Using a Hitter’s Batted Ball Splits to Build a Hybrid Platoon

The diligent and hard-working fantasy owner has always had the opportunity to utilize fringe platoon players to their advantage. Players such as Matt Joyce, Nelson Cruz and Alex Rios can offer a special advantage to teams with deep leagues, deep benches and sustained focus. Paired with a mashing platoon mate, these guys can turn a position of interest into a position of strength.

But the righty-lefty split isn’t the only platoon split out there. Just as there is a distribution of LOOGY- and ROOGY-killers, there is also a selection of hitters who excel against ground-ball and fly ball pitchers. Fantasy owners should be more aware of not only the advantages of a potential ground ball-fly ball platoon, but also the players who can help them to that end.

This, we should note, is Platooning: Advanced Edition.

Here we should note that platoon partners in fantasy don’t quite work like they do in real life. When, say, the Athletics decide to platoon two players, they know for certain that one player will face the GB pitcher while the other rests. In fantasy, you may bench Derek Jeter, but his platoon partner, say, Brandon Crawford, may be playing against a FB pitcher (thus not playing to his strength). Ideally, your platoon mates will be outfielders or 1B/DH types playing on the same team. This allows you to swap them in and out when they face the appropriate pitcher types. But in the real — um — fantasy world, finding a player’s platoon partner maybe more like this: You know Jeter struggles against GB pitchers, so you keep a decent, but not great, SS on your bench and swap the two infielders whenever Jeter faces Alex Cobb.

Additionally, knowing a player’s GB-FB tendencies opens up hybrid platoon possibilities. Have a lefty hitter facing a lefty pitcher? Well, your bench might have a GB-FB matchup that favors one of your backups. But unless you know which players have pronounced skills and deficiencies, you will never be able to take advantage of the hybrid platoon.

For simplicity sake, let’s begin this study by agreeing that any pitcher who has a ground-ball rate above 50% is a ground ball pitcher, and likewise any pitcher with a ground-ball rate beneath 40% is a flyball pitcher. Not only does this distinction have a clean and easy-to-remember system, but it also splits the present crop of MLB pitchers into near-perfect quarters: one quarter of FB pitchers, two quarters of neutral pitchers, and one quarter of GB pitchers:

Distribution of GB Attributes

Creating a complete dataset of hitters’ GB and FB splits is not a simple task. Baseball-Reference offers splits for individual hitters, but does not have leaderboards or linear weights (weighted On Base Average) data. Moreover, what constitutes a GB or FB pitcher changes with time too, and B-R doesn’t specify their method of defining pitchers. As they add and remove pitches from their repertoire, Pitchers can change their GB rates such that they cross over our (largely arbitrary) thresholds.

So, my preference is to use three-year groupings. This means we have a better chance at grabbing a player’s actual performance against a pitcher of the supposed type. In specific terms: Cliff Lee, who has been a neutral pitcher since 2008 (when he became an elite pitcher), actually had a sub-40% GB-rate enter the 2013 season (it has since slipped just above 40%).

Let’s say we have a hitter, 3B J. Winger, who has a true talent advantage against GB pitchers. He has 25 plate appearances against Miguel Batista, but this was against Batista from 2002 through 2006, before Batista’s cutter became a slider. Since moving into more of a relief role, Batista has pushed his GB rate beneath 50%. The Winger sample versus Batista makes him wrongly appear successful against neutral pitchers. Since players’ GB-FB splits are getting sliced into three parts, not two as with handedness splits, even 25 PA can make a big difference. Moreover, a change in Winger’s batting stance in 2010 made him stronger against GB pitchers, increasing his true talent abilities again GB pitchers.

My proposed solution to the moving targets problem is looking at three seasons: Using 2011 through 2013 to decide which pitchers are which types and using those same three most-recent seasons to observe possible platoon skills. We can then use the individual stats available on Baseball-Reference to test and temper our findings.

Am I being overcautious? Possibly. But science is less scientific than they make it look in the movies. Just be warned: The data that follows studies recent trends. We’re looking for patterns here, not trying to estimate future production with any great accuracy. When you see a 120 OBP+, mentally regress that number, perhaps to 107 or 106 OBP+. Most of the splits are about 1/3rd the sample size as a full season of data (~250 PA).

For the purpose of convenience, I’ve split the three main offensive type leagues — batting average, on-base percentage and linear weights leagues — and done specialized analysis for each.

Batting Average Leagues

I’m using the indexing system here to make things easily, quickly digestible. So: 100 is equal to the sample average, 110 is 10% above average, 90 is 10 percent below average and so on.

What jumps out first: David DeJesus and Jeff Keppinger, two decent hitters who could shine if limited to starting against FB pitchers. Keppinger should have some infield availability in 2014, having played 1B, 2B and 3B in 2013, but his stinker offensive season might limit him to 200 PA or so. Injuries could open more playing time for him on the White Sox, but his usefulness as a FB platoon mate will be limited by his low spot in the southside depth charts.

But DeJesus figures to get decent playing time with the Rays in 2014. He plays all three outfield positions, but should be eligible for at least LF, RF and obviously OF. He could be in line for around 400+ PA as a part of the Rays outfield/DH rotation.

On the other side: Jason Heyward, B.J. Upton or Pedro Alvarez — hitters who are typically starters, but whose batting average against FB pitchers makes them possible big-side platoon candidates. Eric Hosmer (96 BA+ against FB pitcher, 118 BA+ against GB pitchers), Angel Pagan (94 BA+ against GB pitchers, 111 BA+ against all others) and Carlos Ruiz (89 BA+ against GB pitchers, 112 and 120 BA+ against FB and neutral pitchers) also have deficiencies in BA versus FB pitchers.

Want an outfield platooner with a little more pop? Alfonso Soriano continues to be underrated in most leagues, so he might make for a decent starter or backup outfielder in his own right, but his 122 BA+ against fly ball guys makes him a great occasional starter. Garrett Jones, who figures to get full playing time in Miami, also fits this bill, those his usefulness as a regular is much more limited. Be warned: Garrett’s career numbers against FB pitchers suggest he indeed succeeds against them disproportionately (.253/.320/.498 slash), but his batting average does not carry that same effect.

In the catcher department, Alex Avila or Carlos Ruiz, both catchers with decent startability, have demonstrated FB weaknesses. A.J. Ellis, on the other hand, boosts his value through FB pitchers.. The Dodgers catcher should probably be a starter in any non-BA league (and even in many BA leagues), but he certainly makes for a nifty backup or number two catcher if you can time his starts to match against a FB pitcher. His 112 BA+ against FB pitchers and .256 career batting average (.243 Steamer projection) makes him more valuable as a platoon partner than a starter in BA leagues.

The other A.J. catcher — A.J. Pierzynski — ranks as one of the best catchers against FB pitchers (122 BA+), but his .283 career average and conservative .265 Steamer projection puts him in an already decent (mid-level) tier among catchers. (Add in that he’ll be making Fenway Park his home turf, and you’ve got a pretty solid catcher on your hands.)

Ryan Howard and Ike Davis both show a preference for FB pitchers. That makes them decent inverses of Allen Craig and Pablo Sandoval. Craig, interestingly, has pounded GB pitchers over the last three seasons. It makes sense to target Craig in general (.306 career average, good power), so pairing him and Davis might make a great 1-2 punch in a keeper league (as in: Get Craig early as your lead platooner; grab Davis a touch later; as the seasons go, these guys could, should both be proper starters in their own rights).

Very interestingly, Norichika Aoki — who’ll get good playing time in Kansas City — has excelled against both extremes and been feh against neutral pitchers. Since neutral pitchers constitute the majority of the league, Aoki’s talent might qualify him for a bench spot, but it also makes him a viable fantasy platoon mate with Michael Cuddyer (excels against neutral pitchers), Michael Morse (struggles vs. GB pitchers) or the aforementioned Angel Pagan. Aoki won’t offer much power, but he could make up for it with steals, and since he’s got a 50% change to be playing against a favorable platoon matchup, he is as close to a proper OF platoon mate as you can find.

Other neutral-weak hitters include: Brandon Belt (who should be a starter regardless of his GB-FB splits), Coco Crisp (steadily weak against neutral pitching since 2007), David Murphy (who tends to dominate GB pitchers) and Shin-Soo Choo (who should be probably be a starter too).

On the infield, Derek Jeter’s weakness against GB pitchers (he tends to hit high balls better in general) has been confirmed by seasons upon seasons of certainty. His inverse, as mentioned above is, Brandon Crawford, who otherwise wouldn’t fit onto many starting lineups but happens to slap GB pitchers around. Starlin Castro and Ian Desmond have also shown signs of a skill against GB pitchers, but they could both be full-time starters too, given their potential.

Let’s sum this section by listing the players with platoon possibilities. I will divide these groups into small platoon hitters — guys who are best on the bench, getting spot starts against specific pitcher types — and big platoon hitters — guys who will start most days, but could take a rest against specific pitcher types.

SMALL PLATOON (start vs)

BIG PLATOON (sit vs)

OBP Leagues

With on-base percentage leauges, our analysis changes only a little. In general, OBP is more stable than batting average. This means we can trust the data a bit more, but we still need to regress, regress, regress. Seeing a recent trend is not the same as predicting a future trend.

DeJesus and Keppinger both remain possible FB-mashing platoon halves, but DeJesus really separates himself here. Across his career, DeJesus has shown a predisposition of success towards the extremes, sporting his worst OBP against neutral pitchers. DeJesus also comes with the added bonus of manager Joe Maddon, one of the few managers in the league I can confirm uses GB-FB platoons.

Miguel Montero jumps to the top of our charts too. In any normal season, Montero is probably among our top hitting catchers, but if you find him available coming off his rough 2013 season, he’s not a bad gamble. At worst, he’ll provide either a FB platoon mate (judging by his last three seasons) or a GB platoon mate (judging by his career numbers), and at best, he could take your starting catcher job.

Adam LaRoche, he of the much power, little else, has displayed a weakness for GB pitchers and, lately, neutral pitchers too. Anthony Rizzo (113 OBP+ against GB pitchers) occupies the opposite end of the spectrum, but carries the promise of developing into something bigger. As with batting average above, we also see Brandon Belt succeeding against GB pitchers, but count me fully in the camp that trusts in Belt’s 2013 breakout season. If Jason Kubel can get into and stay in the Twins 2014 lineup, he could make a good neutral-weak partner, playing whenever he starts against an extreme pitcher. Likewise, Adam Dunn has long shown a preference for GB pitching, but his team enters the season with, count ’em, three first baseman on their roster. Using his platoon advantage might add a little value to the quickly faded star that was once Adam “40-Homer” Dunn. (Nobody ever called him that.)

Speaking of White Sox first baseman, Paul Konerko has shown a career-long and recent-trend preference (OBP-wise) for neutral pitchers. Konerko figures to be the first baseman with the smallest playing time share in the 2014 White Sox lineup, but when he does play, consider benching him (or leaving him on the bench) when it’s against an extreme GB or FB pitcher.

Lucas Duda’s limited PAs over the last few seasons make him an iffy starter at first base, but his recent weakness against FB pitching also makes him a viable platoon candidate.

Switching the lens to OBP also makes Russell Martin a viable big platoon hitter. He struggles against GB pitchers, but otherwise carves out some nice numbers in a position typically starved for offensive production.

Here’s our update to the platoon idea list:

SMALL PLATOON (start vs)

BIG PLATOON (sit vs)

Linear Weights Leagues

Here I’m using wOBA+, not weighted Runs Created Plus, to denote the linear weights data. Unlike wRC+, this hand-calculated wOBA+ is not using park factors — so be aware of that. Most fantasy leagues do not use park factors either, but that means it’s up to us to know which players have changed park in an important way (i.e. Shin-Soo Choo) and which have stayed the same (i.e. Carlos Gonzalez and James Loney).

With wOBA+ we can start to see the more obvious contrast between Garrett Jones’ abilities against the pitcher types. He mashes fly ball pitchers. In a linear weights league, he could make for some dandy bench magic. Jon Niese might get tired of facing Jones within just a few meetings.

Let’s take a moment to mention Jose Tabata. He may be poised for more playing time in 2014, and his strong FB-mashing platoon split means you can profit from him even if he doesn’t get that 400+ PA payday he’s earned. Speaking of the outfield, Alfonso Soriano shifts, at least in my rankings, from a small platoon to a large one when we talk about linear weights leagues. Simply put: Dude hits doubles. He has 10 seasons with 30+ doubles, and only a linear weights league captures that. So bench him against GB pitchers (or, even better, GB righties), but consider leaving him in there most other days.

Nate McLouth also shows up a decent options (111 wOBA+) against FB pitchers. Linear weights makes his results versus GB pitchers (92 OBP+, 85 wOBA+) look a touch more risky, but he could still be a useful outfielder — even if he is playing from the Nationals bench.

A generous push from linear weights also elevates Matt Wieters from boderline small platoon player to obvious big platoon player. His weakness against FB pitchers is much less pronounced than it is when looking at just BA or OBP, but we can still optimize by slotting in a catcher with just above a 95 wRC+ talent on that particular day. Granted, catcher platoons are much harder to employ, but knowing platoon splits might yield a handedness platoon partner that otherwise would have been unavailable. In other words: If Jason Castro (a good hitting catcher) is facing a lefty pitcher (Castro currently has a 44 wRC+ against LHP; yikes) and Wieters is facing a GB pitcher (we expect something around a 112 wOBA+ for Wieters in the situation), then bam! We have a hybrid platoon.

Here is our final compilation of options:

SMALL PLATOON (start vs)

BIG PLATOON (sit vs)

An industrial-size bucket of thanks to Jeff Zimmerman on gathering the data.

Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.

4 Responses to “Using a Hitter’s Batted Ball Splits to Build a Hybrid Platoon”

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  1. schoenbl says:

    Brilliant: this is amazing

  2. schoenbl says:

    how would you combine a batters handedness split with their batted ball split?

  3. FanGraphs Supporting Member

    Are you asking for the specific kind of programming language necessary to cull a player’s, say, LHP-GB split? Because that would be crazy complicated — at least given the way we’ve been doing this.

  4. zachd2323 says:

    Any chance this is getting updated? Such great data here!