The Platoon Ratio

When talking about players strengths and weaknesses, ultimately the discussion will veer towards: “What they really need is a platoon because player X can’t hit Y-handers to save his life.” Okay, so maybe not every baseball discussion goes this way, but I’m sure you’ve all heard it, and perhaps even said it before. That’s why it may come as a shock, but the differences in platoon splits amongst right handed hitters are basically non-existent.

Let’s take a look at that statement again. I’m not claiming that right handed hitters don’t hit lefties better than righties. In fact, right-handed hitters hit lefties 9% better than righties. What’s surprsing is that all – or virutally all – right handed hitters share the same platoon advantage. So all right handed hitters OPS against right handers will be 9% better against southpaws than against right-handers (northpaws?).

Without a lot of indepth explantion, this is a concept that has been revealed by Bill James, and covered by Rob Neyer. Here is probably the best one paragraph explanation I could find:

In fact, if every player played enough games — thousands and thousands of games, I mean — eventually all of them would have roughly the same platoon split. There is some evidence that some types of hitters will have slightly larger platoon splits than others, but essentially they’re all the same. I know, it sounds crazy. But everyone who’s looked at this with any degree of sophistication has come up with the same answer. As James wrote in 1988, “It’s innate. You can’t get away from it.”

This is a topic that I broach about once a year (in the context of Craig Monroe), but seeing as I have many more readers this year than I did last year, I thought it was worth addressing again. If you’re interested in the past articles, here they are. And if you want more elegant explanations, I suggest this article by Jon Weisman. As Jon points out, the best way to judge a player’s ability against left handers is to look at their performance against right handers.

Now that some explanation is out of the way, let’s look at how it might impact the Tigers. I’ve compiled a listing of the Tigers’ right handed hitters and their splits last season and prior to last season.

So what to make of this data? If one agrees with the previous assertions, we would expect to see corrections in the platoon splits as the players accumulate more at-bats. This should be good news for Chris Shelton, and Omar Infante. Both players have hit right handers surprsingly well, and if the 9% advantage holds true, they should stand to benefit.

Craig Monroe despite pretty drastic swings from year to year isn’t that far off from the expected value. Brandon Inge’s numbers are still heavily skewed from pre 2004 when he, quite frankly wasn’t an offensive threat.

Now the frustrating thing is that none of this is really predictive, at least in the short term. My point in all this is that while there is definitely an advantage to platooning right handed hitters, that advantage isn’t magnified or diminished based on the player.

10 thoughts on “The Platoon Ratio”

  1. Inge might be an exception to the rule, since the idea is that, in order to be a ML hitter, you have to be able to hit right handed pitching. That’s why (at least in theory) there are many LH hitters that hit right handers significantly better than they hit lefties. You can be a left handed hitter that struggles against lefties and still even be a full time player. It’s almost impossible to do so as a right handed hitter. That’s why Inge might (and I stress the word might) be an exception. He got to the majors in spite of his hitting (againt both lefties and righties), not because of it.

  2. Nick, I look at it a different way… In 2005, Inge improved over his career OPS v. R by 148 points, an increase (from zero) of a whopping 25%. That is, of course, mainly because his career OPS v. R was so amazingly low before 2005. On the other hand (insert groan here), he improved by 59 points of OPS v. L over his career numbers, an improvement of about 7.5%. But, then again, he didn’t have nearly so far to improve in that department. If nothing else, this means that Inge’s numbers are reverting to the norm, not displaying that he is an exception to the idea that everybody has the same platoon (dis)advantage.

  3. I wouldn’t look to closely at individual season platoon splits, honestly. The sample size is just to small to make conclusions. As bad as Inge’s numbers were against righties for his career, it’s tough not to improve by 25%, and I highly doubt a 7.5% change against lefties in a single season is statistically significant. I’m not saying that Inge is an exception, just that I think he fits the profile of the type of player that could be the exception.

  4. I think there is definitely some truth to what you Nick is saying – at least for the pre 2004 Brandon Inge. It was a special set of circumstances that kept him in the lineup. Now his overall numbers are still heavily skewed by that performance, which is where I think Jeff is correct. In 2004 I think in 2004 something clicked for Inge – enough so that he warranted the starting 3b job last year and that he may be correcting.

    Essentially I agree with both of you.

  5. If you could raise your team OPS by 9% you would score a lot more runs. It’s a significant factor. Assume Inge has established an OPS v righties of .725. An available LH bat, say Russ Branyan, has a career OPS of .825 or so. Playing him against a lot of righties and using Inge against lefties and as a relief catcher get’s rid of Wilson’s ABs and raises your OPS at 3B dramatically. Without sacrificing too much on defense. The point of platooning is to get a better hitter in the lineup when you can. 9% is a big enough number to do it with similar hitters; when you can use it to get a player with a 100 point better OPS in the lineup for a while it’s a no-brainer. But Branyan “strikes out to much” and Inge is the fair-haired boy. So so much for that.

  6. Tim – I’m not arguing against platooning at all. I was just raising the fact that for right handed hitters, their relative differences in terms of platooning are non-existent. Or, that the same advantage would be true of all right hand hitters, not some more than others.

    Of course the other part of that is having the partner available to platoon with.

  7. I guess I don’t agree. If a season’s worth of ABs is “too small a sample size” then what are we really taliking about? RH hitters go through periods where they crush lefties. And if you can take advantage of that period to increase your overall OPS you are making a significant contribution to the team. And the vice versa applies as well. It’s up to the manager and the hitting coach to exploit and/or avoid these periods. It’s the same problem with all of the stathead arguments; yes, over thousands of AB’s the numbers even out, but the numbers generally ignore the fact that all players have hot and cold streaks. And that the skills needed to win a 2-1 game are incredibly important to team success and often do not appear in the numbers. It’s the still elusive part of the sport and what makes it so beautiful. I think the platoon differential IS important in a given time and place, particularly in a key AB in a tight game. This is precisely because of players like Craig Monroe who, when stretched as everyday players, go through periods where they destroy lefties and and can’t hit righthanders with an ironing board. Monroe’s numbers will likely even out over time but there are stretches where he shouldn’t be in the lineup against RH pitching if the goal is to win the game.

  8. Billfer: How very diplomatic of you.

    Nick: My problem with “Breeze” Branyan isn’t that he “strikes out too much”, it’s more his “.327 career OBP”

    And, here, I’d like to point out my own ability to self-critique… Went and looked up Branyan’s splits for the last 3 years, and, lo and behold… vs. R, he’s batting 249/366/518, 30 doubles and 29 HR in about 525 PA…. On the other hand, lefties just plain own him to the tune of 181/233/319, 4 doubles and 3 HR in just a touch over 100 PA. Fascinating stuff.

  9. Tim – I guess I don’t see where we disagree. I don’t think I’ve ever said, or at least I didn’t mean to, that platoon differentials weren’t important. I’m all for exploiting a platoon advantage, just that for righties I don’t agree that the conventional wisdom that there is more to be gained from platooning player x as opposed to player y (assuming that the platoon partners for player x and player y were also comparable).

    As for making decisions in a tight game, I completely agree that those fine and difficult decisions are part of what make the game special. Do you ride a hot hand, go for the automatic platoon, or go with the player who historically has produced the best (assuming that all 3 aren’t the same option)?

  10. Jeff K. – I didn’t mentioned Branyon, but if you are going to have a problem with him, it should be because of his defense. Inge’s .330 OBP isn’t terribly impressive compared to Branyon’s. But Branyon hasn’t ever been great with the glove. And since the Tigers apparently think Inge is a full time player anyway, it doesn’t really matter.

    Tim D. – Obvioulsy players have hot and cold streaks, and leveraging them is a big part of winning, but if you can’t predict when a hot and cold streak are going to occur, you can’t really do much about them. In this case, the point isn’t that platooning doesn’t matter, the point is that if you are looking for a good RH platoon hitter, you are better off looking how the player does against righties, and then increasing that by 9% than looking at how hey did against lefties the last 1,2, or 3 years, because how the players does against righties is a better predictor of how they will do against righties AND lefties in the future.

    With the size of the pitching staffs in todays game, it’s tougher to platoon players on a regular basisi though.

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