April 22, 2015
The art of platooning: Molitor vs. Gardenhire and Arcia vs. lefties
Paul Molitor barely has his feet wet as Twins manager, but one noticeable change from Ron Gardenhire is the willingness to platoon. In his 13 seasons as manager Gardenhire essentially never platooned based on handedness, instead treating left-handed bats like Jacque Jones and Jason Kubel as everyday players despite their inability to handle left-handers and ignoring the potential value mediocre right-handed bats like Danny Valencia had as lefty mashers.
Molitor platooned more in his first couple weeks than Gardenhire did in some seasons, regularly benching Oswaldo Arcia and Jordan Schafer against lefties. That's a positive sign in the sense that platooning is a very straightforward, commonplace method of squeezing the most value out of non-stars and putting players in a position to succeed, but in this case the Twins constructed such a weak bench that their platoon options are pretty unappealing.
Not playing Schafer against lefties is a good idea, but Shane Robinson is such a weak overall hitter that his right-handedness barely makes a difference. Not playing Arcia against lefties is also a good idea, at least in the short term, but if the Twins still hold out any hope of him developing into an everyday player he'll need playing time versus lefties eventually and Eduardo Escobar, while better than Robinson, isn't exactly an ideal platoon-mate for a corner outfielder.
Mostly, though, it's just nice to see a manager willing to embrace a common, effective tactic after more than a decade of watching lefties flail away against left-handed pitching, potentially useful righties cast aside because they struggled in everyday roles, and batting orders remain unchanged regardless of the handedness of the opposing pitcher. And if the Twins' bench ever contains better options Molitor could do some interesting things with the lineup.
It'd be great to have nine everyday players and just trot them out in the same lineup spots no matter who was on the mound, but it's hard to find teams that wouldn't benefit from at least some platooning. Nearly every left-handed hitter in baseball history with a sizable track record has fared better against righties than lefties, often to an extreme degree. Because of that, with a lefty on the mound even good left-handed hitters are often worse than mediocre right-handed hitters.
For instance, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are MVP-winning left-handed bats and two of the best hitters in Twins history. However, looking strictly at production against left-handed pitching they both have a lower career OPS than mediocre right-handed hitters like J.J. Hardy, Delmon Young, and Trevor Plouffe. Having the platoon advantage makes a huge difference. Here are the career splits for the Twins' most-used left-handed hitters of the Gardenhire era:
CAREER OPS vsR vsL Joe Mauer .915 .749 Justin Morneau .894 .705 Jason Kubel .813 .676 Denard Span .751 .726 Jacque Jones .816 .628 Corey Koskie .870 .707
On average those six left-handed hitters have an .843 OPS versus righties and a .699 OPS versus lefties for a collective decrease of 17 percent and everyone but Denard Span sees their OPS drop more than 125 points. Those decreases are larger than typical across MLB, but in general lefties tend to be 10-15 percent worse versus lefties. Of course, some lefty bats are good enough overall that they warrant keeping in the lineup against lefties even with the decreased production.
Put another way: Mauer's production against lefties drops 18 percent, but he's still decent with a .749 OPS. However, not many lefties are as good as Mauer overall and so most warrant benching at least semi-regularly. Gardenhire obviously didn't agree. Jones hit .230/.278/.350 off lefties, yet Gardenhire played him every day and kept him leading off. Kubel hit .233/.305/.375 off lefties, yet Gardenhire played him every day and kept him in the middle of the lineup. You get the idea.
It's possible that Arcia will improve versus lefties and/or become productive enough overall that he's worth playing every day and because he's still just 24 years old it's certainly worth investing some more time into finding out. More likely is that he's ultimately a platoon or quasi-platoon player, which is less a knock on Arcia specifically and more just the way things tend to go with good but not great left-handed hitters.
Considering his poor defense Arcia needs to put up big numbers to be worth having in the lineup at an offense-heavy position. So far he's hit .221/.262/.340 off lefties, which is 25 percent worse than his .249/.322/.489 line off righties. Even if Arcia gets better versus righties and turns that 25-percent drop versus lefties into, say, a 15-percent drop it shouldn't be all that hard for the Twins to find a random right-handed hitter capable of better against lefties.
Aaron Hicks, while hugely disappointing overall, has posted a .758 OPS off lefties in the majors and has always hit lefties much better than righties in the minors. Hicks may never develop into a quality regular, but he's already a quality platoon option. With a lefty on the mound he's a viable center fielder and/or better than Arcia offensively and defensively in left field. And that's the magic of platooning, which turns useless into useful by separating strengths from weaknesses.
Molitor has shown the mindset required to improve a lineup via platooning, but the Twins need to actually give him the pieces to make those moves worthwhile and a four-man bench of Robinson, Escobar, Chris Herrmann, and Eduardo Nunez doesn't qualify. Still, after 13 years of learning to view hitters strictly through Gardenhire's binary "everyday player or not" lenses it's refreshing to consider how open-minded managing might take better advantage of useful but flawed options.
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