Platoon

For as good as the Oliver Stone film Platoon is, the baseball platoon is even better. The idea is to use a particular player only in situations that highlight his strengths, and use his positional partner in other situations. For instance, the 1993 Phillies famously and successfully utilized platoons as I described in this post from a year ago:

Manager Jim Fregosi squeezed additional runs out of his team by utilizing platoons in left and right field as well as second base and shortstop. As a result, the Phillies had the best OPS in the league against right-handed pitching (.765) and the second-highest OPS against lefties (.802). In left field, Pete Incaviglia handled lefties (.904 OPS) while Milt Thompson faced mostly right-handers (.745 OPS). In right field, Jim Eisenreich faced right-handers (.816) and Wes Chamberlain faced lefties (.986). Although Mariano Duncan didn’t have much of a platoon split (.721 vs. RHP/.720 vs. LHP), he spent time at both second base and shortstop. Second baseman Mickey Morandini‘s .688 OPS was more than 100 points higher than against lefties whom he faced only about 25 percent of the time. At shortstop, the switch-hitting Kevin Stocker hit lefties well (.936) but faced them at about half the rate as right-handers (.780).

The Phillies finished with the fifth-highest percentage of plate appearances with the platoon advantage (65 percent) despite having only two switch-hitters rack up 100 or more trips to the dish.

The Oakland Athletics, which surged into the post-season with a 51-25 second-half record, are yet another team using platoons and making it work. They have used platoons at four positions: catcher, first base, second base, and designated hitter. Their offensive gains aren’t nearly as pronounced as the ’93 Phillies, but the A’s would have been dreadful without smart player deployment. As a team, the A’s have the second-worst batting average and third-worst on-base percentage, but with some changes in personnel and strategy, their second-half OPS was nearly 100 points higher than their first-half OPS.

Here’s a look at how the A’s got it done:

The platoons at catcher and second base aren’t impressive, but you do what you can with your personnel. The Phillies, going into 2013, should look at what the A’s have done and strongly consider utilizing platoons at several positions if possible: third base, right field, and first base. Let’s address those in reverse order.

First Base

Yes, the Phillies should consider platooning their star first baseman to whom they owe $105 million. Howard will turn 33 years old in November and is coming off of the worst offensive showing of his excellent career. He has shown a severe platoon split over his career, but it wasn’t an issue earlier on because he hit right-handed pitching so prodigiously. As he aged and the league caught up to him, however, his performance against right-handers declined and so too did the Phillies’ tolerance for his inability to hit left-handed pitching. The following line graph illustrates the changes:

RHP LHP DIFF
2006 1.164 .923 .241
2007 1.072 .826 .246
2008 .966 .746 .220
2009 1.088 .653 .435
2010 .876 .826 .050
2011 .921 .634 .287
2012 .784 .604 .180

Howard has earned the right to have an opportunity to redeem himself after a disappointing and injury-plagued 2012 — his torn Achilles and broken toe acted as bookends on his 71 uninspiring games. He should be the full-time first baseman to start the season, but if the Phillies observe no legitimate improvement, they should consider benching Howard against southpaws while utilizing someone like John Mayberry (.811 OPS vs. LHP in 2012), Erik Kratz (.877), or even Darin Ruf (1.325 in Double-A Reading; 1.326 OPS in 16 MLB plate appearances).

To put the situation in the context or runs above average, let us use wOBA as the run conversion is rather simple. Mayberry has hit lefties for a .370 wOBA since 2010 while Howard has mustered only a .310 mark in that same period of time. To convert the wOBA difference into runs, we divide the .060 difference by 1.15, then multiply it by the 225 plate appearances of Howard’s Mayberry would theoretically take. (.060/1.15)*225 comes out to 12 runs, or about 1.2 wins. Will an extra win likely make the difference between the Phillies reaching the post-season and sitting home in October? Probably not, but this more efficient use of personnel, coupled with the same strategy at other positions, plus more intelligent decision-making elsewhere (e.g. using Jonathan Papelbon in a tie game on the road) can give the Phillies a few extra wins in the standings just like the A’s.

Right Field

With the Phillies owing $125 million to seven players going into 2013, there is some impetus to solve some problems on the cheap when possible. As demonstrated this past regular season, the bullpen is a great and easy way to do that, but for the Phillies next season, right field could be just as simple. Some are saying the Phillies should target someone like Nick Swisher along with one of the many available center fielders, but equivalent solutions are available right now for a fraction of the cost. Nate Schierholtz, used almost exclusively against right-handed pitching while with the San Francisco Giants, could pair up with Mayberry or a cheap free agent to provide above-average production for under $5 million.

Schierholtz has taken 631 trips to the plate in the past two seasons with 495 of them (78%) coming against right-handers. Against them, Schierholtz posted a respectable .349 wOBA while playing above average defense in right field:

The Phillies could pair Schierholtz with a free agent like Matt Diaz, who is recovering from thumb surgery but is expected to make a recovery. Diaz will turn 35 in March but has long been a noted lefty-killer, with a career .370 wOBA against them over his career. That is Yoenis Cespedes-level offense specifically against southpaws. Scott Hairston could work as well. Between Schierholtz and their right-handed hitter of choice, they could recapture and exceed the production they had with Hunter Pence for one-third of the cost.

Third Base

Yesterday’s article looked at the Phillies’ options at third base, concluding that a realistic solution would involve Kevin Frandsen despite his probable mean-regression. Some of you who commented left some creative ideas that make sense. For instance, John Stolnis of That Ball’s Outta Here suggested free agent Jeff Keppinger. Keppinger, 33 in April, has shown a drastic platoon split over his career, with an .864 OPS against left-handed pitching and .680 against right-handed pitching. The difference was even more drastic this past season alone. He earned just over $1.5 million with the Rays on a one-year deal, so he could come at a rather cheap price.

Eric Chavez would make a nice platoon partner with Keppinger. With the New York Yankees, Chavez tagged right-handers for a .908 OPS and was used almost exclusively against them. It has been a renaissance year for the soon-to-be 35-year-old Chavez, who played in a grand total of 122 games between 2008-11. The Yankees signed him to a one-year, $900,000 deal in February. With his limited usefulness and age, he is due for only a small raise if he gets one at all, so a potential Chavez-Keppinger platoon would come in well under $5 million. Such a platoon would also be infinitely more favorable than hoping that Frandsen’s 2012 showing wasn’t an illusion and/or that Freddy Galvis will acquire the ability to handle Major League pitching at an above-replacement level.

Few teams make use of platoons, but it should be standard practice when you don’t have a quality balanced player at a certain position (e.g. Chase Utley). Of course, politics and player management are issues to consider as well, as it doesn’t exactly look cool to announce to fans that your $125 million first baseman is going to sit against the Mike Minors and Paul Maholms of the baseball world. Two press releases announcing one-year deals for third basemen in their mid-30’s isn’t as sexy as “Phillies sign Mark Reynolds to three-year, $45 million deal”. But in the end, what matters is gaining those small advantages to push your team north in the standings, and the Phillies have a very high chance of doing that with platoons than hoping a big free agent signing pans out or their bottled lightning players from a year prior are legitimate.