The Case for ... The Platoon

August 26, 2013

Bennifer. Brangelina. Mulliniorg.

If that last one is most familiar to you, you're a true seamhead. Journeymen Rance Mulliniks and Garth Iorg formed a productive platoon at third base for the Blue Jays in the 1980s. Before cementing his Hall of Fame status with the Braves, Bobby Cox helped build the Jays into a division winner less than a decade after their birth by getting the most from his players—including those with problems hitting same-side pitching. From 1982 through '86, the lefty-swinging Mulliniks hit .283/.364/.437 against righties; Iorg hit .284/.318/.402 against lefties. Toronto got to within one game of the '85 World Series with Mulliniorg sharing third base. In that era Cox also platooned at catcher, first base and DH.

Cox didn't invent platooning, of course. The practice dates to at least 1914 and the Miracle Boston Braves, who started 26--40, then went 68--19 to win the National League pennant—in part because of manager George Stallings's platooning of marginal talents. Platooning was a key part of Casey Stengel's work with the Yankees dynasty in the 1950s. Earl Weaver, the greatest manager since Stengel, viewed platoons as part of his core philosophy: Focus on what players can do, rather than what they can't. His leftfield platoon of John Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke is among the most famous in history.

For a vast majority of hitters, it's easier to pick up the baseball when facing opposite-side pitchers, and breaking balls from those pitchers tend to move in on the hitter, as opposed to away from him. Through Sunday batters with the platoon advantage (meaning a righthanded hitter facing a southpaw, or vice versa) were hitting .259/.323/.413. Those without it were .246/.304/.379. In a single lineup spot, the difference in those lines is 10 to 15 runs a season—or more than one win. There's also the benefit of keeping all of your position players active as regulars, as opposed to guessing when their next at bat or next start will happen. So in a tight race, multiple platoons could be the difference between making or missing the playoffs.

You don't have to tell this to A's manager Bob Melvin. Building productive platoons out of spare parts helped Oakland win the AL West in 2012 and lead the wild-card race this season. The A's platoon at catcher with John Jaso (.282/.405/.398 vs. RHP) and Derek Norris (.297/.394/.568 vs. LHP) and at first base with Brandon Moss (.254/.328/.481 vs. RHP) and Nate Freiman (.319/.357/.479 vs. LHP). Seth Smith (.242/.322/.377 vs. RHP) and Chris Young (.187/.313/.355 vs. LHP in 2013, but .262/.364/.474 career) platoon across leftfield and DH. Oakland has had the platoon advantage in 69.2% of plate appearances; only the Indians (69.8%) have a higher rate. (Cleveland doesn't platoon as frequently, but its lineup features three switch hitters.)

Why don't more teams platoon? Roster construction is the biggest reason. Stengel and Weaver had 15 or 16 position players at their disposal; today's managers have 13 and sometimes only 12. The use of five-man rotations and seven- or eight-man bullpens has reduced benches to single backups at catcher, the infield and the outfield, with perhaps one discretionary player. While Oakland has made it a priority to keep reserves who are effective in platoons, the Brewers, for instance, have three players on the roster who can play third base; all hit righthanded.

Because trading a reliever or two for a batter or two will not only facilitate platoons but also provide managers with more tactical options late in games, expect this shift in roster priorities to be MLB's next significant strategic change. For now we'll have to take heart in one skipper extending the traditions of Stallings and Stengel and the Earl of Baltimore. Melvin may not have their track record, but he has taken a page from their playbook, getting the maximum from a low-payroll, low-power offense. That's the platoon advantage. Mulliniorg, meet Freimoss.

Building productive platoons out of spare parts helped Oakland win the AL West.

PHOTODANIEL GLUSKOTER/CSM/LANDOV (MOSS)Moss PHOTOEZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES (FREIMAN)Freiman

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)