If you aren’t familiar, a player is said to have the platoon advantage when he, as a batter, is facing an opposite handed pitcher, or as a pitcher, is facing the same sided hitter. So righty hitters want to face lefty pitchers and righty pitchers want to face right batters. It’s not a 100% uniform rule, but in general, it’s easier to hit opposite side pitchers. Some of it has to do with the way the breaking ball breaks and some has to do with the ability to see the baseball out of the pitcher’s hand.
Based on this well-established rule of thumb, it would make sense that teams would generally try to maximize their platoon advantage percentage, or the percentage of plate appearances in which their player holds the advantage in that relationship. Of course, you’d rather have Miguel Cabrera against a righty than Anthony Gose against a righty, but on balance, if you could choose the handedness of your opponent, you choose the advantage.
Most teams have had about 2,000 plate appearances so far this year (all stats entering Wednesday). On average, batters have the platoon advantage in 53% of those 58,000 plus encounters. The Yankees and Indians lead the way with 72-73% of their batters having the platoon advantage. The Tigers are 28th at 39%. For context, the Tigers have a 109 wRC+ against lefties and a 105 wRC+ against righties, so you might point out that it doesn’t really matter. It’s basically not having an impact.
But there’s another angle to this. The Tigers lefties have a -15 wRC+ against lefties. Those same lefties have a 90 wRC+ against righties. Their righties have a 110 wRC+ against righties and a 121 wRC+ against lefties. We’re getting into small sample sizes, so don’t take the spread as gospel, but you can see how the Tigers could improve both splits if they gained the platoon advantage. It’s nothing new. The numbers are illustrations rather than firm guides.
If you look at the Tigers offense, they’re stuck by the fact that their lefties are Alex Avila (injured), Victor Martinez (injured), Andrew Romine, Anthony Gose, and Tyler Collins. Collins is the best hitter of the last three and he’s only up to fill in for Martinez. The club doesn’t offer a lot of punch from the left side, so they don’t have a lot of room to replace righties late in games against good right-handed relievers. You can replace Rajai Davis when a righty enters, but with whom? The lack of quality left-handed bats is a bit of an issue.
The team is very right-handed. That’s okay. Good righties are good righties, but it opens you up to issues when you don’t have anyone to come off the bench to counter a new pitcher.
Yet this is only part of the issue. You accept that the offense is constructed the way it is and there isn’t really a way to better leverage the players they have. You’d like to have some good pinch hitters on either side who can fill in for the weaker hitters, but that’s not a reality with this roster. But flip the script and it’s the same story.
On the pitching side, the Tigers are 27th at 42%. League average is obviously 47% and the league leading Brewers are at 54%. The distribution is much tighter, but the fact that the Tigers are down at the bottom again is a bit telling. Again, to some extent this is a matter of having slightly better right-handers overall, but there’s room to improve and make sure Blaine Hardy and Tom Gorzelanny are getting lots of lefties along the way.
I don’t necessarily think this is something the Tigers have to address immediately, or that it puts them at a huge disadvantage, but it’s curious that they’re at the bottom of both lists. If you’re looking at the overall production of a team, this probably doesn’t matter a whole lot, but at individual moments it’s exploitable. The Tigers don’t have a bench bat to keep the other manager honest and manager Brad Ausmus apparently hasn’t made a huge effort to make sure he’s getting his relievers in optimal situations. In other words, it limits your strategic options at the margins, and the margins matter for a team like the Tigers.
There’s a chicken and egg issue when you’re talking about substitutions, but if you’re trying to squeeze a few extra runs out of a roster that’s right on the edge of the playoff picture, fine tuning the platoon breakdown is something to consider as the Tigers try to get straightened out.
Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to The Hardball Times, the Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score, and the Site Educator at FanGraphs. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44