from Atlanta Journal-Constitution
When I say the word "platoon" in reference to baseball, what comes to mind? You probably think of two players that are good enough to be in the majors but not good enough to start every day. They also have the coincidence of hitting on opposite sides of the plate, one on the left and the other on the right. The lefty bashes righties (or at least hits well ... or at least better than the righty does against righties), and the righty bashes lefties (or ... you get the point). They also share the same position. Therefore, the lefty plays when a righty is on the mound, and the righty plays when a lefty is on the mound. Simple, right? And pretty much every team uses it. But I wonder why no one thinks about platoon situations in regard to the guy on the mound for your team.
Let's use an example. You're the Seattle Mariners, and you have two fringe guys playing first in Ryan Garko and Casey Kotchman. Garko is right-handed and hits LHP (.313/.392/.495) much better than RHP (.266/.335/.420). Kotchman is left-handed and hits RHP (.267/.337/.414) a bit better than LHP (.277/.314/.378), but regardless of the lack of a massive split, he isn't good enough with the stick to warrant an everyday job if he has a right-handed caddy, especially one like Garko. Neither is being used effectively if they are playing every day. Using a traditional platoon arrangement, Kotchman would play against RHP, and Garko would start against LHP. But why is only the handedness of the other pitcher taken into consideration when making out a starting lineup? Why not take your pitcher into consideration?
Here's what I mean. Kotchman (around a +8 UZR) is a significantly better first baseman than Garko (around a -6 UZR). So when Felix Hernandez (2.17 career GB/FB) is on the mound, why not have Kotchman start regardless? There will be more groundballs, and thus, Kotchman has a better chance to make an impact with his glove while Garko would be more of a liability. Then, when Cliff Lee (0.89 career GB/FB) pitches, you can feel free to use whichever first baseman has the better matchup against the other team's pitcher because the impact that either first baseman can make has gone down significantly. In the outfield, the situation would be reversed. You would put the better defender out there for Lee (Langerhans -- +17.6 UZR in LF) and not worry with Hernandez (Bradley -- -0.1 UZR in LF, though +6.9 in RF).
The increased defense would then offset the decreased offense in the same way that, in the traditional platoon arrangement, the increased offense offsets the decrease in defense. Right? Of course, I don't really have the math to prove it, but my math skills are limited (though I have a new book to try to rectify that). But my point isn't necessarily to prove that the defensive arrangement is more important than the offensive. It may not be. The offensive player could hit a home run, making a huge impact on the game, while the defensive player may allow one more base. Granted, that's not always going to happen, and that's not the true difference in value. The offensive platoon doesn't always result in another home run every game. It's much smaller than that, and it seems reasonable, to me, that the defensive switch could make as big of a difference.
But again, that's not my point. My point is how we look at the game. Although we've made these great strides in measuring defensive value, we still look at the game from an offensive standpoint. Why would we switch the lineup? Because it helps our offense. Do we think about helping our defense in the same way?
And why do we think that way? In my opinion, it's because we've always valued offense more than defense, and still do. Historical teams couldn't quantify defense, but they could quantify offense. You could see the difference in having a better hitter in the lineup. But it's much harder to see the change in defense. It's like trying to prove a negative. How do you know that guy would have made that play that the other guy couldn't? It's almost impossible to compare. That idea has, then, funneled through the ages, slowly creeping into our subconscious as givens. What's more is that platooning has been proven to be an effective tactic because the research shows the splits. People have begun to crash through the "givens" that are easily visible -- batting average, ERA, etc., and they've done a wonderful job. But we're not done. We have to continue asking questions and questioning assumptions. Things like this still exist in baseball. I'm okay if I'm proven wrong and that offense, in this situation, is more important than defense, but I'd feel horrible if no one went through the trouble to find out.