Embracing a new platoon advantage

You've got the best LOOGY in baseball? Can he play left? - Dilip Vishwanat

Managers are always trying to give their teams an edge and platooning is one of the easiest ways for them to impact the game. Could rethinking relief pitching increase the advantage?

All brilliant strategies were, at one time, someone's untested idea. What follows may not turn out to be a brilliant revolution in baseball strategy, but it's one that you should at least find a little bit interesting. The idea came to me while listening to a recent episode of Effectively Wild in which a listener asked if it would make sense to have a position player switch places with the starting pitcher when facing the opposing pitcher so as not to waste valuable pitches on such an easy target. Ben, Sam, and their guest Ryan Sullivan quickly dismissed the idea for variety of reasons, but it got me thinking about the merits of using a pitcher in the field under the right circumstances. The circumstance that came to mind? A platoon advantage in the bullpen.

The modern game features tons of pitching changes with many of those changes designed to get a reliever who throws from the side from which the batter hits into the action. The opposing manager often counters with pinch hitters, but also preempts the strategy by splitting up his lineup such that righties and lefties aren't bunched together. This means that the opposing manager has to burn through his pen or trust a reliever to get an opposite handed hitter out in a big spot. It's one of the classic baseball chess matches.

Sometimes batters switch hit, but there are almost zero people on planet Earth who switch pitch. Instead of teaching those six guys to throw cutters, what if managers arranged it so they had two relievers in the game at the same time? One who throws right-handed and one who throws left-handed. It's not as crazy as it seems. The basic logic works out and a few managers have employed it sparingly over the years, as recently as 2009. Bobby Cox also tried it once in 2008.

You want to have the platoon advantage as often as possible, but you only have seven relievers. You can run through the pen, but at some point, you're going to wind up in a tight spot. Instead of using and losing your best arms, what if you kept one warm by playing him in the field? Let's look at the details and then consider the implications.

Here's how it works, and it would likely only work in the National League, or in the American League in the very late innings. When your starting pitcher comes out of the game, you replace him with the appropriate reliever (Reliever 1). Reliever 1, whom we'll say is a righty, faces two right-handed batters. The next batter is left-handed, but instead of letting it ride or pulling Reliever 1 outright, you bring in Reliever 2 (a lefty) and move Reliever 1 to a defensive position (first base or left field) and pull out the position player who occupied that spot. The player you target would depend on the batting order and the quality of the player at the given positions.

Reliever 2 faces the lefty and then switches places with Reliever 1 to face the next batter, whom we'll say is right-handed. This can go on until one of the pitchers gets tired and needs to be relieved or one or both spots shows up in the batting order. When that happens, you bring in a new reliever who throws from that side once it's their turn to pitch again. You can only move a pitcher to a defensive position and back once per inning, but that should be all you need in most scenarios in which this would be a useful strategy.

Rule 3.03 Comment: A pitcher may change to another position only once during the same inning; e.g. the pitcher will not be allowed to assume a position other than a pitcher more than once in the same inning.

This doesn't guarantee a perfect platoon advantage, but it will get most of the way there. You still have switch hitters and managers burning players, but when it comes to the best players on each team, you would always have the advantage. It won't always make sense to run this platoon, but it might help some of the time.

Split wOBA
RHP v RHH .304
RHP v LHH .324
LHP v RHH .322
LHP v LHH .285

If you look at the full, league-wide splits from 2013 you can see that the platoon advantage amounts to somewhere between 20 and 40 points of wOBA depending on the side from which the pitcher throws. I'm certainly not breaking any ground by pointing out that there is a nice advantage to be gained from maximizing the number of times you're winning the platoon arrangement.

There are, of course, a couple of roadblocks to such a strategy. The first is how much this could help over the course of a season. Perhaps the opportunities are too rare that such a radical strategy simply wouldn't have enough impact. It's difficult to go back and evaluate how often this strategy could have been employed because it requires knowing all sorts of things about reliever fatigue, batting order, etc. We have some researchers on staff who could handle that if I asked them nicely.

The next hurdle would be the public relations aspect of it.

RELIEF PITCHERS PLAYING THE FIELD INSTEAD OF AN ESTABLISHED BIG LEAGUER? THIS IS A JOKE!

That isn't a direct quote, but you could imagine a lot of people saying that and the first time this strategy blew up in a manager's face, it would be a talk radio pile on. If we're going to pressure managers to try out unconventional ideas, this probably isn't the first one for which we want them sticking their neck out. In the past, managers have done this out of necessity, but getting them to do it regularly is another matter entirely.

The final hurdle is the most interesting. Could relievers play a competent enough left field or first base for this strategy to even work? What would that require? The math is kind of simple once you solve the complicated problem above. First you calculate how many runs you would save from leveraging their advantage on the mound, then subtract the defensive cost from playing a reliever in the field, and then factor in the offensive cost of putting a lesser hitter into the game to hit for the starter you pulled in order to work this gambit. I don't know the answer, but it's an interesting question.

How bad would a reliever be in the field and could you teach them to handle it? Certainly the average reliever couldn't handle the speed of the game if you tried this tomorrow, but they're professional athletes with a long history of playing other positions during their formative years. Could you turn a typical reliever into a left fielder who is capable of converting routine fly balls into outs while making reasonably good throws to the infield? We watch relievers shag fly balls all the time. Could they do it in a game setting?

I'm actually pretty confident that you could make that part of it work and it would be a fascinating experiment. It's not something you're likely to see any time soon given that managers aren't exactly employing cutting edge bullpen strategies as it is. Maybe the advantage would be small and this wouldn't be worth the trouble, but I had fun thinking about it. It's February. The offseason is over and teams are just starting to ship equipment to Florida and Arizona. We're in desperate need or actual baseball, but it's still a little ways off. Now is the time for fun thought experiments, and hopefully this one generates some interest.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of Baseball -Reference.

Neil Weinberg is the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond The Box Score, contributor to Gammons Daily, and can also be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. You can follow and interact with him on Twitter at @NeilWeinberg44.

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