Sunday, June 28, 2020

More Opportunity for Platoons in 2020

In writing my piece about Mike Vail yesterday, I noted the success Vail enjoyed in a platoon situation while with the Cubs. It called to mind a time when you were much more likely to see two players share a position in a platoon.

It definitely was a part of Mets history, including both world Series winners. In 1969, manager Gil Hodges utilized platoons at first base (Ed Kranepool and Donn Clendenon, second base (primarily Ken Boswell and Al Weis), third base (Wayne Garrett and Ed Charles) and right field (Art Shamsky and Ron Swoboda). In 1986, manager Davey Johnson used platoons, also. Wally Backman and Tim Tuefel shared second base, Hojo and Ray Knight at 3B (not a strict platoon as Knight enjoyed a solid offensive year), and, particularly after George Foster was released, Davey Johnson mixed and matched in LF with Danny Heep, Kevin Mitchell and Mookie Wilson. Wilson would also spell Dykstra in CF occasionally against lefties.

The reason both managers chose to utilize platooning was to boost offense. The 1969 Mets were not an offensive juggernaut by any means. By using platoons, Hodges was able to coax a few extra runs out of the team. With Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Gary Gentry leading the rotation, an extra run or two was all that was needed. As for Davey Johnson, he always looked for ways to maximize offense. I remember former Mets beat writer Marty Noble saying that Johnson always told him that you couldn't win a 0-0 game. Besides platooning, Johnson would famously play Howard Johnson or Kevin Mitchell at shortstop when extreme fly ball pitcher Sid Fernandez was pitching to try to tweak out some extra offense.

Platooning has become less common, particularly at multiple positions. Changes in the way both starters and relievers are used necessitated carrying more pitchers and fewer position players. Your bench needs to have at least one backup catcher and another guy capable of catching in an emergency. You need to have backups at key positions. In the National League you need pinch hitters and, at least before this year, had to have players available to double switch into games. Having versatile bench players became more important than having platoon options.

I'd be interested to see if more platooning comes back into the game. Now that the DH is in the National League, and rosters have grown to 26, the opportunity would seem to be there to construct a roster favorable to that strategy. Even if a team elected to carry 12 pitchers, that would still allow for 5 bench players. I could easily see a team electing to straight platoon at a couple of positions.

The arguments for platooning are pretty simple. The vast majority of right-handed hitters hit much better off of left handers than against righties. The opposite is true for left-handed hitters. You're not going to platoon your best players, of course, they do enough damage against all pitchers. You're going to use platoons to shore up positions where you don't have a top talent.

In the case of those Mets teams from the 80s, you had a player like Wally Backman. Even though he was a switch hitter, he was much, much better as a left-handed hitter. For his career, Backman slashed .294/.364 /362 against righties and .165 /.258/.201 vs. lefties. As long as you paired Wally with a solid right-handed hitting second baseman you could be sure of really solid numbers from that position. The offense would have taken a huge hit if Backman played every day. I'm sure Wally would have argued that he would have hit lefties better if he played every day, but he would have had to have picked it up quite a bit to be anything more than a second pitcher in the lineup facing lefties.

Most teams don't have the budget to play stars at every position. Platooning is a way to combine 2 pretty good ballplayers and create the offensive output of a much better ballplayer. It's a way of deepening your lineup without breaking the bank. I'd love to see a team like the Mets utilize this strategy going forward.

I understand the arguments against platooning, also. Particularly with a young ballplayer, there is a worry that using him in a platoon doesn't give him a chance to learn how to hit against pitchers that throw from the same side. You can't hone a skill that you're not allowed to practice. The players certainly won't like being platooned, as it limits their playing time and inhibits their value come contract time.

One guy I'm looking at on the Mets for a potential platoon is Michael Conforto. His lifetime splits are .263/.370/.511 with 87 HR against right-handers and .224/.299/.397 with 22 HR against left-handers. He has roughly 3 times as many plate appearances against righties. Now, he's not an automatic out against lefties like Backman was, but that line against LHP is not what you want from a corner OF.

Last season Conforto had 455 plate appearances vs. righties and slashed .264/.382/.544 with 27 HR. In 193 plate appearances against lefties he slashed 241/.316 /.385 with 6 HR. He'll be 27 this year, so I'm not sure that it's reasonable to expect him to improve much more against lefties. I'd rather see him platooned with a right-handed hitting OF that hits lefties well. Now I understand that this won't be something that he's likely to embrace. He's approaching free agency in 2022, and doesn't want to be seen as a part-time player. But the Mets would be a better team with Conforto getting less at bats against left-handers.

With the addition of the DH and an extra roster spot, I think straight platooning is a strategy that should get a harder look this year. It may be tough to get players to buy in on it, but the opportunity to score some more runs and win some more ballgames should not be overlooked.

I'm out for today. Thanks for stopping by, please come back soon.  Please stay safe, stay well and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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