Two-Headed Monsters: How Platooning Can Shape the 2010 American League
When people think lineup positions known for big bats and power, the first two that come to mind are first basemen and designated hitters.
As they should, since one position is not required to play defense, and the other is playing the easiest position on the field. For this reason, a first baseman in free agency with an .800 OPS is often considered a "decent piece" or a third corner IF option, while a catcher with the same hitting numbers becomes a sought-after free agent, destined for eight figure a year salaries. Position scarcity is important.
Last year in MLB, 1B/DHs combined to go .270/.355/.471, and slugged an average of almost 26 home runs per 650 plate appearances. Given that a .826 OPS is the average for 1B/DH types, one would assume that most contending teams would have no worse than this on their roster, given the premium contending teams still put on slugging 1B types.
Which leads us to two teams who seem primed to make a run at the AL Pennant in 2010: The Red Sox and the Rangers.
The Red Sox, after an offseason of attempting to shop Mike Lowell, ultimately were unable to, and begin the 2010 campaign with Lowell as the reserve 3B, 1B, and DH, with David Ortiz continuing as DH.
Ortiz struggled for the first two months of 2009, and while he was eventually able to right the ship, OPS'ing in the mid .900's from July-on, and getting his Wins Above Replacement (WAR) rating above the replacement level of 0 by the end of the season, it simply was not a successful campaign, with an overall line of .238/.332/.462, good for a 101 OPS+.
Lowell was actually a bit better in 2009 with the bat, hitting .290/.337/.474, good for a 106 OPS+. Of course, Lowell also endured a horrendous season with the glove, and for it, will start the season on the bench.
In Texas, the recent signing of Ryan Garko provides the Rangers with a second option at a position they are weak at in first base. Davis, the incumbent, is a strange case, at only 24 years of age, he's already entering his third season on the major league roster after turning the Texas and Pacific Coast Leagues into batting practice in 2008, and sports a robust minor league OPS of .951.
The major leagues, however, has provided a challenge to Davis in the form of contact. A bit of a free-swinger, Davis looks to obtain batting averages around .300 to really be an effective major leaguer. It is yet to happen, as he holds a major league BA of .258, a nightmarish 0.185 walk per strikeout rate, and an OPS+ of 103 (and an 85 in 2009).
Ryan Garko has had an interesting last 8 months. After the Giants bought high on his 121 OPS+ in 76 games with Cleveland in 2009, he went on to struggle in San Francisco. San Francisco went on to do what San Francisco does, which is judge Garko by his bad 127 PA stretch and non-tender him, electing to give the aging Aubrey Huff $3 million.
The Mariners picked him up, intending for him to platoon at first with Casey Kotchman. After a poor spring training, however, the Mariners' handed the job full time to Kotchman, and waived Garko. The Rangers scooped him up to serve as the backup first baseman to start the 2010 campaign.
What do these two groups of men have in common? They are both groups of one left-handed hitter, and one right-handed hitter.
None of these four players, at least judging by their 2009 numbers, would exactly be considered elite options at a "power position." Lowell led the way of these four men with a 106 OPS+; however, the league average for 1B/DH was 119. However, what happens if you combine the best of these two groups of men?
In 2009, David Ortiz had 439 PA against righties. He showed a large platoon split, and he went .250/.346/.481 with 22 HR. Mike Lowell had 157 PA versus lefties, and showed a large power surge, going .301/.363/.503 with 7 HR.
If you combined these two men's platoon splits, you would get 596 PA, and a .264/.351/.487 line, with 29 HR. Factoring in their home park, these two men, combined, go from slightly over replacement level to a league average 1B/DH type hitter. That could add a win or two to the final total for the Red Sox.
Chris Davis had a weak 2009, but against lefties, he at least flashed the power needed to survive in MLB: he hit .260/.307/.502, with an impressive 17 HR in 287 PA. Ryan Garko, though, showed fantastic performance against lefties, recording a .308/.391/.479, with 5 HR in 133 PA.
Combining these two men yields a .275/.333/.495 batting line, with 22 HR in 420 PA. Once again, two bench/replacement level players suddenly become slightly above league average when used in the right scenario, potentially adding a win or two to their team's final total.
Is this methodology perfect? Of course not. For one, it discounts the effect of diminished playing time, and age (improvements in the case of Davis, decline in the cases of Lowell and Ortiz). Also, no matter how good the manager does in platooning, eventually they would face pitchers that throw with the same hand as they bat.
Clearly, though, both teams have an interesting option that could help their teams very much, especially if the incumbents (Ortiz in Boston, Davis in Texas) get off to a slow start. I think come June, we will see one of these teams exercising this platoon option, and a managerial decision such as this could provide the extra win or two on the field that these teams will likely need, given how tight both of their divisions are.
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