If you buy the press coverage Tuesday of the Phillies' decision to send lefties Eude Brito and Fabio Castro to minor-league camp, Matt Smith now stands alone as some kind of southpaw Clint Eastwood, trying to maintain order in a raucous town filled with lefty-hitting desperadoes like, um, Shawn Green. Smith's overall spring numbers still look ugly, and he's about ten years younger than the prototypical LOOGY (Lefty One-Out Guy, used almost exclusively against same-handed hitters). As such, there's obviously concern.
But is it justified? The answer hinges on two deeper questions: how bad the other six relievers, all righties, are against lefty hitters, and how many badass lefty bats the Phils will face in the first part of the schedule.
Let's start with the incumbent relievers, using splits from espn.com. Oddly, closer Tom Gordon fared much better against left-handed batters last year than right-handers:
Vs. L (119 plate appearances): .185 avg, .254 OBP, .306, SLG, .560 OPS
Vs. R (131): .277/.344/.479/.823
The trend holds up over Gordon's last three seasons, though to a lesser extent: he's allowed a super-stingy .541 OPS to lefty batters, compared to .651 for righty sticks.
Alas, the same cannot be said for Geoff Geary, a potential setup man. In his fine 2006 season, Geary held right-handed hitters to Tomas Perez-ish production--but lefties smacked him around like they were all Frank Thomas.
Vs L (149): .348/.393/.529/.922
Vs R (237): .249/.296/.294/.590
For his career--which is just the last three seasons--Geary has been much easier to hit from the south side, with an OOPS of .836 versus .687 to right-handers.
Ryan Madson, another setup option, had virtually no platoon split last season: he basically stunk against everyone.
Vs L (300): .306/.373/.526/.899
Vs R (308): .336/.389/.507/.896
Madson's three year trend shows a guy who, like Geary, has been far more effective against righty bats (.278 average, .743 OOPS) than lefties (.290/.840).
Then there's newbie Antonio Alfonseca. He's got the nicknames--El Pulpo, the Octopus, the Six-Fingered Man--of a horror-movie villain, and as Phils fans, we've seen this flick before: the "name" reliever brought in to give the benefit of his veteranicity and experience. As ever, it does no good to scream "DON'T GO INTO THE FREE AGENT RETREAD POOL!" at the screen.
Vs L (34): .452/.486/.774/1.260
Vs R (39) .257/.333/.343/.676
As the numbers show, Alfonseca was particularly terrifying--for his team and their fans, that is--against lefties last season... but previously, he'd actually been a little better facing southpaws (cumulative .280/.743, versus .278/.740).
Given the uncertainty at the back end of the bullpen, it's probably a fool's errand to do this exercise for the other contenders--but for what it's worth, sidearmer Jim Ed Warden shackled both lefties and righties last season for the AA Akron Aeros. (Averages from minorleaguesplits.com; no plate appearance figures.)
Vs. L .191/.348/.315/.663
Vs R .155/.267/.216/.482
Still, the conventional wisdom is that unconventional delivery only trips up hitters from the same side; don't expect to see Warden facing left-handers in anything approaching a high-leverage situation.
Finally, there's minor-league vet Clay Condrey, hoping to break camp in the big leagues for the first time since 2003. Based on 2006 at least, he's solidly in the Geary/Madson camp: much tougher against right-handed hitters.
Vs L (50) .383/.404/.596/1.000
Vs R (69) .270/.329/.381/.710
That brings us to the second question: just how many lefty mashers will the Phils have to deal with in the early going? Here's how the first-month schedule breaks down:
Atlanta, 4 games
Florida, 6 games
Mets, 5 games
Houston, 3 games
Washington, 5 games
Cincinnati, 3 games
Now, perhaps, we see why the Phils are willing to sink or swim with Matt Smith: there isn't one team on the docket that has scary lefty hitters up and down their lineup. The best lefty bat on the Braves is the newly wealthy catcher Brian McCann; he might also be the best in the division. The Marlins have slugging first baseman Mike Jacobs, and that's pretty much it; the Mets have Carlos Delgado, plus switch-hitters Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran, who's much more dangerous from the left side; Charlie Manuel would use Smith to turn him around. Ditto for Houston's got Berkman. The Nationals have Ryan Church and a couple lesser switch-hitters; the Reds have Ken Griffey Jr., if he's healthy when the teams meet up, and Adam Dunn.
It's quite possible that the Phils will see a game or two turn on a late- or extra-inning confrontation between one of these guys and one of their non-Gordon relievers, probably a few innings after Smith comes in, does his job (or not), and leaves. That's a concern, and it could provide a good rationale for bringing up Brito, Castro or someone else (J.A. Happ?) later on. But given the relative dearth of left-handed sluggers early on the schedule, the team might well have made a good call here.