The role of the ‘platoon’ player

at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium on March 19, 2015 in Dunedin, Florida.

By Edward Overend

To some players, it’s a sign of disrespect. To some fans it’s a sign of weakness.

But to anybody who looks up and down the list of projected lineups as we get close to the start of the season, it’s simply a sign of the times.

Platooning is increasingly in vogue in this era of pitching prominence and diminished offensive returns. As we stand today, well over half of MLB’s 30 clubs have some sort of timeshare on the table at one or, in many cases, multiple positions. And the Oakland A’s and manager Bob Melvin, who have been referred to as the “King of Platoons” are not alone in employing the practice.

Billy Beane, A’s General Manager has said “You’re never going to have, more often than not, a perfect player.”

Others undoubtedly agree. Some of these situations are born out of necessity, others out of creativity, and many are subject to change as the season evolves.

But what’s clear is that a mind-set and method almost as old as the game itself still apply, more so now than at any time in recent memory.

Baseball, like all sports, rewards players who can identify an opponent’s weakness and exploit it, and one of the game’s most exploitable weaknesses is an oldy but a goody. Left handed batters, as a group never have been all that productive against left-handed pitchers, and the left-on-left .645 OPS in 2014 had not dipped lower in more than 40 years.

So how do team’s get around this?

Last season players batted in favourable matchups (right-handed hitters against left-handed pitchers, and vice versa) more than any season ever, perhaps an indication of the measures teams are taking to eke more efficiency and efficacy out of their offenses at a time when runs per game and league-wide batting averages have dipped to their lowest levels in decades.

Although the word platoon is often unfairly assigned to several of these situations, given that playing time won’t always be predicated upon handedness, not having an everyday player prescribed at every position isn’t necessarily a shortcoming and could, in fact emerge as a strength.

You can look at the 2013 World Champion Red Sox, who paired Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava. These two combined for 18 Home Runs, 37 doubles and 101 RBIs. This provided a .790 OPS out of left field, good for third among major league teams.

Pure production can be awfully expensive, as demonstrated by Giancarlo Stanton’s whopping $325m contract this winter. That’s why such small-market clubs as the A’s and the Rays have long made a habit of maximising the potential of their rosters through the use of time-shares.

However, recently, we’re seeing several of the big spenders toy with, if not outright embrace, the idea as well.

Advanced data has infiltrated the game like never before, and the prevalence of defensive shifts is perhaps the most glaring example of that. But the impact of platoon splits is a simple concept that has long-held sway.

George Stallings took advantage of the strategy in guiding the 1914 “Miracle” Boston Braves to World Series pay dirt. Casey Stengel famously used and abused the practice with the Yankees in the 1950s, perhaps drawing from his own experience as a platoon player under the legendary John McGraw.

Even the fictional Montgomery Burns brought platoon splits to beer-league softball in a Simpsons episode in which he sent in a pinch-hitter for Darryl Strawberry to prevent the slugger from facing a late-inning lefty.

It’s what smart managers do to win ballgames” Burns eloquently explained.

If last season’s numbers and this season’s rosters are any indication, teams are smartly trying to come up with even the smallest antidote to the League-wide offensive woes. The Mariners for example are looking to platoon Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano in right field, while doing the same in left with Dustin Ackley and Rickie Weeks. If the Phillies were at all competent, they would ditch Ryan Howard and his awful career record against lefties.

Because right-handed batters spend most of their life growing up facing right-handed pitchers, it is not always the case that there is a platoon advantage to be had though. Indeed, sheer handedness is not always the determining factor we deem it to be.

Earl Weaver was the King of Platoons long before Bob Melvin was, but Weaver’s platoons were based not just on the simple splits but on the velocity of the opposing pitcher and how hit hitters fared against the fastball. This is where the increasing intricacy of data does come into play, because now managers are better positioned to put their players in favourable conditions, such as a fly-ball hitter going to bat against a sinkerball pitcher (a matchup the A’s have certainly sought to exploit in recent seasons).

All of which is to say that it’s probably harder than ever for the preview magazines and websites to pin down a “projected” lineup for a club because the lineups are predicated upon any number of varying factors from day-to-day. And although teams have stopped short of going to 11 man pitching staffs to expand their bench, they have shown a slight, yet noticeable, increase in appreciation for lineup flexibility.

Last season, he Cleveland Indians led MLB in percentage of plate appearances with favourable conditions for the batter at just over 70%. “I think every manager would like to do it” their manager Terry Francona said. “You just can’t always do it. You can’t ever forget that they’re people. So that’s part of the communication. It’s getting guys to understand that we’re a team, and it’s not all about personal numbers.”

You can follow Ed on twitter @EdwardOverend or join in the conversation @CTBPod

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