RH: ( ( .362 – .330 ) / 1.15 ) * 162 = 4.5 runs
  • vs. RHP as RH: ( ( .344 – .311 ) / 1.15 ) * 162 = 4.6 runs
  • Difference: 0.1 runs in favor of facing RHP

The benefit of having a right-handed hitter, for the Phillies, is to give opposing managers a deterrent to bringing in a LOOGY for Howard. So let’s compare two similar situations, one where the manager leaves his left-hander in to face Young, and one where he allows his right-handed pitcher to face Howard. Then, we will compare it to the status quo.

  • LHP vs. Utley-Howard-Young: 8.1 + 2.1 + 4.5 = 14.7 runs
  • RHP vs. Utley-Howard-Young: 10.7 + 14.0 + 4.6 = 29.3 runs
  • LHP vs. Utley-Howard-Ibanez: 8.1 + 2.1 + 2.1 = 12.3 runs

Over a full season (just 162 PA), if opposing managers let right-handers face Utley and Howard because they are scared of Young, the Phillies gain about 15 runs (about 1.5 wins). Young’s presence is not a strong enough deterrent. Furthermore, he provides an upgrade of only one-fourth of one win. Roughly ten runs equate to one win, and Young only provides a 2.4 run boost. Keep in mind, though, that this is relative — we are only dealing with 162 PA, or one PA per game.

What if the Phillies kept Jayson Werth? What is the optimal strategy?

  • LHP vs. Utley-Howard-Werth: 8.1 + 2.1 + 10.0 = 20.2 runs
  • RHP vs. Utley-Howard-Werth: 10.7 + 14.0 + 5.9 = 30.6 runs

Not even Werth’s presence would make it optimal to allow Howard to face a LOOGY.

Just for fun, what if the Phillies had Albert Pujols hitting behind Howard?

  • LHP vs. Utley-Howard-Pujols: 8.1 + 2.1 + 17.6 = 27.8 runs
  • RHP vs. Utley-Howard-Pujols: 10.7 + 14.0 + 16.6 = 41.3 runs

Not even Pujols could dissuade a manager looking to bring in his LOOGY. Opposing managers would rather face one incredibly productive hitter (Pujols’ 17.6 runs) with his left-hander than two (Pujols’ 16.6 runs and Howard’s 14.0 runs) with a right-hander.

Howard’s production is so extremely good against right-handers and his production is so average against left-handers, that there is no reason to allow him to face a right-handed pitcher in a high-leverage situation. If the Phillies want to see Howard face LOOGYs less, Howard needs to vastly increase his production against lefties (or, conversely, drastically lower his production against right-handers).

(Remember, the above graphic is in a sample size of only 162 PA)

There are no right-handed hitters that should cause opposing managers to pause before bringing in a LOOGY unless those hitters are equivalently (or more) extremely good against left-handed pitching compared to right-handed pitching. The basis of platoons is maximizing the number of these favorable match-ups.

It is not worthwhile for the Phillies to acquire a hitter simply because he is right-handed. And, as pointed out last Wednesday, Young would not provide an upgrade at third base or shortstop, the only two positions where he would reasonably fit in, effectively washing out — and worse — any match-up related advantages.

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15 comments

  1. Best Phillies Blogs

    February 14, 2011 08:31 AM

    We’re going to need to 2006 version of Ryan Howard. 16 HR, .279 vs. LHP. Not the 2009 (6/.207) version. 2010 was a little better (12/.264).

  2. Richard

    February 14, 2011 09:43 AM

    I agree that too much has been made of this alleged need for a big right-handed bat.

    However, it might be worth noting that focusing on LHPs overall doesn’t really address the LOOGY problem. According to the figures I’ve seen, Utley does struggle against late-inning left-handed specialists, and Howard is much worse against them than against lefties in general. I’d maintain that your governing points still hold: it’s such a small number of at-bats over the course of a season, and the presence of the big right-handed bat shouldn’t make a strategic difference anyway in deterring opposing managers from using a LOOGY (in fact, I think the LOOGY figures would only underline that point).

    That said, I’d still separate Utley and Howard, not because they’re both left-handed, but because what lineup optimization research there is suggests Utley would be better placed batting second. I would do this:

    Victorino
    Utley
    Polanco
    Howard
    Rollins
    Ibanez
    Brown/Francisco
    Ruiz
    pitcher

  3. Dan P

    February 14, 2011 10:02 AM

    I was going to make the same point as Richard … though I haven’t seen the statistics, I would imagine that Utley, Howard (and pretty much all lefties) stats against LHPs are inflated compared to the situation we’re talking about, because there are a lot of average LH starters, whereas LOOGY relievers are only there for one reason … to get LH hitters out.

  4. Scott G

    February 14, 2011 10:49 AM

    I was going to make the same point as Richard and Dan. I can’t find wOBA stats for vs LH relievers, but baseball-reference has their traditional splits. It appears that Utley is about the same vs relievers and starters, but LH relievers absolutely destroy Howard (memory would support this find).

    I also second Richard’s desire to split Utley and Howard.

  5. JB Allen

    February 14, 2011 10:56 AM

    What about lefty SPs? Shouldn’t the Phillies be concerned that two hitters in the heart of their lineup are league-average against lefties (yeah, I’m spoiled)? Put another way, wouldn’t it make sense to have another right-handed hitter to spell Ibanez and maybe even Howard sometimes (or is the idea that Brown will play against lefties and Francisco will spell Ibanez)?

  6. Cutter

    February 14, 2011 11:02 AM

    This is spot on. Werth’s presence last year didn’t prevent teams from bringing in LOOGYs, so I don’t think that anyone else they bring in would do so either.

    In late game situations, managers are going to bring in LOOGYs against Howard no matter what. The Phillies can only hope that Howard does better in these situations.

  7. nik

    February 14, 2011 12:20 PM

    Quick math of Howard vs Lefty relievers from his BR splits page:

    Howard vs All lefties: 262/1128 (.232), 121BB, 432K, 65HR

    Howard vs Starter lefties: 238/920 (.259), 106BB, 324K, 62HR

    The difference between the two:

    Howard vs Reliever lefties: 24/208 (.115) 15BB, 108K!, 3HR

    A whopping 52% strikeout rate, amazing.

    I think if you looked at Howard’s line vs lefty relievers instead of his overall production against lefties your totals would look a little different.

  8. Bob

    February 14, 2011 12:25 PM

    Why is there so much talk about Ben Francisco platooning with D Brown? Shouldn’t he be put in the line-up against as many lefties as possible so he can learn to hit lefties the way he clobbered them in the minors? Francisco should be platooning in left with Ibanez and routinely spelling Vic and Brown to get a bunch of ABs… I’m too lazy to do the work, but isn’t it easier to imagine/project a D Brown and Ibanez/Francisco line-up being better than a D Brown/Francisco and Ibanez line-up card?

  9. Scott G

    February 14, 2011 12:36 PM

    Bob,

    I think Francisco and Ibanez should platoon. Ibanez’s LH splits aren’t bad, but Francisco is pretty good vs. lefties.

    Cutter,

    I don’t think the hope is preventing LOOGYs as much as it is either having a righty to punish the LOOGY, or force the manager’s hand to make multiple moves. If you have the righty between Utley and Howard, he’s almost guaranteed to see the LHP. Werth was an ideal candidate to punish LOOGYs, but I don’t really see any current Philly, or Young being good for that role. I still would like another RHB though.

    Any word on if Werth is available?

  10. hunterfan

    February 14, 2011 02:23 PM

    Just spitballing here, but I’m really much more worried about our team against LOOGYs during the postseason than during the regular season. During the regular season, I don’t think it’s going to be anything that’s going to derail the Phils’ season (hopefully).

    But in a go or go home situation, I don’t know that I want the opposing team to be able to bring in LOOGIES to neuter the Phils’ lineup when they need hits in late innings.

  11. hk

    February 14, 2011 06:00 PM

    FanSince09′s opinions aside, the Phils should be fine without adding another RH power bat as long as Wilson Valdez (and his career .239 wOBA vs. LHP’s) does not get anywhere close to the 104 PA’s that he got vs. LHP’s in 2010. If Rollins (.334 career wOBA vs. LHP’s) and Utley (.390 career wOBA vs LHP’s) are healthy, the Phils should be fine vs. LHP’s. If Rollins and/or Utley only combine for 900 or fewer PA’s next year, we’ll be able to say they should of traded for Michael Young.

  12. hk

    February 14, 2011 06:01 PM

    I meant “…Rollins and Utley combine…”, not “…Rollins and/or Utley combine…”.

  13. CCDaniels

    February 15, 2011 05:36 PM

    If everyone is trying to hit a HR then we are in trouble. However if Rollins reverts to form having him hit behind Howard is good enough. I think the lineup got Homer happy during the past few years when hitting for average would have been good enough. The line up laid out by Richard should have fun this year if healthy!

  14. LarryInLA

    February 16, 2011 01:08 PM

    This analysis is premised on the idea that we know the platoon splits for all of the hitters involved. Instead, the observed platoon splits must be regressed toward the mean platoon split of MLB hitters. I’m not sure whether that changes the answer, but one should always regress when trying to predict future performance just to promote proper thinking about these kinds of questions. Using unregressed splits is always problematic.

    Also, the opposing pitchers are assumed to have average platoon splits, which as pointed out above, is probably not true for a LOOGY.

  15. Ape

    March 03, 2011 12:18 PM

    Maybe they should simply masturbate more often?

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