Thursday, June 2, 2011
Checking out American League platoons
By Christina Kahrl
Joe Maddon, left, and Jim Leyland utilize platooning as much as any team in the American League.
As much as some of us might grumble about the seeming decline of in-game tactics in recent seasons, one of the simplest yet most reliable gambits in any skipper’s arsenal is platooning. If you lack a great everyday player at a position or in a particular lineup slot, you can always try to compensate for the limitations of the alternatives by mixing and matching.
With runs so scarce these days, you might expect to see some more of this. However, the major requirement for operating a platoon beyond mere willingness is roster space, no easy feat in the age of the seven-man bullpen (sometimes eight). With that limitation, which teams are making room to platoon these days? We’ll start by looking at the American League today, and then get to the NL on Friday.
The AL’s easy heroes in this department are the Rays, because they’re the most ambitious platoon-minded team around. In doing so, though, they’re reaping the benefit of employing multi-positional players like Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez. Zobrist plays every day between second and right field, so that Rodriguez is actually somewhat loosely platooned with right fielder Matt Joyce. Between Joyce’s career .552 SLG versus right-handers and Rodriguez’s .789 OPS against lefties, it’s not that unwieldy of an arrangement. Lately, they’ve had less space to keep that going during Reid Brignac’s time on the Bereavement Leave list, and Brignac’s bat is going to have to come around, but as tactical weapons go, you can still count this as a reliable standby in manager Joe Maddon’s bandolier. They’re also platooning John Jaso and Kelly Shoppach at catcher, another holdover arrangement from last year.
Beyond the Rays, nobody in the league is consistently running two platoons simultaneously, and what few platoons that exist generally fall into one of two groups -- platoons in an outfield corner or platoons behind the plate as a way of keeping catching workloads manageable.
In the outfield, the Yankees, Red Sox and A’s are platooning with a particular hitter, while showing there are different ways to tailor the job. The Yanks are using Andruw Jones as the platoon Bomber he was signed to be, but not at any one teammate’s expense, as he’s spotting for Brett Gardner, Nick Swisher and Jorge Posada. That’s less of a straightforward platoon than a case of making sure that Jones starts versus lefties, and using that commitment as a way to give everyone else a day off. The A’s are using Conor Jackson in a similar way, spotting the ex-Snake for David DeJesus, Daric Barton and Hideki Matsui against lefties. The Red Sox are running a much more straightforward platoon in right field with Mike Cameron subbing for J.D. Drew, but we’ll see how long it lasts, since Cameron isn’t hitting anything against anybody.
After that, there’s little that is set in stone. The Orioles might be ready to commit to a similar outfield arrangement once Derrek Lee comes back from the DL. Once that happens, Luke Scott will presumably move back out to left field, where Nolan Reimold has already clouted three bombs against southpaws in less than two weeks since his recall. The first-place Indians dabbled with a platoon in left field as Manny Acta compensated during Grady Sizemore’s absences, but Sizemore’s back, and once Travis Hafner gets reactivated the only lineup slot the Tribe might reliably platoon at is DH, with Shelley Duncan spotting for Pronk against southpaws.
Behind the plate beyond the Rays’ tandem, the league has a pair of stable platoon arrangements, in Chicago and L.A. With a six-man rotation and a seven-man pen, Ozzie Guillen only has room for this one platoon for the White Sox, almost always giving A.J. Pierzynski his days off when a lefty is on the mound to let Ramon Castro mash a bit. In contrast, Mike Scioscia has created a true job-sharing arrangement behind the plate, splitting the starts fairly evenly between the switch-hitting Hank Conger and the non-hitting Jeff Mathis, keeping Mathis’ bat from doing too much damage to his own offense while breaking in a rookie receiver.
Looking for AL platoons that don’t just involve the five corners or the DH slot? The Royals and Mariners have second-base platoons going at the moment, although how long Ned Yost or Eric Wedge keep to these commitments remains to be seen. In K.C., Yost is using Mike Aviles as Chris Getz’s platoon partner at second. However, Aviles is also getting semi-regular play as the team’s utility infielder, so it isn’t like he’s been pigeon-holed as much as Yost is just benching Getz against lefties. Up in Seattle, Adam Kennedy’s bat has won him a lion’s share of second-base starts at Jack Wilson’s expense -- perhaps a surprise to those convinced the Mariners’ leather fetish was getting the better of them, but Kennedy’s career record afield is far from terrible, and to Wedge’s credit he was always willing to cobble together a platoon or two during his days in Cleveland.
Overall, this makes for fairly slim pickings, but is there potential for more than this? The Tigers might be the team with the most potential variations, to the point that Jim Leyland could flirt with multi-positional solutions every bit as creative as Maddon’s. After all, the Tigers broke in Ryan Raburn in a multi-positional utility role with a lean toward starting him against lefties in the past, and using youngsters Andy Dirks and Casper Wells as platoon outfielders now. Raburn and Brennan Boesch have struggled to stick in regular roles, opening up a host of possibilities for Leyland to try to hide some of his players from the sources of some of their struggles.
Although Leyland’s track record for building platoons at all five corners is fairly extensive, it’s worth noting that he’s also fairly adaptable; while Victor Martinez has started eight of his 12 games behind the plate with a lefty on the mound, the lefty-batting Alex Avila isn’t getting hidden away from southpaws, having drawn eight starts of his own against them, while hitting better than well enough to beat a platoon label, a reminder that a platoon isn’t automatically a positive end unto itself.