Sabermetrics

Best Right-Handed Platoon Players

Every year, coaching staffs and front offices find new ways to integrate endless amounts of data into their game plans in order to create advantages in every possible matchup. But with so many analytically savvy front offices scouring the same data, the opportunities for teams to discover a competitive edge through data has become increasingly more difficult.

As it turns out when highly intelligent former executives, many of which with analytics backgrounds, scour the same data with the same objectives in mind, they often times develop strategies that mirror the conclusions of the other analytical departments. 

Of course, this is not entirely true due to the fact that each team has a unique financial situation and organizational structure, but in contrast to the less developed front offices of yesteryear, there are now far less opportunity to implement novel approaches to roster construction.

Gone are the days when the antiquated and subjective opinions of veteran scouts dictated personnel moves as every major league team relies heavily on increasingly robust and knowledgeable analytical departments. While the reliance on objective information prevents ill-advised decisions, this league-wide commitment to analytics engenders a collective groupthink across organizations. 

While nearly all 30 teams now use objective data as the primary factor in decision making, in-game decision making remains an area in which games can be won or lost. Often times these decisions are based on the idea of platoon splits, which have survived since the dawn of America’s past time.

While advanced statistics make longtime baseball fans uncomfortable due to their hard-to-grasp complexities, the well-established idea that some hitters are better against lefties and worse versus righties (with the same thinking applying to pitchers), has become a rare source of agreement for the oldheads and stat nerds alike.

There is no denying that a team’s chances of winning increases in proportion to the number of statistically favorable matchups a manager creates throughout the course of the game. As this knowledge becomes ingrained in managers across the league, the frequency of pitching changes and pinch hitters have risen dramatically, for better or worse. While this growing trend is logical, it has also been an area of contention among baseball fans. 

For some viewers, the increase in pitching changes and the greater frequency of commercial breaks associated with them make an already slow-paced game even slower, ultimately detracting from the entertainment value in a significant way.

Those who hold the opposing view are not as bothered by this development as they enjoy this quasi-chess match taking place between the two club’s managers. Those that are not bothered by the marginal increase in game time maintain that this strategic maneuvering creates a level of intricacy that is absent from the less cerebral sports. For many baseball fans, “the game within the game” is the differentiator that makes America’s past time so special. 

Regardless of whether you favor the preservation of the game’s purity or would prefer a shorter game, it is the responsibility of the manager to put their team in the best position to win. As a result, managers will continue to employ as many pitching changes as it takes to win, indifferent to how that might inconvenience a fan that wants to do away with the more strategic elements of the game.

In sum, baseball analytics will only continue to grow, which means the emphasis placed on optimizing every matchup will only grow in importance. While this ongoing development may impact viewership, this trend has a far greater consequence for how rosters are constructed.

While nearly every pitching staff has a “specialist” whose sole responsibility is to dominate a certain type of hitter, teams are beginning to respond by signing hitters with the unique ability to neutralize that advantage.

In recent years, there has been an uptick in hitters who dominate other-handed pitchers. This article focuses on how the increased emphasis to optimize favorable matchups for pitchers has necessitated a new class of players referred to colloquially as “super-platoon players”. While these guys do not possess the offensive ability to be full-time regulars, they are valuable because they excel only in specific situations against specific pitchers. 

Before I discuss the best platoon players in the game, I want to make sure I distinguish platoon players with the more common “utility man”. While utility players derive their value from their defensive versatility, “super platoon” players make their living by clobbering their preferred type of pitcher. 

While nearly every team has a player who is used in a platoon role, this list focuses on the few guys who transform into bonafide superstars when facing opposite-handed pitchers. In neutral circumstances, these guys are mostly overlooked, but when the advantage is in their favor, they become a hired gun that will quickly do away with whichever pitcher has the misfortune of facing them. 

In the article below, I will focus on only right-handed super platoon players, as I will cover their left-handed counterparts later on in the week.

Right-Handed Hitters Versus Left-Handed Pitching:

Enrique Hernandez (LAD) (Util)
Enrique “Kiké” Hernandez is the perfect bench player. Last season, he started at least nine games at every defensive position besides pitcher, catcher, first base(where he started just three games). Kiké’s defensive versatility was crucial for the 102 win Dodgers, who routinely started left-handed hitters at first base, shortstop, and two of the three outfield positions. While most guys in a platoon rotate with one other player depending on the matchup, Kike’s ability to play anywhere on the diamond allowed him to collect more at-bats throughout the course of the season when one of the Dodger regulars as battling an injury or needed a day off.

Hernandez derived his most value when subbing in for both Joc Pederson in centerfield and Chase Utley at second base, both of which hit from the left side of the plate. In 75 starts at second base, Utley posted a wRC+ of just 80 with just one home run. In the games that Kiké started in Utley’s place, he posted an unheard of wRC+ of 209. It is worth noting that this otherworldly offensive production came across just 13 games, so the usual sample size caveats apply here.

While the improvement generated by supplanting Utley with Hernandez against left-handed pitching was just marginal in the team’s overall run production, the platoon that he formed with centerfielder Joc Pederson paid much larger dividends. While Pederson started 92 games in centerfield for the Dodgers last season, only 37 of such games came against left-handers due to an unsightly .597 OPS. Pederson was replaced by a combination of Chris Taylor and Enrique Hernandez. In the games that Hernandez got the nod in centerfield, he posted a .801 OPS

Unlike traditional platoon players who play the majority of their defensive innings at one position, manager Dave Roberts could comfortably slot Kiké in anywhere on the diamond when the team is facing a lefty.

Anytime a manager has a player with a 144 wRC+ against left-handers, they will seek ways to use him. By being able to play multiple positions, Kiké made this job easy for Dave Roberts.

It could be argued that this versatility also excludes Kiké from this list given the fact that he actually had more at-bats this season against righties than lefties. Even though Roberts was aware of Hernandez’s extreme righty/lefty splits, Kiké’s ability to play multiple positions prevented Roberts from pigeonholing him into a traditional platoon role.

Roberts was so respectful of Kiké’s dominance against lefties, he would bat the utility infielder 5th when a lefty was on the mound, which is remarkable considering the Dodgers had the most prolific offense in the National League last year. 

Against lefties, Kiké posted a wRC+ of 144 as well as an ISO of .307, slightly edging out Twins slugger Miguel Sano.

When we look at the Statcast data, it’s apparent that the quality of his batted balls against LHP was no fluke. With an exit velocity of 89.7 mph, Hernandez ranked 14th in the MLB in exit velocity against left-handed pitchers. For context on how impressive this statistics is, consider the list of guys ahead of him:

Player Avg. Exit Velocity
Paul Goldschmidt 92.2 mph
Giancarlo Stanton 92.1 mph
Avisail Garcia 92.0 mph
Nicholas Castellanos 91.3 mph
Yulieski Gurriel 90.3 mph
Nolan Arenado 90.3 mph
Andrew McCutchen 90.2 mph
Yadier Molina 90.2 mph
Ryan Zimmerman 89.9 mph
Marcell Ozuna 89.9 mph
Hunter Pence 89.8 mph
Jonathan Schoop 89.7 mph
Enrique Hernandez 89.7 mph

Out of the 13 players other Hernandez on this list, there are 10 former All-Stars, 2 MVPs, and 16 silver sluggers between them. Needless to say, this is the good company to keep.

While Hernandez has made a living with defensive versatility and crushing left-handed pitching, his unique skill set largely flew under the radar until Game 5 of the NLCS when Hernandez launched three home runs off of left-hander Jose Quintana to propel the Los Angeles Dodgers to the World Series.

As with any historic postseason moment, I feel obliged to relive these moments in the video below:

 

Jose Martinez (STL) (1B/OF)

Jose Martinez became the most recent player the Cardinals transformed from a fringe major leaguer into a legitimate big league contributor. To be fair, labeling him as a “fringe major leaguer” is probably a generous way to describe a guy who had ten years of professional baseball experience and was still stuck in independent ball just four years ago.

Holding steadfast to his big league dream, Martinez was eventually given an opportunity to fill in as a stopgap option with Class A Lynchburg after several of the team’s starters got injured. Despite playing alongside guys who were in elementary school when Martinez signed his first professional contract, Martinez had the perseverance and work ethic of a guy that was hellbent on shocking the world.

After enduring a decade of long minor league bus rides and constant disappointments, Martinez was ready for an opportunity to prove himself when the opportunity eventually arose.

In the Spring Training before the 2016 season, a slew of injuries depleted Royals outfielders, creating an open roster spot for Martinez. Although Martinez would start the season in Triple-A Omaha, his unlikely ascent from an independent player to a big league outfielder was a testament to his unrelenting perseverance.

The high character and makeup of Martinez were probably best described by former Braves’ director of minor league baseball operations:

“”He never once felt sorry for himself. That’s a mark of how he competes every year. Makeup matters. It matters a ton. Guys that you can trust, and guys who play the game the right way, you feel good when you give them an opportunity.”

Despite the fact that Martinez arduous road to the big leagues could be adapted into a 30 for 30 documentaries, this article is about elite platoon hitters, not inspiring comeback stories.

Despite a .903 OPS throughout his minor league career, Martinez had to wait until he was 29 before he was given an opportunity at the big league level. 

Despite raking at every level, Martinez path to the big leagues was delayed because he never had a true defensive position. With a 6’7”, 215 lb. frame, Martinez looks awkward in the batter’s box and I am willing to bet that no scout has ever claimed that he “passes the eye test”.

As silly as it sounds, a player with the atypical physique of Martinez has the burden of constantly proving himself to evaluators if they are ever willing to risk their reputation by vouching for him.

With the odds stacked against him, Martinez broke out in a huge way in 2017. So much so, that the Cardinals traded away fellow right-handed corner outfielders Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk in order to give him an easier pathway to regular at-bats off the bench.

Despite posting elite offensive numbers, particularly against left-handed pitching, Martinez continued to fly under the radar.  In 105 games last season, Martinez posted the highest xwOBA against left-handed pitching (.488). I don’t mean the highest in 2017. I mean the highest ever (or at least since Statcast data became publicly available prior to the 2015 season). In case you were wondering, the players that ranked 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th place on this list were Giancarlo Stanton, J.D. Martinez, Nelson Cruz, and Paul Goldschmidt. Pretty good company to keep.

 

Jose Martinez
Jose Martinez was one of the best hitters in the game against left-handed pitchers last season.

 

Whether lefties tried to attack Martinez with breaking balls or offspeed pitches, it didn’t seem to matter. When left-handers challenged Martinez with fastballs he led the league with a xwOBA of .525. Pitchers didn’t fare much better when trying to fool Martinez with breaking balls as Martinez torched them for a .444 xwOBA, which was fourth in the league. Regardless of how left-handers tried to get Martinez out, they were ultimately overmatched.

While that statistic alone is probably all the evidence I need to demonstrate how dangerous Jose Martinez was against left-handed pitching in 2017, he also ranks first in the Statcast Era with a wRC+ of 240 against southpaws. By comparison, Barry Bonds combined wRC+ in his two most productive seasons was 239.  Let me be clear that I am in no way equating Jose Martinez to the most feared hitter in baseball history, but rather providing context for how historically dominant Martinez was against left-handed pitching in 2017.

3.  Jesus Aguilar (MIL) (1B)

Jesus Aguilar was one of the unsung heroes of a surprising Brewers team that spent 71 days atop the NL Central in 2017 before they were eventually usurped by the defending World Series Champion Chicago Cubs. With starting first baseman Eric Thames tearing the cover off the ball during the first month and a half of the season, Aguilar found himself riding the pine more often than not, seeing the field only in extra-inning games and in pinch-hit situations.

Over the first month of the season, Eric Thames was arguably the best hitter in the MLB, which made Craig Counsell’s decision to bench the new fan favorite much more difficult once his production started to decline. By the end of June, Thames was hitting just .163 against lefties, with a strikeout rate approaching 40%. It was time to make a change and manager Craig Counsell knew it, especially with lefty masher Jesus Aguilar waiting in the wings.

From the end of June until the rest of the season, Aguilar got the nod at first whenever there was a lefty on the mound, effectively replacing or even surpassing the damage Thames had done to righties up to that point. By season’s end, Aguilar had a wRC+ of 127 against lefties to go along with a .889 OPS. As with all gaudy statistics, there was a fair amount of BABIP luck involved as his .394 batting average on balls in play was the 3rd highest in the league. 

Such a high BABIP typically screams good fortune, but for Aguilar, this was not the case. Aguilar’s astronomical BABIP had more to do with the simple fact that he was hitting the snot out of the ball. With a hard-hit rate of 53.5% against southpaws, Aguilar was creating his own luck by frequently making hard contact.

Eric Thames and Jesus Aguilar combined to form one of the best first base units in the game in 2017 and although Thames received the majority of the at-bats and nearly all the recognition, the two first baseman more or less relied on each other.

Together they clubbed 51 home runs and finished top 10 amongst all MLB first base units in wRC+. Out of the nine teams that posted higher wRC+, every single one of them got their production out of just one hitter.

The Batman & Robin dynamic that the Brewers first baseman’s had in 2017 may have never materialized if it wasn’t for manager Craig Counsell’s willingness to platoon the two sluggers.

To illustrate this point, let’s consider an alternate universe in which Craig Counsell stubbornly kept Thames in the lineup, despite his struggles against lefties.

If we took away the 103 at-bats that Aguilar had against lefties and gave them to Thames under the assumption that his early season struggles against lefties would continue at the same rate, his final slash line would have been .222/.333/.393, good for a .726 OPS (a far cry from his actual .877 OPS).

Without Jesus Aguilar’s unique ability to clobber left-handed pitching, Eric Thames would have ranked 28th among first baseman in OPS, right behind Tommy Joseph. Yikes. 

To illustrate this point, let’s consider an alternate universe in which Craig Counsell stubbornly kept Thames in the lineup, despite his struggles against lefties.

If we took away the 103 at-bats that Aguilar had against lefties and gave them to Thames under the assumption that his early season struggles against lefties would continue at the same rate, his final slash line would have been .222/.333/.393, good for a .726 OPS (a far cry from his actual .877 OPS).

Without Jesus Aguilar’s unique ability to clobber left-handed pitching, Eric Thames would have ranked 28th among first baseman in OPS, right behind Tommy Joseph. Yikes. 

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About Traven Tapson

I am a recent graduate from Claremont McKenna College pursuing a career in baseball operations for an MLB team. I am fascinated by the analytical side of baseball and use this blog as a platform to share my insights and knowledge with those who share my curiosities.
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