First Pitch: Who Wants to Hit a Left-Hander?

The Pittsburgh Pirates have a problem. The team has four spots on the field which could require a platoon, due to the fact that they have so many players who can’t hit left-handers.

The obvious player is Garrett Jones, who is established as a platoon player at this point. In his career, Jones has an .851 OPS against right-handers, and a .590 OPS against left-handers. The Pirates acquired Gaby Sanchez last year, aimed at platooning him with Jones at first. So far that platoon has worked out great. Jones is hitting for an .833 OPS against right-handers, and only has three at-bats against lefties. Sanchez is destroying lefties, with a 1.223 OPS in 28 at-bats. Unfortunately he also has a .581 OPS in 29 at-bats against right-handers, mostly because he was getting a lot of at-bats as an everyday player early in the season.

The Pirates have a platoon going at first base. That takes up one bench spot, with another spot going to backup catcher Michael McKenry. This leaves three spots, and the problem is that the Pirates have three other positions which can be platooned.

I talked about the first position last night — right field. The Pirates are actually platooning Travis Snider. He has a career .664 OPS against left-handers in 194 at-bats. This year he has a .294 average and a .780 OPS against right-handers, and has been limited to only five at-bats against left-handers.

No one wants to platoon the next guy, but Pedro Alvarez is looking like he’s heading down that path. Alvarez has a career .628 OPS against lefties in 323 at-bats. That’s more than Snider, who is being platooned, and it’s more than Jones when the Pirates made the decision to platoon him. As I pointed out before the season, Alvarez had been showing signs of improvements the last few years. So far this year he has regressed from last year’s numbers.

You also can’t mention Neil Walker as a platoon player for two reasons. One is that he’s a switch hitter, and switch hitters don’t usually have platoon splits. Two is that he’s from Pittsburgh, and immune to criticism. The fact is that Walker has a .667 OPS in 421 at-bats against lefties, which is a number that has been inflated by success in 2010. He had a .602 OPS last year, and he’s 4-for-24 against lefties this year.

Technically the Pirates could use all of their bench spots for platoon roles. It would just mean that they’d have Snider, Alvarez, and Walker coming off the bench those days. The problem is that the Pirates hardly have anyone who can hit left-handers. That’s not just at the major league level, but in the minors as well. Let’s take a look at the options.

The struggles against left-handers are so bad that the Pirates have their starting catcher moving to other positions. Photo Credit: David Hague

The struggles against left-handers are so bad that the Pirates have their starting catcher moving to other positions. Photo Credit: David Hague

Russell Martin - It should say a lot about the lack of hitters who can hit lefties when you’re moving your $8.5 M a year catcher to other positions to make up for the problem. Martin has been playing third base to give Alvarez time off against lefties, and there has been talk that he could also play right field. So far this year he has a .788 OPS against lefties in 22 at-bats, and surprisingly has a .941 OPS against right-handers in 70 at-bats. Aside from Sanchez, Martin has been the best option against lefties. The problem, of course, is that you’re having to move your starting catcher around the field.

Brandon Inge - In his career, Inge has crushed left-handers. The recent numbers don’t look as good.

2010: .817 OPS in 138 AB

2011: .717 OPS in 98 AB

2012: .693 OPS in 115 AB

2013: .467 OPS in 15 AB

The 2013 numbers are a small sample size, but there is concern since Inge has slumped the last two years, and looks to be trending downward. He shouldn’t be someone the Pirates should rely on to solve the problem against left-handers, and his recent trend should earn him a short leash.

Jordy Mercer - I talked about Mercer this morning. He’s got some history of hitting lefties, and he could get some playing time filling in for Walker at second or Alvarez at third. He’s unproven at the major league level, and his numbers against lefties haven’t always been good, so he’s also not a guy you can count on.

Jose Tabata - He’s hurt right now, but he’s also very comparable to Travis Snider. He doesn’t have good career numbers against lefties, and has been hitting right-handers better this year.

Alex Presley - Similar to Tabata and Snider, he doesn’t hit lefties and does great against right-handers.

Felix Pie - He is actually starting to hit in Indianapolis, but has a career .513 OPS in 164 major league at-bats against lefties.

Jerry Sands - The problem right now is that he’s not hitting anyone. In his brief major league career he had a .904 OPS in 79 at-bats against lefties. Last year he had an .847 OPS in 155 minor league at-bats against lefties. In 2011 it was .894 in 165 minor league at-bats. In 2010 it was .943 in 131 minor league at-bats. So the trend is there, but in 2013 he has a .143/.278/.165 line in 91 at-bats, and isn’t even hitting lefties.

Andrew Lambo - Aside from the fact that he’s only in Double-A, Lambo also has poor splits. He has seven homers this year, but only one in 33 at-bats against lefties, and a .546 OPS against left-handers.

Matt Hague - The hit collector has gotten a lot of hits against lefties, but he’s not a platoon guy. He’s usually around an .800 OPS in the minors, so I’m not sure if he could maintain that in the majors.

Jared Goedert - He only has a .200/.320/.341 line in 85 at-bats this year, but he does have a .780 OPS against lefties. Last year Goedert had a 1.068 OPS in 125 at-bats against lefties in the minors. In 2011 it was .966 in 127 at-bats. In 2010 it was 1.002 in 153 at-bats. The problem is he doesn’t have any time in the majors. During Spring Training I had a scout tell me that Goedert would make a good platoon partner with Pedro Alvarez if the Pirates decided to go that route.

Chase d’Arnaud - He’s on the 60-day DL, but is starting baseball activities, and could start a rehab assignment later this month. He won’t be eligible to return until June. D’Arnaud has always had a platoon split in the minors, so he could be an option when healthy. Here are his numbers in the minors.

2012: .664/.799 (RHP OPS/LHP OPS)

2011: .580/.853

2010: .670/.805

2009: .799/.992

The Pirates could use platoon options at third base, second base, and right field. Unfortunately they only have one guy who can be trusted in a platoon role — Russell Martin — and it’s not like Michael McKenry is a lefty masher (.649 OPS in 112 at-bats in the majors). So by moving Martin around, you’re just filling one hole while creating another. Not to mention you downgrade the defense behind the plate. So here are the options for each position.

Third Base – Martin, Inge, Mercer, Hague, d’Arnaud, Goedert

Martin would be the top option, although that creates a problem behind the plate. I don’t trust Inge, due to his declining numbers. Mercer and d’Arnaud are unproven in the majors. D’Arnaud has the better numbers against lefties of the two. Hague isn’t really a platoon guy, but has the numbers that make him worthy of this list. Goedert might be the sleeper here, since he has great platoon splits in the minors. The problem is that he doesn’t have any major league experience.

Second Base – Inge, Mercer, d’Arnaud

See the comments above for each player. I personally would like to see Mercer getting some time here, or at third base. When d’Arnaud is healthy I think he would be worthy of a shot too, with Mercer and d’Arnaud playing second and third.

Right Field – Martin, Inge, Sands

Guys like Tabata, Presley, and even down to Lambo aren’t options. Martin comes with the problem of creating the hole at catcher. Inge has the same issues that were mentioned above, plus his defense isn’t the best in right field. Sands would be perfect if he continued his career numbers in the majors. Unfortunately he’s in a big slump in Triple-A.

The Platoons

The Pirates don’t have a Gaby Sanchez at any other positions. They’re having to move Russell Martin to different positions, which as I’ve shown creates a problem behind the plate. McKenry struggles against lefties, and his defense is worse than Martin’s. I don’t trust Inge, although the Pirates do and I feel that could be a mistake.

The best options seem to be Mercer, d’Arnaud, Goedert and Sands. Of those three, only Mercer is a realistic short-term option, and he isn’t even proven in the majors. D’Arnaud is out for at least one more month, and also isn’t proven. Sands is slumping, and again isn’t proven. Goedert isn’t proven in the majors, and his overall numbers are bad in Triple-A, but he could fill that role of a third base platoon mate with Alvarez. He has also played some games at second base and right field, but he’s been primarily a third baseman throughout his career.

The thing about a platoon is that it’s not going to look flashy. People tend to look at names and overall numbers when judging platoons. The problem is that names are irrelevant, and the only numbers that matter are the ones that apply to the platoon situation. The side of the platoon that hits left-handers is usually at a disadvantage. They can’t hit right-handers, so they’re limited to bench duty and they aren’t a big name. Also, since they can only hit left-handers, their overall numbers look poor, since they see major struggles in two-thirds of their at-bats.

When I say the Pirates should consider guys like Mercer/d’Arnaud/Sands/Goedert over Alvarez/Walker/Snider, it inspires no confidence. The fact is that the latter group has the name power, and they have the ability to pad the overall numbers due to their hitting against right-handers. The former group doesn’t have either of those, but they have what is most important to this discussion — the ability to hit lefties. That’s something Alvarez/Walker/Snider haven’t shown.

The Pirates don’t have any strong options for the left-handed side of the platoon, and all three of those guys are young. They might want to consider giving a bit more time to guys like Alvarez, at least against easy left-handers. But if the current trends continue, and if no progression is made, the Pirates should start thinking about a solution. That could either be some of the lesser internal names, or acquiring a low-key addition on the trade market, who wouldn’t cost much but would help fill a big need on the Pirates offense.

Links and Notes

**The 2013 Prospect Guide and the 2013 Annual are both available on the products page of the site. If you order them together, you’ll save $5.

**Be sure to check out the new podcast: P3 Episode 2: The Returning Pitchers, The Hot Start, and a Robby Rowland Interview.

Prospects

**Minor Moves: Tim Alderson to Indianapolis, Quinton Miller to Altoona.

**Injury Update: Kyle McPherson Receives PRP Injection.

**Prospect Watch: Bell and Lambo Homer; Joely Rodriguez Breaking Out?

**Bell, Diaz Come Up Big For West Virginia.

**Minor League Schedule: 5/9/13.

**Prospect Notebook: Lambo a Bright Spot in Altoona; Sadler Shows Promise.

Pirates

**What To Do With Jordy Mercer When Neil Walker Returns?

**Duke Welker Officially Recalled, Josh Harrison Optioned.

**Jeanmar Gomez to Start on Sunday.

**Pirates Release Jonathan Sanchez.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • James Santelli

    If Neal Huntington is serious about finding platoon partners for Snider or (dare I say it) Alvarez, here are three guys he should be asking about –

    – Jesus Guzman, Padres: He has started at 1B, 3B and LF for San Diego this season, but not enough that he wouldn’t be expendable for the Padres. The price might be a little high because he is still 28 and controlled through 2017, plus he rakes left-handed pitching. Guzman is a career .676 OPS hitter vs. righties and career .870 OPS vs. lefties. Keep in mind, that’s at Petco; he has a career wRC+ of 144 against left-handers, which is better than the wRC+ of Giancarlo Stanton.

    – Mark DeRosa, Blue Jays: Want a cheaper option? I can’t imagine Alex Anthopoulos will mind parting with Old Man DeRosa, and he hits lefties better than you may think, to the tune of a 131 wRC+ since 2009, better than Hunter Pence and Dustin Pedroia. Plus he has played every position except pitcher, catcher and center field.

    – Casper Wells, White Sox: Ah yes, the Waiver Wire Legend himself. He has a career 127 wRC+ against lefties and can play all three outfield spots. The 28-year-old has bounced from Seattle to Toronto to Oakland to Chicago in just the last six weeks. He is a cheap option with far better numbers vs. LHP than Tabata or Snider.

    • James Santelli

      Just for kicks, these would be the lineups you could put out there if Huntington somehow acquired all three. The lineup vs. lefties isn’t filled with name brands, but it could be successful.
      ———–
      vs. RHP
      LF Marte
      2B Walker
      CF McCutchen
      3B Alvarez
      1B Jones
      C Martin/McKenry
      RF Snider
      SS Barmes
      ————
      vs. LHP
      LF Marte
      2B DeRosa
      CF McCutchen
      1B Sanchez
      C Martin
      3B Guzman
      RF Wells
      SS Barmes

    • http://www.facebook.com/azibuck Andy Zibuck

      Before any of that he should find out what he has in Mercer. I agree with Tim that he could play for Walker and Alvarez, and for Barmes and get 3 starts a week at least (not all v. lefties). But find out what you have in house before looking outside the org.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

    Pedro needs to be platooned vs lefties AND righties.

    Foo

  • TNBucs

    I’m glad Walker’s poor splits are starting to get more attention–you’re right that his switch hitting seems to have disguised the issue.

    Whenever Hurdle talks about options at SS he mentions d’Arnaud–Chase must be Clint’s type of player. When he’s back to being healthy I’d like to see d’Arnaud and Mercer as platoon partners for Alvarez and Walker (d’Arnaud taking McDonald’s place on the bench). We’d give up some power but add defense and speed in d’Arnaud. Against righties d’Arnaud and Mercer can spell Barmes which will help the team’s decision-making for next season.

  • clemo83

    I’m curious- Are there that many teams that would even consider having four platoons now? Any historical precident? Is this a viable way have a winning team? Seems like at this point you’d just need some better players.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      I don’t know the makeup of other teams, but I can’t imagine other teams would have four platoon spots.

      At the same time, I think it could be a viable way to have a winning team, especially for small markets. Look at the platoon at first base. They currently rate in the top half of the league in average, OBP, SLG, and OPS. The Pirates are only paying $6.25 M for that production. There’s no way they get the same numbers for $6.25 M on the open market.

    • http://wkkortas.wordpress.com wkkortas

      I think there were teams that did it quite a bit in the first half of the 20th Century, but those were teams carrying only nine or ten pitchers. If you have a staff or twelve pitchers, that makes it tough to platoon at four spots.

      • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.brooks.581 Stephen Brooks

        This is a great point. The 7-man bullpen really limits flexibility, and when you consider the relative value (leverage index, for instance) of that 7th guy vs. another bench option ideal for platoon situations, it’s hard to figure out why the trend persists.

        I’m not saying baseball should revert to the 4-man rotation and reintroduce permanent pinch hitters (late-era Rusty Staub comes to mind), but the pendulum has swung way too far toward over-specializing the bullpen. Add to that the slavish and idiotic adherence to managing according to the save rule, and this is what you get. No good options when a lefty is on the mound.

        • smurph

          I’ve never seen the logic of limiting relievers to one inning. Sure maybe the closer, so he can pitch more games. But it seems to me it would be better to pitch one reliever two innings one day, and another reliever two innings the next day, rather than have them both warm up and both pitch one inning both days.

  • http://twitter.com/vabarletta vabarletta

    I think Pirates should trade for Josh Willingham. Somehow find a way to ship Tabata to the Twins. Since Tabata will be making 4M next year vs Willingham’s 7M that would lower the salary impact, and just pay for what he is due the rest of 2013.
    As for Alvarez I am kind of getting tired of waiting for him, so I would just trade him and then go after Chase Headley and give him like a 65M 4 year deal.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      Both of those proposals only seem to be thinking about the Pirates interests, and not the other teams.

      The Twins could get more for Willingham, and I don’t see how Tabata would be of any value to them.

      If Headley would sign a 4/65 deal, the Padres would have already signed him.

      • http://twitter.com/vabarletta vabarletta

        I meant to ship Tabata as part of a package. I know he is not worth alone the value of Willingham.
        As for Headley, I can consider going up to 80M for 5 years. I don´t think he is worth more than McCutchen, or is he?
        No matter what, Pirates should really start thinking of doing something with Alvarez. By the time he figures it out (if he ever does), he will be a free agent.

  • http://battlingbucs.wordpress.com battlingbucs

    Four platoons would just be insane. Adding a good lefty masher who can play multiple positions and take Inge’s spot would be a good idea but going to that extreme would be problematic.

    As for Walker I have to wonder if the idea of just batting solely left handed has ever cropped up with him. Maybe he does have a platoon problem or maybe he just isn’t really that good of a RHB. Couldn’t hurt to try?

    As for Alvarez he is actually hitting LHP better than RHP this season which of course isn’t saying all that much. Right now I wouldn’t really consider platooning him an option. You either sending him out there nearly everyday (sitting him against select lefties) or send him to AAA to readjust. I’d lean towards the former yet as I don’t think any of the other options are worth playing over even a struggling Alvarez.

    As for Snider I wouldn’t dismiss him as a platoon guy yet. Comparatively speaking throughout his career he hasn’t hit lefties that much worse than righties.(OPS vs LH/OPS vs RH) 2008 (.732/.820), 2009 (.608/.775), 2010 (.702/.783), 2011 (.300/.708), 2012 (1.110/.595), Career (.664/.738)

    There are some pretty big splits there but generally speaking he seems to his about 70-100 OPS points worse against lefties than righties. So lets say he hits decently against right handers this season and posts a .780 OPS and keeps the same rate that would put him around a .700 OPS against left handers. Not great but I think it is acceptable.

    So give Alvarez and Snider a chance at full time work with the occasional day off against select left handers, have Walker concentrate on batting just left handed to see it helps, try to acquire a lefty mashing utility guy and prepare Mercer for a role of something like 2 starts a week at SS and 1 start a week at either 2B or 3B spelling Walker or Alvarez against a LH.

  • Kevin_Young

    Just for kicks, I want Neil to try and bat LH full time. A career 109 tOPS+ vs a 77 tOPS+(and declining), makes you think the guy just has a better LH swing.

  • jg941

    Suggested it about a month ago, but Nick Punto may have been an ideal solution for 2013. A true switch-hitter (even career splits), plays 3B/2B/some SS. Mundane career numbers, upper .600s OPS career, but seems to have gotten better from the right side in the last two years (around .750 OPS as a RHB) and is going bananas from the right side this year (in only 19 ABs – 10H, .526 BA, 1.203 OPS), and going bananas in general (overall OPS of .926).

    Sounds like its too late, though – with Ellis going out, they’ll probably not want to give him up now.

  • leadoff

    You have to go much deeper into the stat world than just splits to determine if you need to platoon players, yesterday Jones probably cost the Pirates a game defensively because he could not make a throw to 2nd base, something he never seems to be able to do.
    There are players with bad splits against pitchers that are money hitters, when they have to hit they hit, it just does not show up in the usual stats.
    To be blunt, the Pirates probably only have 3 starters that hit anyone and can hit in the clutch. That would be Marte, Cutch and Martin.
    Keep in mind a right hander that can pitch is tougher than a left hander that can’t.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.brooks.581 Stephen Brooks

    Another angle to the platoon splits is that not all lefty pitchers are created equal. Soft-tossing Ted Lilly is not the same as hard-throwing Clay Kershaw. I’d be interested to see if it could be parsed out whether there are certain lefties that are particularly tough on the guys mentioned above. Pedro struggles particularly with the soft stuff away – but does he hit (WHEN he hits…) hard lefty fastballs? I just think there is a next level to this that isn’t being exploited.

    • http://wkkortas.wordpress.com wkkortas

      B-R does break down splits by power/finesse pitchers, though they don’t break it down by righty/lefty. Their numbers suggest that Pedro is actually much more successful against finesse types than power pitchers, which I wouldn’t have guessed was the case.

  • joe g.

    How big of a deal is this? Less than 30% of the pitchers in baseball are left handed. I’m just curious.

    • http://wkkortas.wordpress.com wkkortas

      That works out to about ten plate appearance every game on average. I’d say that makes it a pretty big deal.

      • joe g.

        Out of Cutch’s 593 AB’s in 2012, 130 were against a left handed pitcher. That’s less than 1 AB per game. He appeared in 157 games. (Started 156)

        • http://wkkortas.wordpress.com wkkortas

          OK, that’s fair–but let’s look at it another way. You’re in the one-game Wild Card play in game against the Dodgers, and Kershaw is on the mound. You’ve already got one black hole in the lineup with Barmes–can you afford three more? Even if you win that, now you’ve got the Nats and three games against Detwiler and Gonzalez, or Atlanta with Maholm and Minor. or two games of Baumgarner with the Giants. The way the club is construdted now, you’re toast.

          You’re going to see 40 or 50 left-handed starters a year, and if you’re going to try to beat them with only four spots of viable offense in the lineup, you’re going to get killed. You end up giving back five or six games to the league, and there’s no way the Pirates can contend doing that. That’s why it’s a big deal.

          • joe g.

            I will agree that the importance is greater in a playoff series, but not so much in the regular season. Less than one AB during the regular season is what it is. The Bucs will not lose 40 games to LH starters – just saying. You counter good pitching with good pitching. In the end, the problem for the Pirates this year will not be the lineup. It will be the starting pitchers. AJ is 36 and Wandy should not be the #2 starter. The pitching matchups alone favor teams like the Braves and Nats.

  • schlep

    considering his spring training numbers against lefties

    2012 – .524/1.000/1.524
    2013 – .429/.429/.857

    last years regular season numbers against lefties

    2012 – .333/.304/.638

    this years triple a numbers against lefties

    462./.529./.991

    perhaps hague deserves a shot despite the small sample sizes

    • leadoff

      “perhaps hague deserves a shot despite the small sample sizes”

      There is only one guy you would have to convince of that and I don’t think you will, his name is Hurdle.

  • jamminjoe66

    Barmas can’t hit anyone & his phantom defense has cost us at least 3 games this year. Hurdle must go.