In a preseason newsletter forecasting the upcoming 2018 season, Joe Sheehan was discussing a bullpen’s lack of left-handed pitchers — it was the Red Sox, I think — and he concluded that they did not need one. That might seem like a strange conclusion to draw, but Sheehan made an astute observation: the teams expected to contend in the AL lack a great left-handed hitter.
I thought about the best hitters in the AL in 2017: Mike Trout, Aaron Judge, José Altuve, Nelson Cruz, George Springer... all right-handed. José Ramírez is a switch-hitter. The best left-handed hitter in the AL last year was Eric Hosmer! His 135 wRC+ was the best of any lefty and 11th-best in the AL, but he was no longer in the AL and unlikely to repeat that performance (which he hasn’t). The best lefty who was still in the AL was Yonder Alonso! Again, he was unlikely to sustain a 132 wRC+ in 2018, and sure enough, he has barely been above average.
I went to the Baseball Reference Play Index and searched for AL left-handed hitters in 2017, sorted by OPS+. It is a surprisingly underwhelming list. Unless Robinson Canó returned to his 2016 form, or Joey Gallo reached another level, there would be little for right-handed pitchers to worry about in the AL, aside from switch-hitters, of course.
Now that it is August, I decided to check what was the latest on that front. It is about the same, though the names are different. The best lefty in the AL ranks 12th in league.
I was surprised to see that the identity of said player is Andrew Benintendi! After a solid but mediocre rookie season, Benintendi has raised his wOBA by almost 50 points. He is currently hitting .301/.383/.507 for a 139 wRC+. He might crack 6 WAR in only his second full season in the big leagues. The funny thing is that there is not much different in Benintendi’s underlying numbers. He is pulling the ball more, but what likely has benefited him the most is being more aggressive with pitches in the zone. His frequency of swinging at pitches in the zone has risen roughly five percentage points from last year. This is actually a trend with the Red Sox that I wrote about in April.
The runner-up to Benintendi is a pleasant surprise: Shin-soo Choo! He is on the fifth year of a seven-year, $130 million deal from which the Rangers have seen little return on investment. He came off a career year with the Reds in 2013, hitting .285/.423/.462. He did not hit for much power, nor did he have much defensive value, but he was an on-base machine. He has not come close to reproducing that performance, with his best year coming in 2015 by hitting .276/.375/.463. Around then he was barely above average, and he missed most of 2016 due to injury.
This year, Choo is hitting .277/.391/.479. It is his best OBP since arriving in Arlington, and his best slugging average since 2010. His 14.6 BB% is the second-best of his career, and it ranks fifth in the AL. It is an amazing rejuvenation for a 36-year-old. Seeing where the Rangers franchise is right now, they should seriously consider trying to sell high on him this winter. His age will work against him, but he will only have two years left on his contract. If the Rangers are willing to eat the remainder of his contract, they could get something decent for Choo.
Mallex Smith and Denard Span are virtually tied for third on this list. Span has a chance to see the postseason, but it is questionable how sustainable his 122 wRC+ is.
I ran the same Play Index search again, only this time I looked at both leagues. The top three left-handed hitters in the league by OPS+ are in the NL: Matt Carpenter (164), Freddie Freeman (152), and Nick Markakis (143). However, it is important to note that if we go by the more accurate wRC+, Benintendi (139) ranks above Markakis (137).
Looking down the list a little more, it shows that twelve of the top fourteen left-handed hitters in the majors are in the NL. Carpenter leads the NL in slugging (.595), HR (32), and wRC+ (159). Markakis leads in average (.325) hits (145) and doubles (35). Joey Votto leads in OBP (.429), of course. The top left-handed hitters in the AL do not lead the league in anything, or are even close to doing so.
Let’s be honest: this is sort of trivial. It is just a random anomaly the AL is going through right now, and it is just another example of baseball being weird. It is good news for contending AL teams, though, because it makes it easier to set up bullpens. In the AL playoffs teams will have little to worry about from left-handed hitters other than Benintendi.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.