September 20, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers catcher Gerald Laird (9) at bat against the Oakland Athletics at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

Gerald Laird’s Non-existent Platoon Split: Why The Tigers Shouldn’t Bring Him Back

 

Gerald Laird’s 2012 OPS of .710 was fourth best mark of his 10 year career, and the best since leaving the hitter friendly home park of the Texas Rangers, but the Tigers haven’t committed to brining the veteran backup catcher back for another season. At least not in if he’s expecting more playing time or more money.

When Laird left Texas to sign with the Tigers following the 2008 season he had the reputation of being a fairly good hitting catcher. He was still in his late 20’s and had posted an OPS just north of .700 over the combined previous three years. But that success didn’t follow him to Detroit when he was still a starter, and it hasn’t caught back up to him now that he’s moved to a reserve role. Since leaving Texas, Laird has managed an OPS of just .628 in 1,075 plate appearances.

The big change in his game has been the disappearance of his platoon split.

From 2003 through 2008, Laird hit right handed pitching for a .648 OPS. From 2009 through the present, that number has dipped to .627.

From 2003 through 2008, Laird mashed lefties (relatively speaking) to the tune of a .789 OPS. Since then he’s managed an OPS of just .630.

Here are the above numbers in chart form:

Date Range (Team) OPS vRHP OPS vLHP OPS Platoon Split
2003-2008 (TEX) .648 .789 .141
2009-2012 (DET, STL) .627 .630 -.003

We’re likely dealing with sample size issues in part, the OPS numbers versus left handed pitching only represent 370-390 plate appearances each, but the difference is stark nonetheless.

And that’s sort of the funny thing about Laird’s renewed success in 2012: he actually did much more damage against right handed pitching (an .828 OPS) that he did against left handed pitching (.622 OPS).

The Tigers have a potentially All-Star caliber catcher in Alex Avila, and his left handed bat crushes righty pitchers (.821 career OPS), so they’re ideally looking for a backup catcher that can fill the weak side of the platoon. It appears that Gerald Laird is not that catcher, at least not anymore. Backup catchers aren’t going to hit well overall – that’s the nature of the beast – but you can often exploit whatever batting skills they have by giving them the platoon advantage in most of their starts. A .630 OPS hitter with a large platoon split could be a fairly valuable player. A .630 OPS hitter with a small platoon split is much less valuable. I’m generalizing and simplifying, but hopefully my point makes sense.

If the Tigers don’t bring back Laird, then what will they do? They could chase down someone like Kelly Shoppach, who has a career .868 OPS versus left handed pitchers, but I doubt they’ll want to spend much money on a backup catcher, and Shoppach could demand a larger role and approximately $3 million. The other (internal) option is sticking with Bryan Holaday. He only has 13 big league plate appearances under his belt, and his minor league totals aren’t great, but his 2012 statistics from Toledo suggest that his bat is able to be platooned. Minor league splits are difficult to come by, and the sample sizes are small, but Holaday did hit for an .841 OPS versus southpaws in AAA last year (58 at-bats) even though his season OPS at the level was only .632 (250 at-bats total). That could be something or it could be nothing.

It would probably be reasonable to bring Laird back on the same contract he had this year, but it’s easy to see why the Tigers are encouraging him to look around for a better deal, perfectly content to let him walk if he’s looking for something more.

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