By DAVID MURPHY
The notion of a platoon sounds great on paper, which is why managers are so often confronted with questions about them. And there's a reason why the general reaction of said managers is to recoil in disgust, to deny the existence or contemplation of anything resembling the platoon in question. Because managers know that games aren't played on paper, or in a vacuum, and when you start to consider the logistics of platoons in actual game situations, particularly National League game situations, you realize their drawbacks.
For starters, let's be clear: regardless of what you want to call the staffing situation at a given position, the success or failure of said position is going to decided largely on the personnel's ability to hit right-handed pitching. Last year, 70.2 percent of the Phillies' 6,172 plate appearances came against right-handed pitching. Because, obviously, the vast majority of pitchers are right-handed. So when you talk about a platoon, you are really talking about a rotation where, in a vacuum, one player is expected to garner three-quarters of the playing time. And in a true platoon, that hitter is the left-handed hitter. Which, in the Phillies case, is Domonic Brown in right field and, apparently, Laynce Nix in left field.
The relevant numbers. . .
Laynce Nix, career vs. right-handed pitching
.253 BA, .297 OBP, .447 SLG, .744 OPS, 64 HR, 411 SO, 1,701 PA
Domonic Brown, career vs. right-handed pitching
.243/.324/.412, .736 OPS, 11 HR, 73 SO, 383 PA
So in vacuum-sealed platoon, with every right-handed pitcher opposed by the left-handed piece of the platoon, then nearly three-quarters of the Phillies' at-bats at left and right field would be taken by players who thus far have been just below league average during their careers.
For those wondering, Nate Schierholtz's career numbers against righties are .266/.319/.413, .732 OPS, 21 HRs, 1,098 plate appearances, which is probably why the Phillies decided to non-tender him (doesn't make sense to pay $2.25 million for a third replica of the same left-handed hitter, although he did post an OPS of .800+ against RHP in each of his last two seasons and is a regarded as a better defender than Brown and Nix).
Long story short, the first draw back of the platoonish situation the Phillies are considering is that, in a vacuum, nearly 75 percent of their at-bats would still go to the player with the weaker platoon splits (compared with Darin Ruf and John Mayberry Jr.).
The second drawback, as we noted earlier, is that platoons are not executed in a vacuum. They are executed in game situations, and in a league where the pitcher is part of the batting lineup and in an era where teams carry two and sometimes three lefty specialists in their bullpens, a manager can often find his hands tied in the final few innings of his game.
Consider the following scenario in which the Phillies face Braves righty Tim Hudson on Opening Day.
Given the current personnel situation, with Laynce Nix and Darin Ruf platooning in left field and Domonic Brown and a right-handed bat TBD platooning in right field (John Mayberry at this point, although I still would be mildly surprised if the Phillies don't end up adding somebody else), the Opening Day personnel distribution would look something like this:
- Ben Revere LHB
- Michael Young RHB
- Chase Utley LHB
- Ryan Howard LHB
- Erik Kratz RHB
- Domonic Brown LHB
- Jimmy Rollins SHB
- Laynce Nix LHB
- Darin Ruf RHB
- John Mayberry Jr. RHB
- Kevin Frandsen RHB
- Free Agent TBD, RHB
- Humberto Quintero C/RHB
Now, let's say that Hudson makes it through six innings, then is replaced at the start of the seventh by lefty Eric O'Flaherty with Chase Utley leading off. The score is tied at 3-3. O'Flaherty, who has held lefties to a .203/.265/.271 line in his career, gets to face Utley, who hit .215/.324/.355 vs. lefties in 2012 and .187/.298/.308 against them in 2011. Then O'Flaherty gets to face Ryan Howard (.173/.226/.378 vs. lefties in 2012, .224/.285/.347 vs. lefties in 2011).
Now, let's say the Braves leave O'Flaherty in to face Kratz. And let's say Kratz doubles off of him. The Phillies have the go-ahead run at second base with two out. But the next three batters in the order are Brown (.586 vs. LHP in his career), Rollins (.609 OPS and .612 OPS vs. LHP in 2011 and 2012) and Nix (.506 vs. LHP in his career).
Manuel pinch-hits righty Mayberry or Ruf for Brown. The Braves counter by bringing in righty Jordan Walden. The Phillies have the opportunity to counter with another pinch-hitter. Problem is, they don't have a lefty available on the bench, because both of their left-handed hitting outfielders are in the starting lineup.
This is just an example of the late-game problems that the Phillies could encounter by stacking their starting lineup with lefties. Frankly, if they really are entertaining the idea of straight platoons in left and right field, they might be better off pursuing a left-handed hitting outfielder rather than a right-handed hitting outfielder, since they already have three righties on the bench (four if you count Quintero, the back-up catcher until Carlos Ruiz returns from suspension). Either that, or sign both a lefty and a righty and part ways with Mayberry, although that would leave them without an obvious back-up option in center field. The other option is to sign a left-handed hitting outfielder with the intent of keeping three catchers (and, thus, six bench players) once Ruiz returns, allowing Kratz to be the right-handed power bat on the bench.
Of course, I don't expect the Phillies to operate on a straight platoon basis, particularly in left field. What will likely end up happening is a situation similar to the one we laid out at the start of this post. The media will try its hardest to get Manuel and Amaro to label themselves as fielding two platoons, and Manuel and Amaro will twist their faces in disgust and insist that they hate the word platoon, and Manuel will simply end up riding the hot hand regardless of said hand's dominance.
That, of course, assumes that there is a hot hand. Which brings us back to the reality of where the Phillies find themselves with barely more than a month to go before spring training. It is a reality they played with last year, heading into the season hoping that the combination of Nix, John Mayberry Jr. and Juan Pierre would yield a hand hot enough to compensate for the numerous other questions in the lineup. Now, they have that situation in both left field and right field, which really means that they are counting on at least one of Ruf or Brown to establish himself as a legitimate every day corner outfielder. Both have the potential, but keep in mind that the organization did not even think enough of Ruf to promote him to the majors before September, when a player along the lines of what they will need him to be in 2013 would have dramatically helped their late bid for a 2012 postseason spot. And while I do not believe that Brown has been given enough of an extended opportunity to merit a judgment on his future, he certainly does not merit the benefit of the doubt, at least not on a team with a $170 million payroll and championship aspirations.
In neglecting the corner outfield positions in each of the last two offseasons -- post-2011 was the crucial one, when bats like Josh Willingham, Jason Kubel, David DeJesus and even Carlos Beltran could have been acquired for a fraction of what similar players were costing in this year's free agent market -- the Phillies have decided to enter 2013 with two huge question marks at two hugely important offensive positions. And that leaves them little room for error in places like center field, where Ben Revere has shown promise but has yet to reach a 2012 Juan Pierre level on offense, or third base, where 36-year-old Michael Young is being counted on to rebound from the worst season of his career (while also staying healthy), or second base, where Chase Utley is hopeful to play more than four months for the first time since 2010, or first base, where Ryan Howard is assumed to have finally recovered from the Achilles surgery that cost him half of last season, the domino effect of which was blamed for numbers that dropped even more precipitously than was suggested by the gradual decline he had experienced over the previous few seasons.
The Phillies willingness to assume all of this offensive risk means they are once again highly-leveraged on the pitching side of things, where 36-year-old Roy Halladay is being expected to return to his pre-2012 levels and 28-year-old Kyle Kendrick is being expected to prove that he has finally become a consistent pitcher who can hold his own against lefties and miss a bat or two, at least to the point where, between Kendrick and John Lannan, the Phillies do not find themselves handing the ball to a fringe No. 5 starter two out of every five days.
The question isn't whether the Phillies can contend for a World Series with an offense that features rotations in left field and right field. The question is whether it is prudent to add that question to a roster that already features a slew of them. Because as we have seen the past few seasons, a baseball team is almost guaranteed to get one or two answers wrong over the course of a 162-game schedule.