29-year-old Seattle Mariners lefty Jason Vargas has a 4.39 lifetime ERA. Over the full span of his professional career, he has allowed right-handed hitters a .753 OPS. The Detroit Tigers lineup last night featured 7 right-handed bats, many of whom have large L-R splits of their own. Nonetheless, by the time Vargas left the game after 8 the Tigers had only one run and five hits to their name – wasting an equally strong start from Drew Smyly. Why?
The Tigers – in the recent past – have been a team which has dominated opposing left-handers while performing little better than average against right-handed pitching. There was always one obvious reason why: a lineup slanted towards the right side. So far this year that has been turned on it’s head: The Tigers line as a team against lefties is .223/.276/.362 and against righties .263/.326/.411. That’s an OPS split of about 100 points – in the opposite direction from what we would have expected. A .737 OPS against righties is not, all things considered, far off from what preseason expectations for the Tigers offense would have been. A .638 OPS against lefties definitely is.
So who’s to blame??? Some of the struggling Tigers that one would expect to perform far better against left-handed pitchers actually have: Jhonny Peralta’s OPS vs. L is 355 points higher, Ryan Raburn’s is 105 points higher. Ex-Tiger Brandon Inge and his current role filler Danny Worth have also put up vastly better numbers against lefties (since their combined OPS against left is ZERO in 8 at-bats). Other Tigers that you would expect to be teeing off (in relative terms) or at least not flailing against southpaws haven’t, though. Delmon Young, Austin Jackson and Ramon Santiago have each hit significantly better against righties. Miguel Cabrera and Brennan Boesch have minimal splits one way or the other. That, it would seem, is half the reason why. Prince Fielder specifically has had awful splits over the past six weeks – a .627 OPS against lefties and a 1.023 OPS against righties – and though he’s always in the lineup, he’s disproportionately likely to face a LOOGY later in games. That’s another piece. The last chunk is that Delmon Young and Ryan Raburn have been generally bad overall this year and those two have been more likely to be in the lineup when the team is facing a southpaw. Even though Raburn has been better against lefties, his OPS against them is still a measly .432.
It’s a deceptively simple story, really. The Tigers do have a bunch of righties who don’t hit righties well, and a couple of lefties who don’t hit lefties well and a handful of guys for whom pitcher-handedness doesn’t seem very important. The first group is still the larger group, as it has been in years past. We knew that coming in. The issue so far in 2012 is that a lot of the guys in groups 1 and 3 just are not hitting the ball well period – and that means that the Tigers vs. L lineup is going to continue to look soft until them pull out of it (if they do pull out of it).