The most important job of a manager is to put his players in a position to succeed. Since success is not a guarantee, perhaps putting those players in the position where they are most likely to succeed is a better way of stating it.
Managers have many opportunities to maximize the effectiveness of their players. We discussed one example last week when we talked about lineups. This week, I’d like to discuss platoons; more specifically, platoons as they pertain to the 2016 Cincinnati Reds outfield and their implementation.
At the mention of “platoon,” your mind likely moved straight to left field, where Scott Schebler and Adam Duvall are likely to split time this year. While that is the only position we know with near certainty will be platooned, I’d like to propose something: the Reds should platoon all three outfield positions.
Before we get to the numbers, let us talk about why platooning makes sense. The main reason is the obvious reason; hitters generally have a more difficult time hitting same-handed pitching than hitting opposite-handed pitching. This idea is generally known as “the platoon split.” Even without a detailed analysis, any casual baseball fan understands this reality. It’s why switch-hitting exists. It’s why some managers insist on alternating lefties and righties in the batting order. It’s why LOOGYs exist.
There are many theories about why platoon splits exist and some make more sense than others do. The theories based on physics seem the most realistic to me. For example, a curveball from a right-handed pitcher breaks towards a left-handed batter. Anecdotally, hitting a ball moving towards you is easier than hitting a ball tailing away from you. I’ve heard some players say it’s harder to see the ball come out of a same-handed pitcher’s hand and, thus, harder to pick up the ball’s spin and flight.
Regardless of the reason, we know the effect is real. Here are the platoon splits for the last 3 seasons:
The 3-year average splits show another interesting phenomenon. The left-handed platoon split is larger than the right-handed platoon split. This holds up historically, as well, if we were to look at many more seasons. The explanation for this is much simpler. There are more right-handed pitchers than left-handed pitchers, so right-handed batters get more practice against their same-handed pitchers than do left-handed batters. That, at least, is the prevailing thought. It is the most simple, as well, so Occam would likely agree.
Now that we’ve talked about platoons in general, let’s move back to the Reds. The left field situation lends itself very well to a platoon. Why? Well, neither Duvall nor Schebler has proven to be a solid, everyday major league player. Given the average platoon splits above, it would be logical to conclude Duvall should start against lefties and Schebler should start against righties. But, logic only gets you so far. Let’s look at some data:
These numbers were calculated using all plate appearances at all levels (including winter ball for Duvall and fall ball for Schebler) from 2013 to 2015 in order to get the largest sample possible.
There isn’t a ton to talk about with this chart. Duvall has only been slightly better against LHP than has Schebler and Schebler has been quite a bit better against RHP than has Duvall. Perhaps of note is the last column titled “Platoon Split.” Notice Duvall has a negative split. Over the last 3 seasons, Duvall has actually been better (based on OPS) against RHP than LHP. While some “reverse split” guys exist, they are rare given a large enough sample. Duvall has only faced a lefty 398 times in the last 3 seasons, so perhaps this is a sample size issue, or perhaps Duvall is actually a rare reverse split guy. There is no way to know without more data. Likely, Duvall and Schebler will be your LF platoon partners.
If the entirety of this column were to discuss only the left field situation, it would be quite a boring column. Perhaps it is boring regardless. Faced with that daunting reality, I will press on!
Here is the above chart, but inclusive of all outfielders in camp that have a non-zero chance of making the roster, sorted by platoon split:
Before we go further, I will discuss a few disclaimers. First, I know Jesse Winker and Phil Ervin are very unlikely to make the club this year, but since they may figure prominently next season, I have included them for the purpose of comparison. Second, even though we’re looking at a common measure (OPS), given that each player has spent differing amounts of time at different levels of competition, we’ll have to view these numbers through a filter. For example, Bruce’s .809 OPS against RHP at the MLB level should be considered much more impressive than Adam Duvall’s .809 OPS against LHP at the AA/AAA/MLB levels. Also, we shouldn’t expect a player’s minor league numbers to match his major league numbers, even though it’s possible. Players usually put up worse numbers when transitioning from the minors the majors. Third, although I rely almost exclusively on OPS in this column, I am not making the implicit statement that OPS is the best way to measure player’s skill in relation to their peers. I’d have preferred something like wRC+, but given the disparate info and sources, it was too time consuming to calculate for everyone at all levels of play.
Now with the disclaimers aside, what should we take away from this chart? Jake Cave has been terrible against lefties? That’s true. Billy Hamilton is a terrible hitter? Well, that’s true also. The main take-away should be that Reds have a vast array of options when deciding how to construct their roster this year.
Let’s examine the “against lefties” scenario in more depth:
From this chart, we see Duvall has the highest OPS over the last 3 seasons against lefties, so he’s the clear-cut starting LF against LHP, right? Perhaps not. Yorman Rodriguez has a nearly identical OPS. The two players arrived at their OPS in two different manners. Duvall hits for a ton more power. His 18.1 PA/HR is impressive in a vacuum (think Yoenis Cespedes in 2015), but when you look at how often he hits fly balls (more than half the time) it’s slightly less impressive. Rodriguez gets on base more often, beholden to a more evenly distributed batted-ball profile. Getting on base at a .342 clip is above average and would certainly be welcome by all Reds fans, even with inevitable AAA-to-MLB regression.
Since these guys are so close, how do you decide which one deserves the playing time? Spring training is one way to decide, but as Brennan Boesch taught us all, spring training stats can be deceiving. Duvall gets some bonus points for hitting a few homers at the end of last year, and Rodriguez likely gets docked a few points, mentally, since he hasn’t played up to expectations.
What if the Reds played them both? Jay Bruce’s .716 OPS against lefties in his career is not particularly impressive, even if it’s above league average for lefties against lefties. Even if Rodriguez dropped 50 points off his mostly-AAA OPS, he’d still outpace Bruce, while also providing superior RF defense. Limiting Bruce’s PA against LHP might also have a related benefit. When the trade deadline rolls around, if Bruce has, say, 90% of his PA against RHP rather than a normal two-thirds or so, his “inflated” stats might look better to potential trade partners. This will be especially true if a contender is looking for an extra bench bat, rather than a completely new starting right fielder. So, why not play Duvall in left and Rodriguez in right against lefties? It’s worth a shot, right?
Now we address the elephant in the room: Billy Hamilton. Maintaining a .652 OPS against lefties is atrocious. Even worse, this involves Hamilton hitting from his natural side of the plate. Hamilton’s woes have been well-documented on this site and on other national sites recently, so we won’t belabor the issue, other than to say Billy’s defense and base running is his only lifeline to the big leagues right now. So, what if the Reds had an option to replace Hamilton who could play good defense, get on base, and occupy the same center field that gives Reds players magical leadoff eligibility? Given Hamilton’s nagging injuries, the Reds’ hand may be forced. Here’s the chart again sorted by on-base percentage:
A center fielder has materialized at the top of the chart. Tyler Holt has a Vottoian .402 OBP against lefties over the last 3 seasons, with much of that playing time occurring at AAA or higher. Given Bryan Price’s perceived desire to bat Billy Hamilton (or any center fielder) first, how would Holt and his .402 OBP against lefties look batting lead-off? Like a sight for sore eyes:
Notice the first three batters getting on base at .378 or higher and the 2-through-6 slots all slugging at least .470. This seems like a formidable lineup if Holt, Rodriguez, and Duvall can translate fairly well to regular MLB play.
Now let’s talk about hitting against RHP. We’ll go a bit more briskly this time. Here is the pertinent chart:
Schebler hits for power and gets on base at a good rate against righties; no need to over-think this one. Schebler should be a starter against virtually every right-handed pitcher. Thankfully, that appears to be the plan coming out of spring training.
Now, if Billy were healthy, we know he’d likely be getting playing time in CF despite is abysmal .622 OPS against righties. Here’s something: Scott Schebler started 38 games in center field last year in AAA. Do you think his .800+ OPS would play in CF? I think it would. The athleticism he has shown so far in spring training makes this idea feel a bit more realistic, as well.
Since Schebler is now in CF, who is in left? Well, Adam Duvall, of course! Due to his reverse split over the last 3 seasons, he’s shown he can hit righties at least as well as he can hit lefties. How about right field? Jay Bruce has always been fairly good against right-handed pitching and he needs to rebuild that trade value, right? Bruce starts in right.
How about this lineup against righties?
This lineup is not as exciting, to me at least, as the lineup against lefties. Suarez looks odd in the lead-off spot, but his .381 SLG against righties doesn’t warrant a middle-of-the-order spot compared to the other mashers. You could probably have Tyler Holt also play center field in this lineup and lead-off, as he has posted a .356 OBP against righties the last 3 seasons in 1079 PA, rather than Duvall (shifting Schebler to left), but Duvall’s .516 SLG against RHP is pretty nice. If Jake Cave makes the team, his .365 OBP against righties would also look nice in the lead-off spot if you want to drop Duvall.
Now that we’ve looked at what the outfield has to offer in terms of platoon options, let’s discuss how likely anything I presented above is to happen. If I’m being honest, “not likely” is probably a conservative way to put it.
If Hamilton is healthy, it is very probable he receives the majority of the center field playing time. If Bruce is healthy (and still a Red) he’s going to play almost every inning in RF as he tries to resurrect his trade value. These two incumbents are safe, comfortable choices for Bryan Price.
Tyler Holt may not even make the team out of camp because his prime competition, Jake Cave, is having himself a pretty decent spring and was recently a Rule 5 pick. I feel it is very unlikely both Holt and Cave break camp with the team. I think this is unfortunate given the numbers above show Cave was overmatched by minor league left-handed pitchers over the last 3 seasons (.587 OPS). There’s no reason to think he’ll be able to handle lefties in the bigs if he couldn’t handle lefties in the minors. Based on past performance, Holt seems like the better option. Holt turned 27 yesterday and Cave is only 23, so perhaps if the Reds invest time in Cave now it will pay dividends in 2018 and beyond. Age and potential role with the team in 2 years are all things that should be considered.
Yorman Rodriguez also has a future in limbo. Given his perceived under performance and the fact that he’s out of options, it’s easy to see him making the team and easy to see him being left off. There is a lot unknown with Yorman, but it will likely all be figured out sooner rather than later.
Platooning is just one way a manager can “get the most” out of his players. I sincerely hope Price takes a long hard look at his options instead of taking the easy route and writing the familiar names on the lineup card every day. After all, this season should be viewed as an immensely important data gathering opportunity on young players.