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Thursday, December 19, 2013
Are teams starting to platoon more?

By David Schoenfield

Two moves Wednesday particularly caught my attention: The Royals acquired third baseman Danny Valencia from the Orioles for outfielder David Lough, and the Mariners re-signed oft-injured outfielder Franklin Gutierrez. (I'm pretty sure that's his official name now: Oft-Injured Franklin Gutierrez.)

They aren't huge acquisitions, but both make sense from a strategic standpoint. Valencia will likely platoon at third with Mike Moustakas. The Royals have been patient with Moustakas, once regarded as one of the top prospects in the minors, but after two-plus seasons of full-time duty in the majors, it's pretty clear he can't hit left-handed pitching. In 395 career plate appearances against lefties he's hitting .222/.275/.332; in 2013, he hit .196 against them with just two home runs in 107 at-bats.

You hate to give up on a young player and label him a platoon guy, but the Royals are trying to compete for a playoff spot and playing Moustakas against left-handers is hurting them. Enter Valencia. With Baltimore, he hit .371/.392/.639 against lefties in 2013. OK, it was a small sample of 102 plate appearances, but his 36 hits included 14 doubles and four home runs. In his four-year career, he has hit .329/.367/.513 versus southpaws. If Moustakas -- who wasn't that great against right-handers either -- hits better, the Royals' third-base production will be vastly improved.

For the Mariners, bringing back Gutierrez, who has battled stomach ailments and other injuries and averaged just 58 games over the past three years, is a low-risk investment at a $1 million base salary plus incentives. But unlike previous seasons, the Mariners won't be counting on him to play every day. I think they'll view him as a platoon guy, filling in for Dustin Ackley, Logan Morrison or Michael Saunders against left-handers. Over the past three seasons, even while often being weak from his ailment, he has hit .283/.325/.476 against left-handers.

Is this part of a new trend -- or shall we say the return to an old trend? The Cardinals signed veteran second baseman Mark Ellis not just as insurance for rookie Kolten Wong but as a possible platoon partner. The Orioles may look to platoon Ryan Flaherty and Jemile Weeks at second base. The Tigers signed Rajai Davis to platoon with Andy Dirks in left field. Lough could end platooning in left field with Nolan Reimold for the Orioles.

In 2013, players batted with the platoon advantage 56 percent of the time -- the highest figure since 1995:

2013 - 56 percent
2012 - 55
2011 - 54
2010 - 54
2009 - 55
2008 - 54
2007 - 54
2006 - 54
2005 - 55
2004 - 55
2003 - 54
2002 - 54
2001 - 53
2000 - 53
1999 - 53
1998 - 55
1997 - 55
1996 - 55
1995 - 57
1994 - 57
1993 - 58
1992 - 59
1991 - 60
1990 - 61
1985 - 60
1980 - 57
1975 - 55
1970 - 53

As you can see, we're still below the totals of the late '80s and early '90s, but I think we're headed in that direction. In the mid-'90s, as offense exploded, teams tried to counter -- fewer innings from starters, more relief pitchers. That left teams with fewer position player options off the bench and less ability to match up. Now that pitchers have reasserted their dominance, offenses have to look for small advantages. You can't afford to play Moustakas and his .200 average against left-handers.

Teams haven't yet shown an inclination to go back to carrying 11 pitchers, which would really help their ability to platoon, so the best GMs have to maximize their roster spots. Oakland's Billy Beane has been a master of this the past couple of seasons, a key reason the A's have won two straight division titles despite a relatively starless roster.

The A's hit with the platoon advantage 70 percent of the time in 2013, second only to Cleveland's 71 percent (all those switch-hitters helped the Indians). The A's had the platoon advantage 65 percent of the time in 2012, fourth highest in the majors.

In baseball, every little thing counts. Platooning more is just one small step to improving a team.