Platooning is increasingly in vogue in this era of pitching prominence and diminished offensive returns. As we sit here today, more than half of MLB's 30 clubs have some sort of timeshare on the table at one or, in many cases, multiple positions. And the Oakland A's and manager Bob Melvin -- referred to by one player as the "King of Platoons" last season -- are not alone in employing the practice.
"You're never going to have, more often than not, a perfect player," A's general manager Billy Beane said at the Winter Meetings. "It's just trying to use every bit of the roster that we have."
Others undoubtedly agree. Some of these situations are born out of necessity, others out of creativity, and many are subject to change as the season evolves.
But what's clear is that a mind-set and methodology almost as old as the game itself still apply, more so now than at any time in recent memory.
Last season, according to Elias Sports Bureau, players batted in favorable matchups (right-handed batters against left-handed pitchers, and vice versa) 56 percent of the time, the highest such percentage since 1995 (57) and an indication, perhaps, of the measures teams are taking to eke more efficiency and efficacy out of their offenses at a time when runs per game and league-wide batting averages have dipped to their lowest levels in decades.
Although the word platoon is often unfairly assigned to several of these situations, given that playing time won't always be predicated upon handedness, not having an everyday player prescribed at every position isn't necessarily a shortcoming and could, in fact, emerge as a strength.
Look no further than what the World Series-champion Red Sox got out of left field last season by pairing Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava: 18 home runs, 37 doubles, 101 RBIs. Boston's .790 OPS out of left field tied for third among Major League teams, trailing only the Rockies (Carlos Gonzalez, when healthy) and Cardinals (Matt Holliday) at that position.
It wasn't always an exact science, for Gomes actually had a higher average against right-handers than left-handers despite a career-long trend toward hitting southpaws better. But the results were encouraging enough that manager John Farrell plans to stick with the platoon in 2014.
"I think the one thing that we can look back on is that we probably allowed guys to have success by taking advantage of their strengths," Farrell said. "I think that combination was extremely productive."
The platoon advantage
Percentage of plate appearances in "favorable" conditions in 2013
Courtesy of Elias Sports Bureau
Pure production, as you might have noticed from a winter in which three position players (Shin-Soo Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury and Robinson Cano) signed contracts of $130 million or more, can be awfully expensive. That's why such small-market clubs as the A's and Rays have long made a habit of maximizing the potential of their rosters through the use of timeshares.
But this winter we're seeing several of the big spenders -- the Tigers, who will pair Rajai Davis with Andy Dirks in left; the Yankees, who are slated to have Kelly Johnson and Eduardo Nunez take over for A-Rod at third; and the Rangers, who are reportedly searching for a right-handed bat to complement Mitch Moreland at designated hitter -- toy with, if not outright embrace, the idea as well.
Even the Phillies, who have long shied away from the statistically inclined idea that Ryan Howard (who has a career .224 average against lefties) ought to be benched in unfavorable matchups, are voicing a new-found openness to the idea.
Or at least, newly permanent manager Ryne Sandberg is. Sandberg said that Howard will get the opportunity to hit against lefties in Spring Training but hinted that the Phils could take advantage of Kevin Frandsen, Darin Ruf or John Mayberry Jr. in such situations during the season.
"It isn't a concern," Sandberg said of Howard's struggles, "because we can do something about it."
Advanced data has infiltrated the game like never before, and the prevalence of defensive shifts is perhaps the most glaring example of that. But the impact of platoon splits is a simple concept that has long held sway.
George Stallings took advantage of the strategy in guiding the 1914 "Miracle" Boston Braves to World Series pay dirt. Casey Stengel famously used and abused the practice with the Yankees in the 1950s, perhaps drawing from his own experience as a platoon player under the legendary John McGraw.
Heck, even the fictional Montgomery Burns brought platoon splits to beer-league softball in that "Simpsons" episode in which he sent in a pinch-hitter for Darryl Strawberry to prevent the slugger from facing a late-inning lefty.
"It's what smart managers do to win ballgames," Burns eloquently explained.
If last season's numbers and this season's roster are any indication, teams are smartly trying to come up with even the smallest antidote to the league-wide offensive woes. That's why the Padres targeted Seth Smith, the A's went after Craig Gentry, the Cardinals grabbed Mark Ellis and the Indians, who batted with the platoon advantage in an MLB-high 71 percent of their plate appearances last season, added David Murphy.
It's why Danny Valencia might emerge as importance insurance for a Royals team with so much riding on Mike Moustakas, who has endured Howard-like struggles against southpaws thus far in his career. It's why the White Sox might squeeze one more effective season out of Paul Konerko, who will platoon with Adam Dunn at DH.
"It's something we've looked at," Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin said. "We've talked about how we'd like to be a little more left-handed. But sometimes your right-handed hitters will fare well against right-handers because they face them so much."
When the Brewers were trying to get some at-bats for the right-handed-hitting Khris Davis last season, they thought they might use him to spell Norichika Aoki against southpaws. That is, until they took a closer look at Aoki's numbers and realized he had a reverse platoon split (.339 average against lefties, .264 against righties). And by season's end, Davis had compiled a .297 average against right-handers and .244 mark against lefties.
"So if we would have platooned them," Melvin recalled with a laugh, "it would have been worse."
Indeed, sheer handedness is not always the determining factor we deem it to be.
Earl Weaver was the King of Platoons long before Melvin was, but Weaver's platoons were based not just on the simple splits but on the velocity of the opposing pitcher and how his hitters fared against the fastball. This is where the increasing intricacy of data does come into play, because now managers are better positioned to put their players in favorable conditions, such as a fly-ball hitter going to bat against a sinkerball pitcher (a matchup the A's have certainly sought to exploit in recent seasons).
All of which is to say that it's probably harder than ever for the preview magazines to pin down a "projected" lineup for a club because the lineups are predicated upon any number of varying factors from day to day. And although teams have stopped short of going to 11-man pitching staffs to expand their bench, they have shown a slight-yet-noticeable increase in appreciation for lineup flexibility.
"I think every manager would like to do it," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "You just can't always do it. You can't ever forget that they're people. So that's part of the communication. It's getting guys to understand that we're a team, and it's not all about personal numbers."