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Stathead Sagas: Do You Platoon?

Jack Moore

Jack Moore is a freelance sports writer based in Minneapolis who appears regularly at VICE Sports, The Guardian and Baseball Prospectus Milwaukee, among others. Follow him on Twitter @jh_moore.

The platoon is quickly escalating as a tactic among baseball managers looking to get a leg up. The Brewers utilized one in center field between Nyjer Morgan and Carlos Gomez last season to turn a weakness into a strength and win their first NL Central division title. The Yankees, of all clubs, feature this year's star platoon player in Raul Ibanez. The 40-year-old has terrorized right-handed pitching en route to nine home runs, 27 RBI and a .263/.323/.551 line in his first 36 games.

A quick look at Ibanez's season splits show the Yankees understand his purpose is just to hit righties – Joe Girardi has only allowed him to face left-handed pitching 16 times, in which he's just 3-for-15 without a home run. Crushing righties is nothing new for Ibanez – he owns a career mark of .286/.350/.490 against them, compared to just .264/.317/.425 against lefties.

Particularly in leagues with large rosters, platoon players can be exceptionally valuable. If you have the freedom to bench a player when presented with a poor matchup, it can drastically improve your rate stats with little damage to the counting stats with roster sizes large enough to hold a replacement.

Not every hitter has such wild platoon splits where their performance demands playing time against one hand and riding the bench against the other. Still, even looking at the league splits, we see a definite advantage to hitting with the platoon advantage:

RHB against LHP: .254/.321/.411, 270 HR in 8754 AB (3.1%)
RHB against RHP: .244/.305/.384, 428 HR in 15585 AB (2.7%)

We see a much bigger effect with left-handed batters. Many left-handed batters are in the game just for their ability to hit right-handed hitting, and many left-handed pitchers only exist to retire left-handed hitters. As such, the split for lefties is massive relative to that for righties:

LHB against RHP: .259/.333/.412, 454 HR in 15715 AB (2.9%)
LHB against LHP: .226/.293/.341, 79 HR in 3940 AB (2.0%)

Unfortunately, as fantasy players, we don't have the luxury of saying “OK, commissioner, I only want to get this player's statistics against right-handed pitching and I want this player's statistics against left-handed pitching.” Things would get ugly in a hurry. Since we only get to choose based on the handedness of the starters, relievers neutralize these splits – eight of Ibanez's 15 plate appearances against lefties have come in games in which a right-handed pitcher started the game, for example.

Considering right-handed starters make just under 70% of all starts, we would start the left-handed half of our platoon 70% of the time and our right-handed half 30% of the time. If we have two league-average players from each side, here’s what we’d get:

Just RHB: .245/.312/.389, 2.8% HR rate
Just LHB: .252/.325/.398, 2.7% HR rate
70/30 LHB/RHB: .258/.329/.412, 3.0% HR rate.

Even looking at players without extreme splits, we see a big difference, particularly if you’re moving from a righty to a righty/lefty platoon -- improving one or two hitters by 13 points of average could make a big deal by the end of the season.

But that doesn’t do a good enough job of describing the gains fantasy players can get through platoons. Here are a few players who see a big boost to their value when used in a platoon:
Seth Smith and Jonny Gomes, A’s: Gomes makes up the right half of this platoon, hitting .256/.383/.487 against lefties and .204/.328/.388 against righties. Smith takes the left half, hitting .250/.387/.385 with all three of his home runs against a putrid .158/.238/.158 against righties.

Cody Ross, Red Sox: Ross is injured now, so he could be available soon. When he comes off the DL, consider him as an option particularly against left-handed hitters – although he’s mashing against both this year, he has a .987 OPS against lefties. For his career, he owns a .916 OPS (.282 AVG) against lefties compared to just a .732 OPS (.254 AVG) against righties.

Matt Joyce, Rays: Joyce is worth playing every day in some leagues, but if you can afford to bench him against lefties, make it happen. This year, he owns a .299 AVG and a 1.032 OPS against righties as opposed to a horrid .229 AVG and .639 OPS against southpaws. Small sample sizes to be sure, but it isn’t significantly different from his career splits: .274/.363/.522 vs. right, .202/.289/.320. vs. left.

Drew Stubbs, Reds: Stubbs and Joyce make a great partnership – Stubbs owns a .831 OPS (.277 AVG) against left-handed pitching and just a .690 OPS (.242 AVG) against righties. You can still justify playing Stubbs against some righties because of his stolen bases, but you can neutralize his average-killing ways with off-days against tougher right-handers.

Wilson Betemit, Orioles: Betemit is one of the few non-outfielders on this list, making him especially nice to pair with a 3B/OF eligible player (Jose Bautista, in particular), as that player can move to OF and another platoon-friendly OF can move to the bench if necessary. Betemit is a switch-hitter in name only – he hits .275 with a .817 OPS against righties and just .239 with a .672 OPS against lefties. It’s been an even bigger split this year -- .250 with an .812 OPS against righties but just .162 with a .526 OPS against lefties.

Justin Morneau, Twins: Morneau isn’t considered a crazy platoon player, but he’s been day and night against righties and lefties so far this season. He has a .318/.418/.667 line against righties and just a .067/.067/.100 (2-for-30, 1 2B) so far. Given the drag those left-handed numbers are having on his line so far, he could be available for cheap, and with most of his games coming against right-handers anyway, he could be a sneaky add. Given a .909 OPS against righties and .740 against lefties for his career, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a large split as the season continues, even if it’s not as impossibly large as we’ve seen through the first quarter.

Understandably, there are some leagues in which this just isn’t an option. Weekly leaguers are generally unable to manipulate these splits, and those with short benches don’t have the flexibility necessary to carry a guy just to face lefties in particular. But we know our subscribers occasionally play in extraordinarily deep or otherwise odd leagues that could accommodate these strategies. If your rosters are big enough, playing the platoon game is an easy way to improve an offense with freely available talent or even by just managing your current talent in a more efficient way.