Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Pirates and Taking the Platoon Advantage

Andrew McCutchen is the Pirates' best hitter by a wide margin and performs at a high level when facing both left and right handed pitching – highlighted by weighted on-base averages of .471 against lefties and .385 against righties in 2012. The problem is that he’s also the only Pirate to provide above average production at the plate against both sets of pitchers. One of the focuses I have had over this winter over at Pirates Musings, as well as my brief time here, is on the benefits of using platoons or at least taking advantage of platoon situations, something the Pirates should be looking to do on an everyday basis.

Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez will form a full time platoon at first base next season; the third year that Jones will begin the year in a platoon, although he’s not been able to finish a year in a platoon at this point. On the outfield corners, Starling Marte and the-soon-to-be-acquired Jerry Sands should allow Clint Hurdle to take the platoon advantage against all left-handed starting pitchers, with Sands and Marte splitting time against right-handers while Travis Snider starts – at least that would make the most sense straight out of the gate until Sands or Marte forces Hurdle’s hand to give them more playing time. After that, Russell Martin, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez and Clint Barmes will have all full time roles (as well as McCutchen), but why stop taking advantage of platoon situations at these positions?

The need for taking the platoon advantage can be exemplified by looking at the platoon splits of current Pirates. Instead of focusing on last season, I have taken performances from the last three years, excluding any player that has had less than 50 plate appearances against either a left hander or right hander. 50 plate appearances are still a small sample size, however at least there is some data to view (and it allows Marte to be viewed in both situations). Beginning with performances when facing left handed pitching, the Pirates have just seven hitters with weighted on-base averages of above just .300 over this period:

Marte tops the group, but only slightly and over a much smaller sample size. The graph is very top heavy with quite a sharp decline. That said, Barmes was much better against left-handers last season and Michael McKenry took strides forward at the plate last season and was above average when facing lefties. The larger sample size does drag down McKenry in this respect, however Martin’s contract and strong performances against left-handers should see him as the regular when the club faces left handed starters in any case.

What is surprising is that even though Jones has begun each of the last two seasons in platoons to keep him away from lefties, he has had just 100 plate appearances less than McCutchen. What the above shows is why Hurdle should be looking to keep this to a minimal; even having Sanchez pinch hit for him on every occasion when a lefty enters the game from the bullpen (if he can). The overall poor performances of the current Pirates against southpaws can be highlighted when using weighted runs created plus (wRC+).

wRC+ is a statistic that is park and league adjusted and on a very similar scale as OPS+. The difference is that it uses weighted runs created as the basis (wRC), which is based on a player’s wOBA (above). The league average is 100 with anything higher than 100 above average and anything lower is below average. The Pirates therefore have just five players that have been above average over the last three seasons, with Martin and Jose Tabata only slightly above average (although Barmes and McKenry were also above average last season).

The Pirates as a team had a .302 wOBA (90 wRC+) against southpaws last season, something that has to get better for the club to progress. While this should improve with having Martin and Sands in the line-up, it can be further improved by limiting Walker and Alvarez’s exposure against left-handers (although their replacement should not be Josh Harrison, which is highlighted above).

Moving onto right handed pitching, the Pirates performed better as a team last season – albeit very slightly with a .304 wOBA (91 wRC+). In total, eleven players have had weighted on-base averages above .300 over the last three seasons:


In comparison to performances against left-handed pitching, there is a lot more consistency with the group – although this is mainly due to a lower top end as there are no Pirates with a wOBA above .360. That said, McCutchen, Jones, Walker and Alvarez all had weighted on-base averages above .350 last season. The below wRC+ graph highlights the need for taking the platoon advantage when in comparison to the above graph when facing lefties:

The comparisons do highlight the need; as Walker, Alvarez and Marte all find themselves on the opposite ends of each graph in terms of offensive performance. Furthermore, Barmes’ need of a substitution against right-handers can be seen, and this further declined last season. Brock Holt may be a poor shortstop defensively, however he would have more overall value than Barmes in a limited role against right handers (note: he was traded to the Red Sox shortly after this post was published) – although with Walker and Alvarez on the roster Holt’s role would have been limited to backup shortstop only – so a player with more defensive flexibility would be better to have in this role (I have taken a look at Adrian Cardenas over at Pirates Musings).

While I don’t believe that Alvarez, Walker, Marte or Sands should be placed in full time platoons like Jones and Sanchez are at first (as well as Snider in the outfield with both Marte and Sands), consideration should be given to their splits as to when Hurdle gives each player a day off as well as when the manager puts together his batting order – to the extent that Pirates should really be looking at putting two line-ups together that depends on the opposition’s starting pitcher. This may not have a huge effect in every game, however it should increase the club overall offensive production over the course of the season. 

This is where strength off the bench would come into play, highlighting the need for an upgrade. Jordy Mercer should get more of a look next season, as I discussed when looking at the Pirates’ future at shortstop. Jerry Sands should see a lot of playing time in the outfield and Sanchez or Jones will always find a spot. However, Harrison and McKenry will occupy the last two spots. While McKenry should be seen as possibly replaceable if a left-handed hitting catcher becomes available - due to the acquisition of Russell Martin, probably highlighting why A.J. Pierzynski or the John Jaso trade would have been better moves for the Pirates; Harrison is expendable due to his bat. At the very least, the club could make some minor league free agent signings to give them the opportunity to replace Harrison on the roster. 

While options are limited at this point of the winter, as the better players have signed elsewhere (in most cases), platoon players come with the further benefit of being priced a lot lower than their full time counterparts due to their limitations at the plate (Cody Ross’ recent deal with the Diamondbacks being the exception to the rule). For example, Eric Chavez has signed a $3M deal with the Diamondbacks this winter despite a .385 wOBA when facing right handed pitching last season and Jonny Gomes will receive an annual salary of $5M after a .418 wOBA against lefties in 2012. Both players would have been great offensive additions to the line-up, as can be seen above, with Chavez earning a little more than what Charlie Morton will receive. 

Many people don’t like the idea of platoons, to the point that they currently do not see the club as having a first baseman as it is two men filling the role. Nonetheless, if Gaby Sanchez (.377 wOBA) and Garrett Jones (.355 wOBA) can produce in their halves of the platoon as they have over the last three years, then the Pirates will get top 10 production out of their first basemen for a fraction of the price. By taking this further and looking for the platoon advantage at almost every position, it will improve the line-up on a daily basis – especially if splits are considered when the batting order is put together.


  1. Thank you, for a very detailed explanation because Ive tried explaining the "All Out" Platoon advantage before but always end up getting blank stares in return

    1. The A's used platoons at catcher, first, second and DH over the second half of last season - it worked out well for them!

      The Pirates can't afford top hitters unless they develop them internally so the setup of the bench shouldn't just be five/six players - it should be to counter the weaknesses players starting.

  2. where does clint robinson fit in? if it is aaa, does he have an option? it seems strange to trade for someone then risk him on waivers.