Friday, November 6, 2009

The death of a theory

Don't you just hate it when the facts get in the way of a perfectly good theory?

There were a ton of switch hitters in the playoffs this year:

* The Yankees had four of them in their regular lineup: Mark Teixeira, Jorge Posada, Nick Swisher and Melky Cabrera.

* The Phillies, their World Series opponent, opened their lineup with a pair, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino.

*The Angels — vanquished by the Yanks in the ALCS — had three switch hitters playing full time — Kendry Morales, Chone Figgins and Erick Aybar — and two more (Macier Izturis and Gary Matthews Jr.) who had more than 300 at-bats.

*The Twins — vanquished by the Yanks in the ALDS — filled the bottom of their lineup with switch-hitters (Jose Morales, Matt Tolbert, Nick Punto) for their their Sept.-Oct. drive to the division title.

So it occurred to me: Perhaps this is the next wave of platoon strategy.

Backing up a bit:

The reality of the platoon advantage — that right-handed hitters do better against left-handed pitchers, that left-handed hitters do better against righties — has been known at least as long as the major leagues have existed. (There was a switch hitter — Bob “Death to Flying Things” Ferguson — in the National League in its 1876 inaugural season.)

For most of baseball history, platooning has been played out in offensive strategy. In the past couple of decades, managers have turned it around — cramming their rosters with specialty relief pitchers.

It’s an ugly, time-consuming strategy, and Bill James, among others, argues that it’s counter productive. But it has taken root, and even the team James works for is committed to it.

Managers do it because shuffling a half-dozen relief pitchers in and out like a military march — left, right, left, right — negates traditional platoons.

It’s difficult to commit two players to a platoon at third base if you’re carrying 12 pitchers on a 25-man roster. It’s just as difficult to make it work if the opposition can repeatedly swap out its pitcher.

But switch-hitters — at least legitimate switch-hitters — carry their own platoon advantage. They are resistant to the LOOGYs and ROOGYs populating today's bullpens.

So, goes my notion, perhaps this wave of switch hitters in the playoffs is a deliberate strategy.

I tested it by crunching some numbers. I figured out how many plate appearances came from switch hitters in both leagues this year, team by team. Then I set out to do the same for the 1987 season — '87 because that was at the end of the Earl Weaver era (Weaver being a major proponent of massive platooning) and just before Tony LaRussa and Jim Leyland started filling their rosters with multiple spot relievers.

I quit doing '87 when it became obvious that switch-hitters got more playing time that year than today.

AL, 1987: 16.6 percent of at-bats were from switch hitters. AL, 2009: 15 percent. NL 2009: 15.5 percent.

And if the Yankees seem impressive with their 37.4 percent of plate appearances coming from switch-hitters this year, consider the 1987 Cardinals (Vince Coleman, Ozzie Smith, Tom Herr, Willie McGee, Terry Pendleton, Jose Oquendo) — 57.7 percent of their at-bats came from switch hitters.

Plus ... the Yankees didn't set out to build their lineup around switch hitters. Xavier Nady was supposed to be the regular right fielder, but he got hurt. Brett Gardner emerged from spring training as the center fielder, but he didn't hit and he got hurt. That opened the playing time for Swisher and Cabrera.

More to the point, switch-hitting is difficult. HITTING is difficult — doing it well from one’s weak side is nearly impossible. Figgins and Morales, for example, are markedly better hitters left-handed than from the right side. A LOOGY — a Left-handed One Out GuY — still has the edge against those guys.

Then there’s this: The National League team with the highest use of switch-hitters this year was San Francisco. The problem was, other than Pedro Sandroval, their switch-hitters were notably unproductive.

Being able to switch hit is good. It’s far better to hit, period.

1 comment:

  1. -- Thoughts?