Platooning 101

The day everyone has looked forward to is here. Obstructed View is no longer something we can hype though we had little to no intention of doing that. It just became fun to do it. Now we have to live up to the hype or face critisim and ridicule by the thousands of fans we raised expectations for. Anyway, this may be the first post of mine that some of you will read. I hope it won’t be the last.

There’s always a surprisingly large amount of business that teams tend to the final week of spring training and this one has been no different. Before I try to explain why you should read anything I write, I want to get started as there’s a lot to say right now. I’ve been holding my breath on Another Cubs Blog over the last week as I didn’t want to publish any fresh content. I like stats and will try to explain them at some point, but the Cubs may be using two platoons this year, which is rare enough, but the type of platoons they’re using is quite unique.

As of now, the Cubs are planning to platoon Kosuke Fukudome and Tyler Colvin in right field. That much is a certainty. It also is beginning to appear as though the Cubs are going to platoon Jeff Baker and Darwin Barney. This I may be wrong about, but we’ll know for sure soon enough.

I’m a big fan of platoons. I think managers underuse the platoon these days just so players can be called every day players. Let’s face it, some aren’t every day guys. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just a fact. I’m not convinced that Kosuke Fukudome isn’t an every day player, but that’s not what this post is about.

The reasons managers platoon players is so they can have the platoon advantage at the plate. This is a new blog and there are new readers so just to be sure, the platoon advantage is when the hitter is facing an opposite armed pitcher. A right handed batters vs a left handed pitcher is having the platoon advantage. A righty vs a righty gives the platoon advantage to the defense (pitching team). The platoon advantage is important because all players hit differently against lefties and righties. It’s very rare to find a player who has accrued a very high total of plate appearances who hits lefties as well as righties. A right handed batter is almost always going to hit a left-handed pitcher better than he does a righty. This assumes a large enough sample of the numbers to become reliable. Over the course of a single season, we’ll see variations. Over the course of a long career, we’ll find the player’s platoon splits to be quite similar to the league as a whole.

I don’t want to dig too deep into numbers at this point, the platoon difference is roughly .030 points of wOBA (weighted on-base average). This means that a righty whose true talent level is about .350 vs lefties it’s probably about .320 vs righties. Every player has a different platoon split and we figure this out based on their own platoon splits and the size of the sample vs each pitcher. I’m not going to bother with that right now so we’re going to stick with the rough average of 30 points difference. Thereabouts.

It’s clear why managers use the platoon or pinch hit late in games so they can get a lefty up vs a righty. There’s a significant difference between .350 and .320. One is below average while the other is considerably higher than average.

One of the platoons I most remember the Cubs using was in 1989. Dwight Smith and Lloyd McClendon shared duties in left field and it worked like a charm. Smith was the lefty so he played primarily against righties while McClendon played vs the lefties.

Somewhere between 65% and 70% of the plate appearances in baseball are against right handed pitchers. If you have a right-handed player who doesn’t hit righties very well, you look to platoon him with a lefty. This way you have the platoon advantage in well over 80% of the plate appearances. Teams are going to bring in relievers to face same-sided batters and teams can’t have the advantage 100% of the time. The righty part of the platoon will play some vs righties, though not much. That’s inevitable, but you can maximize the advantage by platooning.

However, Tyler Colvin and Kosuke Fukudome are both left handed batters. They are going to have the advantage about 65% to 70% of the time, which is of course good, but it’s much less than it would be if you platooned a righty and lefty. Furthermore, since both are lefties, you assume their splits will be similar. In other words, if Tyler Colvin is a .330 wOBA hitter and Fukudome is at .340, we’d expect their splits to be similar, but Fukudome’s would be higher. As a result, you’re better off playing Fukudome vs all pitchers. If you think Colvin is better then Colvin should be the everyday player.

There are examples where this may be untrue. Tyler Colvin actually hit lefties almost as well in the minor leagues as he hit righties. Fukudome also hit lefties well in Japan and with the exception of 2009, he’s hit lefties every bit as good here as he has hit righties. I could see an argument to be made that you may be better off with Colvin at the plate vs lefties than righties, but it’s hard for me to believe there’s much of a difference.

Then we have to add the fact that players who don’t play every day perform worse than they would if they were starting. Regular playing time is in fact something that improves performance slightly. We’re not only limiting the percentage at which the team has the platoon advantage, but also lowering the performance levels of each player relative to what he’d do as a starter.

These are the reasons that teams rarely platoon lefties with lefties or righties with righties. Oddly enough, the Cubs just may be doing that at two separate positions in 2011. I haven’t looked, but I can’t think of a single team that has ever done that. I would be surprised if any team ever entered the season with two platoons consisting of same-sided ballplayers.

However, there is a reason that I haven’t yet mentioned. Age. Consider that Tyler Colvin just broke into the big leagues last season and has yet to prove he can play every day. He’s not exactly a star player, but he’s still relatively young. Darwin Barney is also a young player. While these platoons may seem odd, and they certainly do, the fact each consists of a player who is young-ish leads me to believe that 1) Quade isn’t making the decisions and 2) the Cubs are keeping an eye on the future.

Unfortunately, they also traded half their prospects for Matt Garza so it’s a little contradictory to say the least. I don’t know what the Cubs are doing. I haven’t known what they are doing since mid-season 2009. I’m sure I’ll write more about this in the future, but even in the down seasons prior to that there appeared to be a clear plan with this organization. So I just don’t know what the team is doing anymore.

I’ve tried like hell to figure it out over the last 18 to 20 months, but I’m afraid it won’t happen.


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