Last seasons, Chip Hale earned a gold star for his work mixing and matching players in the outfield. With five players initially, then four players for the three spots, he allocated the time about as perfectly as possible. Down the stretch, A.J. Pollock played roughly 95% of the time, David Peralta played about 85% of the time, Ender Inciarte played about 85% of the time while Yasmany Tomas, then Socrates Brito, picked up the rest. Deciding who to start and who to sit was generally a matter of who made up the best trio – Pollock, Peralta and Inciarte were the obvious group. The gap back to Tomas and Brito, and even Peter O’Brien if you really want to go there, was pretty large.

But what if I told you that gap was closer depending on who was pitching? Would we still insist on the same core of players day in and day out? Maybe in the exact case of last season, the trio above would have still made the most sense, but now that Inciarte is gone and Tomas will try to fill his shoes, there may be even more incentive to mix and match. Platoons are well-known around here and have grown in popularity throughout the game. Generally speaking, they allow the manager to put his batters in the best position to succeed by selecting their matchups carefully.

This is usually done in a lefty/righty manner as batter and pitcher handedness splits are well-understood, at least in principle. This team is young, however, and we know that left/right splits for a hitter don’t stabilize until around 2,000 career at-bats. I, personally, have been guilty of jumping to conclusions much quicker than this based on the eye test, but it bears repeating is yet another reason to think Jake Lamb should get more exposure against left-handed pitchers. It’s also a reason to think that maybe David Peralta isn’t as good against lefties as it appeared at times last seasons. Frankly, we’re just not in a position to say yet.

But batted ball profiles stabilize a lot more quickly for a hitter. After about 80 balls in play, we have a pretty good idea of where a hitter rests on the ground ball/fly ball spectrum according to FanGraphs. Based on the fantastic work of Andrew Koo at Baseball Prospectus back in 2013, we also know that there are matchups that can be utilized effectively based on these profiles. For hitters who are either one or two standard deviations above the mean in ground balls or fly balls, Koo showed that they see increased production against either ground ball or fly ball pitchers. Putting it simply, fly ball hitters fair best against ground ball pitchers while ground ball hitters fair best against fly ball pitchers. From Koo’s original work:

The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball devotes a chapter to platoon effects. Five pages discuss handedness, a mainstay of baseball analysis today. Two pages cover a less visible effect: batted-ball tendencies. Authors Tango, Lichtman, and Dolphin found that fly-ball hitters had an advantage over ground-ball hitters, simply because they are better hitters—you can’t homer on grounders, after all. They also found that fly-ball hitters are especially good againstground-ball pitchers, because the former tend to swing under the ball while the latter want the hitter to swing over the ball.

However, Tango et al. noted that this platoon advantage is hard to exploit because players tend to be neutral rather than lean to either extreme. Also, the advantage itself is very small, and hence overshadowed by the handedness platoon. Such a minimal advantage would (theoretically) require being multiplied through several hitters to become meaningful.

As Koo goes on to explain, the 2013 Oakland Athletics did this very thing, utilizing many platoons to play up this admittedly small advantage. The cumulative effect was something special, however, as Oakland’s offense churned our runs at a rate that drastically exceeded expectations. The Diamondbacks are in a different situation since they’re expected to score often as-is, but losing Inciarte could prove to be a bigger deal than some might think and it never hurts to simply put your players in the best possible positions to succeed at the plate, at least when you have the opportunity to do so. After all, the effects really could  be something special, as Koo established:

Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 10.33.48 AM

Those numbers are from 2007-2013, but there’s no reason to think they don’t still hold true in principle (although perhaps teams have already caught on and have started exploiting these matchups more frequently than they did pre-2014. The green (good) and red (bad) areas are highlighted to draw your attention. What we find is that ground ball hitters seem to fair best against fly ball pitchers. Fly ball hitters seem to fair best against ground ball pitchers. The rest is really just a wash of league average production.

Keep in mind, we’re defining ground ball and fly ball hitters as players who are least one standard deviation above the mean, which is a lot. Who do the Diamondbacks have that fit this definition? I’m glad you asked. Using the last three year’s worth of data, there are four players who fit into this category, suggesting they might benefit from seeing increased at-bats against certain kinds of pitchers.

  • David Peralta (ground ball hitter): should face fly ball pitchers as often as possible
  • Yasmany Tomas (ground ball hitter): should face fly ball pitchers as often as possible
  • Welington Castillo (fly ball hitter): should face ground ball pitchers as often as possible
  • Tuffy Gosewisch (ground ball hitter): should face fly ball pitchers as often as possible
    • Everyone else is effectively neutral

David Peralta is going to play pretty much every day, so this may not matter a lot. If anything, it would be a good idea to align his rest days against left-handed, ground ball starting pitchers if possible. Yasmany Tomas will probably play a bunch, but it might be especially useful to get him in there against fly ball starters. Welington Castillo and Tuffy Gosewisch have a nice little batted ball platoon going on, so while Castillo will play 85% of the time, it might be smart of Chip Hale to pick those off days based on who’s on the mound rather than just inserting Tuffy for every day game on Sunday. This could conceivably help the offense produced by the catcher’s spot compared to other alternatives.

But remember, Oakland got a big boost out of this by implementing it on a large scale. The Diamondbacks don’t appear to have the opportunity to do that here. That doesn’t mean they should abandon the principle, it just means that the effects of organizing their lineup using this information will be reduced. I believe they can still gain a very, very small advantage by being strategic with days off, however. When given the option, Chip Hale can pick and choose to put his beset lineup on the diamond. This information, batted-ball matchups, is part of that equation beyond simple handedness.

10 Responses to Can the D-backs Exploit Batted Ball Matchups in 2016?

  1. Larry Person says:

    So, would the D’backs be wise to find a fourth outfielder who is a fly ball hitter, assuming Socrates Brito and Peter O’Brien are not fly ball hitters, to “platoon” with Thomas and/or Peralta? If so, are any available on the free agent market?

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      O’Brien profiles as a FB hitter, but the advantages are so small here that it’s not often going to be worth benching a guy just to take advantage of three at-bats against a starter. That’s why I offered it as a way to time days off rather than a way to mix and match daily. Tomas’ spot in the outfield is probably the only way to do it on any level, but again, it’s a very, very small advantage.

  2. Larry Person says:

    About the catchers…Castillo is below average as a pitch framer, yet he’ll get the majority of playing time because of his bat. The D’backs have gone to extraordinary lengths to improve their pitching staff, but will a sub-average defensive catcher hold back the pitching staff from achieving their potential? Should the D’backs have addressed that weakness rather than announce that Castillo had earned the majority of starts?

    • The team had the opportunity to find another catcher to serve as backup/competition for Castillo. When they traded for Hermann and then moved on, they pretty much threw in the towel on that front. Even so, the chances of finding a complete catcher that would be an overall improvement over Castillo were slim-to-none.

      Alex Avila, who signed for a very modest, even low market deal represented possibly the best battery tandem with Castillo. He is known for his glove, has had a decent bat in the recent past, and bats from the left side.

      Instead they chose to go with the positionally challenged LHB Hermann. Even if they had grabbed Avila though, Castillo would have still been the team’s starter at catcher. There were no candidates out there for a total upgrade. Castillo is still in his prime, so there is reason to believe he can improve somewhat with the glove. He is well-above average with the bat though, so the trade-off is there. Now, if his bat suddenly tanks, then the team is indeed in a world of hurt behind the plate.

      Not getting a solid, quality backup catcher is, IMHO, one of the biggest mistakes made so far this offseason.

      As for getting back on track with the article though, I like the idea of hard hit platoons, but the team does not currently have the personnel to make them that effectively. It might be interesting to watch who they pick up moving forward though to see if the new bats they get fit such a platoon.

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      Ryan wrote up an alternative earlier in the offseason around trading for Jonathon Lucroy. That really could make a huge difference. One thing we know is that pitch framing can be taught and improved – it’s not like trying to turn a small middle infielder into a power hitter. There’s no trade off, just advantage. Let’s hope this is a point of emphasis internally, because they really could be better in this department even if Castillo were just league average.

  3. Larry Person says:

    I guess my real question is “How tolerant will Greinke be with Castillo?” Greinke is known to use cerebral pitch sequencing to enhance his effectiveness. I envision him shaking off Castillo’s signs repeatedly and if Castillo can’t adjust, Greinke will get very frustrated and perhaps lose effectiveness.

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      This is something I’ve wondered. We know Greinke knows how to pitch, so I won’t be shocked to see him shaking off Castillo early in the season. There’s even an outside chance that he improves the pitch sequencing for other pitchers through conversations with coaches and the rest of the staff. I don’t expect him to sit back quietly and take what’s given. I think he’ll make his preferences known.

      • Eddie says:

        I never considered this. Excellent point. What’s the market rate for a backup frame-first catcher? And…do you think Lucroy is worth the price in prospects? Hint- it would be pretty much anybody decent left in a barren system.

        • Jeff Wiser says:

          The D-backs don’t have the prospects for Lucroy at this point – they’d have to subtract from the MLB roster. A backup catcher with big time framing skills is great, but it’s not all that helpful if he doesn’t play often. Framing is most useful when multiplied over and over and over again. Limiting playing time reduces the effect, essentially.

  4. Andrew says:

    I am a not familiar with TAv, but by the TAv table it would seem that it would be better to have neutral or groundball hitters rather the flyball hitters regardless of who they are facing?

    This seems to contradict the quote from Kono that flyball hitters have an advantage over groundball hitters. Have I missed something (or several somethings?)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.