Baseball Garage: Fixing the Phillies abysmal performance against left-handed pitchers for 2013

J'accuse. - Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

The Phillies could not hit left-handed pitchers in 2012. They were ahead of only the Marlins, Cubs, and Astros. Who was responsible for this abysmal performance, and how can the team fix it for 2013?

To be more successful in 2013, the Phillies need to hit better against left-handed pitching. Roughly 30% of plate appearances for the Phillies came against left-handers, and any time the game was on the line, we all watched with horror as teams matched up to Howard, Utley, et al, with Loogy after Loogy. The horror...the horror. The National League just feasted on the Phillies with lefties, because, well...it worked. And it was not just the fault of Ryan Howard, though he is partly to blame.

First, the scope of the problem needs to be defined.

  1. All Plate Appearances: 6,172 with a wRC+ of 93, good for a middling 8th in the NL (click the wRC+ link if you don't know what it is. Hint: over 100 is "good" and below 100 is "bad.").
  2. Versus right-handed pitchers: 4,329 with a wRC+ of 96, good for 6th in the NL.
  3. Versus left-handed pitchers: 1,843 with a wRC+ of 86, "good" for a four-way tie for tenth in the NL ahead of only the Cubs, Marlins, and Astros.

This would not be such a terrible thing if the Phillies were in the NL Central, which had a low number of LHP plate appearances. This varies from team to team within the NL, from the Braves' high of 2,270 plate appearances versus lefties all the way down to the low of 1,450 plate appearances for the Pirates. The 1,843 plate appearances of the Phillies versus lefties is 6th-most in the NL, which is partly a function of the starting pitchers comprising other NL East pitching staves, and partly a function of late-inning matchups.

So why do the Phillies have terrible performance against left-handed pitchers? Here is a breakdown of Phillies hitters versus lefties in 2012. Obviously, the team can't build a lineup for "just lefties" from the players in the top half of the list. Some are no longer with the team, and the breakdown by position doesn't work either. Still, it's useful to look at the aggregate. Ty Wigginton, for instance, hit very well against lefties, and his bat (wRC+ of 111 in 150 plate appearances) was more than adequate as the right-handed half of a first base platoon. Too bad he played at first against lots of right handed pitchers, too. Of the regular players with a wRC+ in excess of 100 in 2012, only one is a "starter" (Carlos Ruiz) and only one more (John Mayberry) *might* be a starter in 2013. Ouch.

The "why" is partly a function of injuries: Chase Utley and Freddy Galvis both would have eaten at bats that Charlie Manuel had no choice but to give to players like Mike Fontenot and Michael Martinez. Hector Luna had at-bats that Manuel probably would have preferred to give to a healthy Ryan Howard. Manuel probably wanted to give at bats to a healthy Ryan Howard as opposed to an injured one, but he had little choice. There probably were platoon options available to the team - as mentioned above, Wigginton against lefties was pretty good.

No matter what happened, or should have, in 2012, we are faced with the prospect of a 2013 that appears as though it will offer some better options. What are those options?

There are five players on the Phillies from 2012 who had 100 plate appearances or more against lefties who will be back:

Player Name PA wRC+ OPS
Carlos Ruiz 120 140 .906
John Mayberry 180 116 .811
Chase Utley 142 90 .679
Jimmy Rollins 221 65 .612
Ryan Howard 106 60 .604

At the outset, I noted it wasn't all Ryan Howard's fault in 2012. Which hurt the team more against lefties? Howard's wRC+ of 60 over 106 plate appearances, or Jimmy Rollins' wRC+ of 65 over 221 plate appearances? Again, it is not as though Charlie Manuel had better options during most of 2012, but what about 2013? Do the Phillies spell J-Roll against lefties using someone else? Maybe...

Tier 2 of returning players who may have significant roles in 2013 includes the following:

Player Name PA wRC+ OPS
Darin Ruf 18 230 1.326
Kevin Frandsen 68 165 .980
Erik Kratz 47 134 .877
Freddy Galvis 63 98 .735
Domonic Brown 59 70 .621
Nate Schierholtz 18 42 .513

What do the Phillies do with these players? First, a caveat: The point of the list is not to suggest that Darin Ruf, based on 18 plate appearances, is set to mash lefties in 2013, but rather to show the dearth of appealing options on the team right now for facing left-handed pitching. Still, some obvious ideas leap out at you from that list, but hold that thought.

Look back at the first list for a moment. Even for the more-established list in that first grouping, it's not really rational to make an assessment of ability based on just 100 to 150 plate appearances. Career splits are much more useful, but even better would be splits over a long enough period of time to give a good sample size, but to exclude ancient history that may no longer be relevant (here's looking at you, J-Roll). These are all "versus LHP" numbers.

Player Name Career wRC+ 2012 2011 2010
Ryan Howard 91 65 75 121
John Mayberry 133 116 158 n/a
Jimmy Rollins 92 65 64 113
Carlos Ruiz 108 140 101 156
Chase Utley 127 90 73 172

Howard, Rollins, and Utley are all performing well below their career averages against lefties, and they have been for the last two years. Rollins, while his career suggests "no split" looks like he has one now, and he can't really fall back on the "I was injured" excuse available to Howard and Utley in 2012. This chart, read in pari materia with the first two, suggests that Rollins and Howard probably should sit more often against lefties.

So what practical advice do I have for the 2013 Phillies? Here are my thoughts:

  1. Domonic Brown was terrible against left-handed pitching, but he has to be part of the future in Philadelphia. Play him, period, until he succeeds or until he clearly fails. Just suck it up.
  2. Sign a center fielder who can hit lefties. Shane Victorino would be super. So would B.J. Upton, but he might be too expensive.
  3. Develop an outfield rotation for center and left. Probably Victorino and Mayberry against lefties and Nix and Schierholtz against righties, with Schierholtz in center. Maybe if you are feeling really adventurous, Mayberry and Ruf. Don't do this in Colorado, but consider it at home, perhaps.
  4. Sit Howard for Ruf for at least 2 of 3 games against lefties. If Ruf fails, play Mayberry there. During the off-season, look for a cheap Wigginton-like player for use exclusively against lefties. Maybe that player is Wigginton. It kind of appalled me at first, too.
  5. Develop an infield rotation for second, short, and third along the following lines:
    1. Rest Rollins against every other lefty, and try starting Galvis instead. On the remaining "lefty" game, rest Utley for Galvis. This "super sub" role is likely what Galvis should be doing anyway until the Rollins/Utley logjam in front of him is resolved.
    2. Frandsen would play at either second or third against lefties, usually third, but maybe once in a while the Phillies could rest Utley and Rollins and put Galvis and Frandsen in the middle. Another option would be Jeff Keppinger, who rakes lefties (wRC+ 130 in 787 plate appearances for his career). He can play a variety of infield positions as well.
    3. Find a platoon half 3B on the market to mash right-handed pitching. Eric Chavez could do this pretty well. Kevin Youkilis can mash lefties, but he's marginal against right handers and his defense is awful at third. If you have Keppinger and Frandsen who both can hit lefties, even if Frandsen is still unproven, why spend more for Youkilis?

Look again at this list. If the Phillies can replace maybe 300 of the 551 truly terrible plate appearances against lefties from 2012 by Howard, Rollins, Polanco, Michael Martinez, and Juan Pierre with wRC+ appearances averaging 90 or so, they could probably ameliorate the worst of the "can't hit lefties" problem. While a good chunk of it appears to have resulted from injuries in 2012, it wasn't just that, so a Step 2 is needed. Matching up the players better could boost the Phillies' production.

Wiping out about 300 terrible plate appearances and replacing them with average to slightly above average ones is similar to taking a replacement player off the field for half an offensive season and replacing that person with a slightly above average one. Maybe that gives them 15 extra runs over a season. Figuring an extra ten runs per year is worth a win, that could be very big for them come August and September of 2013.

A further factor could be harder to measure. Resting the old guys more may improve their output in other games. It may make them less focused, and take them out of their rhythm, too. These are really hard for me to assess, but it seems that they are reasonable possible knock-on consequences.

What are the odds that a platoon approach is taken? Honestly? Slim to none.

The primary obstacles to more substitution are: player egos, and Charlie Manuel's resistance to playing anyone other than "his guys" when they are available. Would Manuel sit Ryan Howard for Ruf or Mayberry? He didn't sit him for Wigginton much. Would Howard tolerate a platoon role anyway? Not so sure... Another concern is that because this is Manuel's last season, he won't be willing to try something he hasn't shown much willingness to try even before he could hear the clock ticking on his career.

Wildcards include prospective offseason changes, but in that context, "handedness" should be at least a factor in the decision, though not the sole determinant. If the Phillies make a major signing in center or third, for instance, they should certainly go for the all-around best player available, OK? That's a given, regardless of the "can't hit leties" issue. If there are two similar options, though, they would do well to consider the one with a better history against lefties, all other considerations being equal. <<<=== See the caveat there?

As the offseason progresses, consider "handedness" along with names of players who pop up. "The Phillies need lefty-mashers" should be something that is at least considered in the process.

At third, consider Youkilis versus Chavez. Youkilis helps and Chavez doesn't, but does Youkilis' lefty-mashing outweigh his wRC+ of 89 against RHP when two-thirds of the Phillies' plate appearances are against RHP? A cheap lefty might help more, even if the acquisition exacerbates the "can't hit lefties" problem. Why not buy a platoon of Chavez and Keppinger instead?

Similarly, Michael Bourn (career wRC+ 75 vs. lefties) seems like an awkward fit for the Phillies compared to B.J. Upton (career wRC+ 119 vs. lefties), if all other considerations are equal. Would you want Shin Soo Choo from the Indians? Consider it a tie-breaker, if you will, where other issues like WAR projections, including defense, and cost are not enough to tip the scales.

The Phillies have lots of room to improve in this area, given that the league as a whole is much better at it than they are. The depth of their below-averageness suggests that improvements in this area may be easier to come by than in other areas. It just seems like an area of low-hanging fruit.

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