The Peacock's Platoon

In Spring Training, baseball managers get to strut their stuff.
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Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Most baseball platoons work based on the statistical evidence—and conventional wisdom—that righties hit better against lefties and lefties hit better against righties. “It’s called playing the percentages,” Mr. Burns famously said before pinch-hitting Homer Simpson for Daryl Strawberry in the last inning of an important softball game.

This Spring Training, Reds manager Dusty Baker has applied an unlikely variation on that approach to pick his team’s left fielder. Baker will play Ryan Ludwick and Chris Heisey—both fine ballplayers, both right-handed batters—at the position. Baker intends to use Ludwick against low-ball pitchers and Heisey against high-ball pitchers.

“Everybody thinks put the right-hander up against the lefty," Baker told MLB.com. "I remember Pedro Guerrero hated lefties. There'd be a lefty, and then they'd bring in this tough right-hander throwing sinkers and he'd say, 'Thank you.'”

The estimable Rob Neyer is intrigued but not convinced by Baker’s strategy. The word he uses for a platoon consisting of two right-handed hitters is “redundant.” Personally, I’m skeptical of any plan inspired by Pedro Guerrero, especially one that uses him as evidence of something normal or replicable. (Guerrero, for what it’s worth, was almost precisely as good against lefties as he was against righties, posting an identical .850 OPS against each group of pitchers.)

But this story is not about Ryan Ludwick or Chris Heisey so much as it is about Dusty Baker. Baker, after all, is the one making his simultaneously bold and quaint stand against baseball orthodoxy; the players are just along for the ride. Baker seems to be bucking tradition—and his perception as an old-school, toothpick-chewing skipper who almost certainly likes to be called skipper—by proposing a new way to build lineups. Whether or not his platoon actually makes Ludwick and Heisey better players and the Reds a better team, Dusty Baker appears a moderately ambitious contrarian. If not quite Christopher Hitchens, then at least a bold person willing to try new things, to take unexpected intellectual risks.

Except for the fact that Dusty Baker is not a contrarian. He is a baseball manager. Taken as such, it’s easy to see that he is only doing what many managers do during Spring Training. Dusty Baker is—pardon me for appropriating a term I first heard used to refer to slimy “pickup artists” who wear absurd accessories to attract women at nightclubs—peacocking. Last week, when Mariners manager Eric Wedge announced that Ichiro, who has batted leadoff for the team since 2001, would be moved to third in the order and that Chone Figgins, a .188 hitter last year,, would bat leadoff, he too was showing off.

Substantively, neither manager’s proposal is especially ambitious. In Cincinnati, Baker is merely going to split time between two players whose outlooks are roughly the same. In Seattle, Wedge is throwing the baseball manager’s equivalent of a Hail Mary pass on the first play from scrimmage. The consequences are minimal. As Tom Tango writes in The Book, batting order’s impact on wins and losses is more or less negligible. Where Ichiro hits doesn’t matter much, and if Chone Figgins (still) sucks after a few weeks, the change can be discarded easily enough.

Peacocking happens during Spring Training in part because it is the time of least resistance, a low-consequence environment. Trying something rash in March is not the same as trying something rash in October, when a bad outcome can destroy a career even if it was not the result of a bad decision. A coach is limited by how his work is publicly received. He can become paralyzed by the negative consequences of a perceived bad choice. To act boldly in a high-pressure situation requires a degree of insulation that most don’t have. In football, Bill Belichick can go for it on fourth down at his own 20-yard line without a fear of getting fired if his team is stopped. In baseball, the recently retired Tony La Russa might have been the only manager who was allowed that sort of leeway.

In Spring Training, a manager has agency. He is the arbiter of positional battles, the granter of precious roster spots, and the incidental architect of minor league rosters. When all that business is taken care of and the real baseball begins, the manager, unless he’s Ozzie Guillen, is rendered a supporting character. His control over how players perform on the field is limited to the situations he puts them in and the advice he can impart to them. He has been marginalized in the media by the cultish rise of the supergenius GM as the acknowledged builder of World Series teams. The near-irrelevance of his decisions is a statistical testament to his broad futility.

Maybe this lurking impotence is what leads a manager to constantly tinker with his lineups or to play fast and loose with bullpens. Somehow, he has to remind us of his existence. He has to justify it for himself. La Russa, for instance, employed lineup gimmickry so often that the gimmicks stopped being gimmicks and evolved into an identity. A manager’s identity has an intangible relation to a game’s outcome, if any at all. But while his decisions are constricted by injuries, circumstantial pressures, luck, and by the roster he is given, a manager’s identity is often all he has. In the spring, when the games don’t matter, a manager can exert that identity and spread his feathers. And, even if those feathers indicate a strategy based on a faulty anecdote about Pedro Guerrero, he can reveal the manager he really wants to be.


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Comments

While The Book does indeed find batting order's impact to be almost negligible, it does give evidence to support the usage of GB/FB platoon (though the benefits aren't as strong as platooning by handedness). Dusty Baker never struck me as a Tom Tango disciple, but maybe his gut feel for the game isn't a complete miss here. I'm not willing to bet on Dusty being right - providing a wholly inaccurate example isn't reassuring - but it will be an interesting experiment to follow.

You're completely right about sample size. I didn't get into that in the piece, though Rob Neyer effectively points out in his article how absurdly small of a sample size Baker is working off.

As for whether or not it works...who knows. I welcome any kind of fun. Anything that makes the game different.

where does "negging" fit into all this? i want manny acta to somehow neg matt laporta into being a supra-replacement-level hitter.