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Jim Leyland and the LOOGy


Yesterday afternoon, in the wake of Daniel Schlereth‘s injury, I wrote of possible replacements for Schlereth’s role should the hamstring cause him to miss Opening Day. Withing an hour, I had multiple folks respond to my piece and my contention that Brad Thomas is better suited for a mop-up role than as a late-inning left hander; the role Schlereth is slated to occupy. In each response, the commenter cited Thomas’ splits and voiced their opinion that Thomas is a classic “LOOGy” (Lefthanded One Out Guy).

Upon digging deeper into the numbers, perhaps those commenters are right.

Since Leyland took over the Tigers in 2006, Detroit has had a handful of “primary” left handers, such as Phil Coke last season. Before Coke, the role was held by Bobby Seay and Jamie Walker before him. It was my recollection that all those pitchers had served similar roles, one’s where they would frequently be used for a full inning in a set-up role. After checking the numbers, however, I was wrong.

Coke did become the primary eighth inning man last year after Joel Zumaya‘s injury, but Seay and Walker really more LOOGys than anything else. The simplest way to look at it is in games versus innings pitched, but we should also examine how often the left handed reliever faced a left handed hitter.

In 2006, Walker worked in 56 games, but logged only 48 innings pitched. In that season, he faced left handed batters 85 times, while facing righties 111 times. Most managers do their best to separate left handed hitters to create better match-ups late in games and force the other manager to make multiple pitching changes in situations where a LOOGy can be most effective, so it’s not uncommon for a left handed reliever to face slightly more right handed batters than left.

To put Walker’s numbers in perspective, consider that 43.6% or the batters he faced that season were left handed, whereas a left handed starting pitcher would face a much lower percentage, such as Kenny Rogers that same season. Only 22.3% of the batters he faced were left handed.

When Seay took over Walker’s role in 2007, he became the primary lefty for the next three seasons. In 2007, Seay worked in 58 games, but only 46.1 innings. An amazing 53.1% of the batters he faced that year were left handed. Seay was the classic LOOGy. In 2008 and 2009, Seay continued in that role, seeing left handed hitters 50.8% and 60.5% of the time, respectively. He likely would have had a similar percentage in 2010, if not for the injury that cost him the season.

Without Seay last year, Fu-Te Ni should have progressed into that role given his splits in 2009. Ni saw action in 36 games as a rookie, working only 31 innings and 59.5% of the batters he faced were left handed. In 2010, Ni struggled to pitch through an injury, which ultimately cost him the season, but before he was demoted to AAA, Ni worked 23 innings over 22 games. He was frequently used in mop-up situations, given his lack of effectiveness, and wound up seeing his percentage flip the other way when just 37.9% of the batters he faced were left handed.

Last season, Coke was used more the way Walker had been used in 2006. Coke is effective against right handed batters as well as lefties (reasoning for converting him into a starter this year). Leyland was less concerned about match-ups with Coke than he was in his usage of Seay (and Ni in 2009). As a result, 44.4% of the batters Coke faced last year were left handed, which is very similar to the 43.6% Walker faced in 2006.

With right handers like Joaquin Benoit and Joel Zumaya slated to work the late innings this year, Leyland isn’t really trying to replace Coke’s role with another left hander; he’s trying to replace Seay’s role from previous years. Neither Thomas nor Schlereth have been used as LOOGys to this point in their careers, but just looking at the splits, Thomas is far more effective against left handed batters than right handers. Schlereth, on the other hand, actually has shown reverse splits to this point in his career.

In 37 total major league innings, Schlereth has allowed left handed batters to hit .268 with an .888 OPS while right handed hitters have seen a .233 average and .581 OPS. The numbers are easily skewed by the small sample size and a poor performance last season against left handed hitters. Schlereth allowed two home runs and two doubles to lefties last season and those batters hit him at a .310 clip with an OPS of .998 while righties were less effective against Schlereth, hitting him at a .244 average and .594 OPS.

Schlereth has youth and a tremendous power arm on his side, but Thomas and Ni have been better at getting left handed hitters out. If it’s the role of a LOOGy that Leyland is seeking in camp this year, look for those two guys to get a shot to be the next Bobby Seay.

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