Addressing the Left-Handed Problem
By Chris Hannum
The opportunity to move the pitching staff in the directions of lefties-that-get-lefties-out was there, but Dombrowski didn’t take advantage. The impression I’m getting is that he’s not sold on the whole idea, nor is Jim Leyland. What they want is lefties that get everybody out, or righties that can do the same. A lefty that can’t get righties out might appeal to some, but not here. This does make a lot of sense, if you can gather the right pieces. The reason is simple: unless you love real LOOGY bullpen management, your lefties see more right-handed hitters than left. Brad Thomas saw lefties only 43% of the time last year, Phil Coke 44%, Daniel Schlereth 39% and Fu-Te Ni 38%. Aside from Ryan Perry, all of our relevant righties saw more left-handed hitters than those guys did – topping at 57% for Justin Verlander. Your pitchers are invariably going to see a lot of whatever batters they can’t get out.
Verlander, Scherzer and Porcello have done a decent job of getting lefties out too. Over his career, Verlander’s L-R OPS split is .705 to .659, most of which is due to walking more lefties. Last year it was .636 to .623. He’s definitely getting lefties out, which is very important given how many of them he sees. Scherzer’s career L-R OPS split is .737 to .689, and last year it was .667 to .737 – he wasn’t just better against lefties, he was a lot better against lefties. Rick Porcello‘s carrer L-R OPS split is .767 to .718, comparable to Verlander and Scherzer. I’m less enthusiastic about Porcello than most, but if he never becomes a true top-of-the-rotation starter it won’t be because lefties are crushing him.
That leave two slots out: So… aside from our acquisitions – two moves need to be put in context here: Jeremy Bonderman is almost certainly gone, and Armando Galarraga (if he makes the team at all) is now no more than organizational depth. Sure, both are righties but that isn’t the critical fact. They’re both slider guys and they both have unusually large L-R splits. Over his major-league career Armando Galarraga has held righties to a .679 OPS but allowed an .850 OPS to lefties. Now, that .679 is awfully good – but put the two together and you get an awfully mediocre pitcher, who is especially ill-suited for the AL Central. Over his career Bonderman’s L-R OPS split is .825 to .704, almost as bad as Galarraga. That’s not the worst of it, though… Bonderman used to be a power pitcher (with a great slider), now he’s not. It looks as though this might be causing his L-R split to widen: it was .905 to .673 in 2010. Again, .673 against righties is great – but put the two together… With these two out of the rotation, we could be looking at improving our splits through subtraction.
Unless we’re being led astray by what the Tigers tell the press, it looks almost certain that these two rotation slots will be taken by Brad Penny and Phil Coke. Penny is a righty, but he’s not a slider guy. He throws a hard fastball, a splitter, a curve and a change. That makes a difference: over his career his L-R split is .730 to .754. That’s not a typo – righties have hit better off him than lefties have. There are health concerns with Penny, and it remains to be seen how he will fare against AL hitters but putting him in the rotation definitely improves our L-R balance. Phil Coke is an actual, real left-handed pitcher. He has been fantastic over his career against lefties, allowing only a .617 OPS. He hasn’t been that bad (thus far) against righties either, allowing only a .697 OPS. There is some reason to believe that he can be a lefty starter that does just fine against right-handed batters, and if it turns out that he can’t he may not keep that rotation slot for long. Sometimes difficulty in getting righties out (for a lefty) is reflected in a high BABIP – and not one due to bad luck. Coke hasn’t allowed a high BABIP to righties. The other way such a difficulty can be reflected is more walks and fewer strikeouts, which has been an issue for Coke. The reason that his overall numbers haven’t been too bad against righties is that he seems to get a lot of groundballs and hence double plays against them.