Saturday, October 16, 2010

Backwards bullpen thinking

Oh, those Yankee switch-hitters.

Darren Oliver's career got a
second wind when he shifted
to the bullpen in 2004.
Game one, ALDS: The game is tied at 4, and the Yankees have Derek Jeter, Nick Swisher and Mark Teixiera due up in the eighth inning — right, switch, switch — followed by Alex Rodriguez, another right-handed hitter. Ron Gardenhire wheels in right-handed Jesse Crain, who gets Jeter but then allows a single to Swisher, a home run to Teixeira and a single to A-Rod before being pulled. That's the game: 6-4, Yankees.

Game one, ALCS: The Rangers have a 5-1 lead in the eighth inning, but Brett Gardner leads off with an infield single and Derek Jeter's liner eludes Michael Young. With Swisher and Teixeira coming up, Ron Washington turns to veteran lefty Darren Oliver — who walks both the switch-hitters and departs. The Yankees score five runs in the eighth. That's the game: 6-5, Yankees.

OK, here's the puzzle: Facing the same two men, one manager turned to a right-handed reliever, the other to a lefty. Why?

My answer: Both Crain and Oliver have histories of being "backwards" — that is, they reverse the platoon advantage, or at least minimize it.

Crain in 2010, for example, held left-handed hitters to a slash stat line of .196/.281/.333, while righties were .228/.304/.331. Over his career, lefties have a slight platoon advantage, but not as much as usual.

Oliver's season stats were more LOOGY than backwards (.200/.234/.295 vs lefties, .281/.344/.421 vs. righties), but he's been backwards repeatedly in previous seasons, and his career splits are pretty even.

Backwards relievers are prized in Strat-O-Matic leagues for just such matchups. Theoretically, they deprive switch-hitters of their platoon edge.

But Swisher and Teixeira are dangerous from either side, and neither Crain nor Oliver made good pitches.

Gardenhire's move was even more defensible because both Swisher and Teixeira are better hitters from the right side of the plate (against lefties) than from the left side. The percentages were with Crain; on that night, his slider wasn't.

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