Worth, Wells, and the Handedness Problem
By Chris Hannum
The Tigers mauled lefties last year, and they looked set to do it again this year – no matter what decisions are made regarding reserves. Even with Granderson leading off (and honestly, why did it take Leyland so long to figure out that he couldn’t hit lefties?) the Tigers hit substantially better against left-handed pitchers.
We now have two left-handed position players in the regular lineup and one switch hitter. Lefty Don Kelly and switch-hitter Ramon Santiago are givens on the bench, with two (or conceivably three) bench spots left to be decided.
If Alex Avila and Will Rhymes tend to sit against lefties, which I assume will be the case, the Tigers will be able to field at least 8 bats from the right side. If Casper Wells makes the team, Magglio Ordonez would likely DH allowing a complete right-handed 9.
I will, for now, discount the possibility that Danny Worth might ultimately make the team alongside Ramon Santiago. From a ‘platoon’ standpoint, he would be redundant. So, if Casper Wells does not make the team presumably both Andy Dirks and Brennan Boesch do. Where would that leave us?
First of all, as you are all probably well aware the ‘strong’ side of a true platoon ought to come from the left side and not the right. It is more than a little awkward when the better hitter is a righty, since teams see about 3 right-handed starters for every lefty. Nonetheless, that is the situation we are stuck with in the outfield – All three starters, all established players with solid track records, hit from the right side.
Bench aside, we would be fielding a lineup against righties with only 3 left-handed bats: Victor Martinez, Will Rhymes & Alex Avila. Jackson, Cabrera, Ordonez, Raburn, Inge & Peralta would all be playing regularly against right-handed starters, and this was the Tigers biggest problem offensively in 2010 and earlier. We certainly aren’t going to put Ordonez on the weak side of a platoon, BUT the Tigers have been exceptionally weak against righties in general but specifically against righty killers like Carl Pavano. What should Leyland’s strategy be?
A couple of things jump out at you: first, Cabrera is never, ever getting benched based on matchups. The second is that DH is already taken. If VMart needs a day off for whatever reason, that’s one thing, but the Tigers cannot improve their matchups against a guy like Pavano by slotting a lefty in at DH.
If we are willing to bench Inge & Peralta against the toughest of righties – and I don’t mean the best, just the ones with the biggest L/R splits – Kelly at third and Santiago at second ups our lefty count to 5. This is a strategy that I would recommend.
Then it gets tricky… Obviously Cabrera isn’t going anywhere, but even so Ordonez, Raburn & Jackson are among the better hitters on the team.
Boesch is a lefty, and based on his very limited major-league split data appears to hit lefties better than righties. I don’t expect to see that repeated. If we want to slot Boesch in vs. the Pavanos of the league, either Ordonez or Raburn would have to sit. Boesch cannot play center, and the fact of his subpar defense at the corners is mitigated by those he might replace. Does Boesch vs. Pavano improve our chances over either Ordonez or Raburn? An offhand estimate (nothing particularly scientific) would put the gain in the neighborhood of 100 OPS points due to the split alone. Neither Ordonez or Raburn has given the impression that they are unusually good against righties, and both hammer lefties. If Boesch is less than 100 OPS points worse than Raburn or Ordonez, he could presumably improve the Tigers odds against righty killers. If he isn’t, then he doesn’t seem to have much of a potential role as a sub this year. Based solely on last year’s overall numbers (not the splits) Boesch would be slightly worse against a Pavano than Ordonez, but slightly better than Raburn. Do we expect Boesch to close the gap in year 2? Only if he does, or if he plays better defense than Raburn, would the platoon gain be significant. On the other hand, Ordonez needs a break sometime (he’s not so young anymore), and subbing in Boesch against tough righties would minimize the dropoff in production.
Dirks is a more interesting case… He can play center, and he would almost certainly be an upgrade over Ordonez or Raburn defensively at either corner. The question is how he will hit… Personally, I would expect a .750 OPS out of him overall, which is better than I would expect to see from Boesch, but that is far, far from a sure thing.
If my estimate is roughly accurate, Dirks would give a minimal improvement over Ordonez (with the same qualifier as for Boesch) but a fairly sizeable one over Raburn.
Might we consider subbing out Austin Jackson? Jackson had the same counter-intuitive reverse splits that Boesch had in 2010. He wasn’t just better against righties, he was much better against righties. It is very, very hard to say if those numbers are significant. So I’m simply at a loss… if Jackson is really a ‘normal’ righty, there would be sizeable gains to subbing Dirks in against the toughest righties. But if he’s really an ‘abnormal’ righty, there would be little to no gain. If anyone out there knows what Jackson’s splits were like in the minors, please comment. At present, I have no answer for this question.
So who should we keep? Looking at this purely from a matchup standpoint, ignoring player development concerns, or wondering who might hit well as a pinch-hitter, etc… The question comes down to whether we can trust Jackson vs. Pavano. Dirks, in my opinion, is a strictly better option than Brennan Boesch. Boesch has more pure power, but there is no reason to expect a higher OPS from him than from Dirks. .220/.280/.410 would not be unexpected production from a season of Boesch. Casper Wells would provide a big upgrade vs. lefties, since it would be Avila that would leave, but our matchup against lefties is good anyway. Do we need to win 8-3, or will 7-3 suffice?
My vote would go to Dirks & Wells with Raburn riding the pine against Pavano and Avila against Buerhle. If Jackson struggles against righties, or struggles overall, that would tilt things toward a June callup of Boesch.