Putting the “start” back in starting players

Back when the season was just a few weeks old I wondered if the next stage in baseball’s evolution would be a reversal of the “you start the game, you finish the game” adage for starting pitchers. The theory was that we would see starting pitchers’ innings per game continually decrease (especially in the National League), with the underlying reason being that data available to managers and front offices would allow for more optimal mixing and matching early in games, potentially at the expense of the starting pitcher’s longevity.

Interestingly, a form of this phenomenon may be happening more quickly on the offensive side of the ball and in the American League. Some of the more sabermetrically minded teams, namely Oakland, Tampa Bay and Cleveland, have started to platoon their position players with tremendous success.

For example, Ryan Raburn has played in only 76 games this season for Cleveland, but that didn’t stop the Indians from extending Raburn for two more years and $4.85 million. Raburn has a .480 wOBA in 102 plate appearances versus lefties this year; he’s only had 138 plate appearances against righties, and considering the prevalence of right-handed pitchers compared to left-handers, there’s no question Raburn’s 138:102 ratio means he’s seen as a “lefty specialist.”

It looks like Cleveland has tried the same gambit with Mike Aviles, whom they acquired in the offseason to play middle infield. Aviles has a career 103 wRC+ against southpaws for his career, and his righty:lefty plate appearance ratio for this season is 194:158, an even lower number than Raburn’s. Unfortunately for the Indians, Aviles has reverse splits this season, both mediocre, so the plan hasn’t quite worked out.

On the flip side of the coin, Jason Giambi has received exactly 200 plate appearances this season and his ratio is 15:185. Basically, he never faces a lefty unless the game is over or some freak injury happens or something. Although he’s struggled at the plate for the entire season from both sides, the relative splits still match up: he’s got a 43 wRC+ against righties and an 85 wRC+ against lefties.

Some may have been scratching their heads when Tampa Bay recently signed Delmon Young, the butt of jokes for advanced stats fans, but the intent was clear: Young is an above-average hitter against lefties. Always has been. His wRC+ against them this year is 111, and for his career it’s 117 (compared to 88 against righties). The Phillies were not using the heavy platoon the Rays plan on using, and there’s no surprise Young struggled mightily with Philadelphia and has hit well thus far in limited time for the Rays.

So now to Lucas Duda. There’s been a good amount of debate among Mets fans about what to do with him for the 2014 season. Duda’s an oak-sized lefty with good on base-skills, decent pop, and an inability to do something the Mets asked of him this season: play left field. Due to a season-ending injury to Ike Davis a few weeks ago, Duda will get the primary at-bats at first base as an audition for next season as the Mets try to decide what to do with him.

MetsBlog.com’s Michael Baron has been particularly anti-Duda this year (he might try to phrase it differently, but his posts and tweets have been significantly one-sided). As Baron put it recently, “Sure, he gets on base, but Duda needs to hit home runs and drive runners in. Period.” It’s really hard to just say “Sure, he gets on base, but” to anything when it comes to the Mets, considering they’re 24th in all of baseball in on-base percentage this season. The Mets are desperate for offense, so if they have someone who can hit, he’ll play.

But here’s the thing: Lucas Duda does not need to be the “everyday” anything on the Mets; all the Mets need to do is get him to play against right-handers. For the season, Duda has a 143 wRC+ against righties, quite a fine number even for a first baseman. For his career he’s at 129, which isn’t as good but still unworldly better relative to what Davis has provided the team over the past two seasons.

But the craziest part is that Davis’ overall numbers have also been maligned by the Mets’ lack of platooning. In 2012, Ike had 178 plate appearances against lefties and produced a .246 wOBA. For his career he has a .269 wOBA against them. While people have been debating whether Duda or Ike should be starting at first base next season, the reality is that the Mets platooning either of them (most likely with Josh Satin, who has put up good numbers against lefties this season) is truly more important than which one is picked.

We love to scoff at managers who put bad players in the lineup, but leaving a player with horrible splits, even a “starting” player, in the lineup when facing a pitcher whose handedness he struggles against is the exact equivalent. I understand the longing to have individual players “established” at a position, the desire of a manager to be able to fill out his lineup with consistency, but the new era of data comes with a level of anxiety fans and teams alike must embrace.

The more advanced teams have learned this already. The others will have no choice but to adapt.

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