I’ve been doing some serious thinking about the AL Central division lately. While trying to decide what might happen in 2004, I was checking out some depth charts, when I noticed that the Kansas City Royals will likely begin the season with four left-handed pitchers in their starting rotation.
Brian Anderson has been tabbed the Opening Day starter, and he’ll be joined in the rotation by fellow lefties Jeremy Affeldt, Darrell May and Jimmy Gobble. Actually, it’s very possible that, at some point, Kansas City’s early-season rotation could be entirely left-handed, with Chris George making some starts.
Beyond being fairly unique, what exactly does this mean on a performance level?
Well, last season, American League lefties were almost exactly as effective as American League righties. Take a look at how AL batters hit against them:
AVG OBP SLG OPS vs LHP .268 .331 .423 .754 vs RHP .267 .334 .429 .763
Lefties were slightly more effective, but nothing huge. Using GPA, southpaws had an advantage of 1.1%.
Actually, AL lefties have had a similar advantage for the past five seasons:
YEAR LHP Advantage 1999 1.0% 2000 0.1% 2001 1.5% 2002 3.9% 2003 1.1%
Again, nothing huge, although I guess the 3.9% advantage in 2002 is pretty significant. On average, lefties have been 1.52% more effective over the last five years. To put that in some context, if the Royals shaved 1.52% off of their runs-allowed total from last year, they would have given up 10-11 fewer runs.
Those are the numbers for the entire American League, but the Royals are obviously particularly interested in how lefties do against the Minnesota Twins (back-to-back AL Central champs) and the Chicago White Sox (back-to-back second place).
Again, using GPA, here is how the Twins have done against righties and lefties since they became a good team again three years ago:
YEAR vs RH vs LH LH +/- 2001 .263 .251 -4.6% 2002 .265 .246 -7.2% 2003 .268 .247 -7.8%
Now, that’s pretty significant. To put those numbers in some context, Minnesota averaged a .265 GPA against righties over the past three years. A .265 team GPA would have ranked 4th among AL teams last year. Their average GPA against lefties, .248, would have ranked 11th.
As those numbers suggest, the Twins’ regular lineup has been extremely left-handed over the past three seasons. Of the 10 guys who had the most plate appearances for Minnesota in 2001, six were left-handed. In 2002, five of the 10 were left-handed. Last year, four were left-handed.
It looks as though this season will be much of the same. As it stands right now, the Twins will have left-handed hitters starting at catcher, first base, third base and right field in 2004.
Meanwhile, Kansas City’s other threat in the Central, the White Sox, have been predominantly right-handed in recent years. Of the 10 Chicago batters with the most plate appearances in each of the past three seasons, just four out of 30 were left-handed, including zero last season. In fact, the White Sox had a grand-total of 487 plate appearances from left-handed batters all last season (not counting switch-hitters), and six of those were from Mark Buehrle.
Because of their being so right-handed, you might guess that the White Sox had feasted on left-handed pitching over the last few years, but that’s not quite the case:
YEAR vs RH vs LH LH +/- 2001 .260 .275 +5.8% 2002 .268 .250 -6.7% 2003 .259 .266 +2.7%
The White Sox once again look like they’ll be almost entirely right-handed in 2004, with Jose Valentin (who recently stopped switch-hitting) as the only left-handed batter in the everyday lineup.
Oh, for those of you asking “what about the Indians?!”…I personally don’t think they are going to be a big factor in this year’s AL Central race, but I suppose I could be wrong. The Indians feature a left-handed batter starting at first base, left field, right field and designated hitter, so it seems likely that they’ll be worse against left-handed pitching than right-handed pitching this year, just like the Twins. Cleveland was about 2.1% worse against lefties last year.
So, what does this all mean? The handedness of pitchers may seem fairly insignificant, and perhaps it is, but I do think it can make a difference in 2004. If having a rotation packed with lefties can shave 1-2% off of Kansas City’s runs allowed against the entire league, that could end up meaning an extra win for them, which would be huge.
More importantly, being able to throw lefty after lefty after lefty after lefty (and maybe after lefty) against the Twins in the 19 games the two teams play against each other could make a massive difference. If the Twins hit like they have in the past three seasons, they are simply a much less potent offense when a southpaw is on the mound. In a division like the AL Central, which figures to be extremely close the whole year, that’s the type of stuff that can decide who’s playing in October.