Tonight, Lamb is once again out of the lineup against lefty Adam Conley in Miami, marking the 9th time in 30 games that Lamb has ridden the pine to start a game. He’s hitting a Herrmann-esque .188 in a paltry 16 at bats against lefties this year. Brandon Drury, .281 against lefties. Drury has been really good. When Lamb sat against lefty Justin Nicolino on Tuesday, manager Chip Hale told the media it wasn’t Lamb’s shoulder that kept him out of the lineup — Lamb was “perfect,” but an extra day couldn’t hurt, and the team had the capability of starting eight right-handed hitters alongside Patrick Corbin. Before the game in an interview with Greg Schulte on the Coors Light BP Show today, Hale addressed Lamb’s relegation to the bench once again, making it sound like a close call. Conley seemed like a decent opportunity to start Lamb, the team had thought — until they reviewed the tape and came to appreciate his lowish release point, and discovered that Conley had been nails against lefties not named Bryce Harper or Daniel Murphy. Hale phrased the decision as one of choosing between Lamb and Drury, and it making sense to go with Drury.
All of this: true. But here are some other true things.
- Far be it for me to try to take meaning out of a 21 PA sample, but if we’re going there anyway, it’s not like Lamb has actually been worse against lefties, even this year: he has a .381 OBP and .563 SLG, both marks better than he’s maintained against righties. He’s picked up 5 walks in those 21 PA, which is about 3 more than we might have expected — enough to bump Lamb’s career 9%-ish walk rate to the robust 12.1% rate he had as of earlier today.
- That (limited) success? Not weird. It’s not out of line with his career as a professional, in which he’s carried a .384 OBP and a pretty decent .449 SLG in 381 plate appearances.
- David Peralta was in the lineup tonight, and his .200 AVG against lefties (30 AB) is a rounding error away from Lamb’s .188 (in 16). Basically: identical. If Lamb had one more hit, he’d have a .250 AVG against lefties. Peralta’s career slash line against lefties in 295 plate appearances between indy ball, the organized minors and MLB (sorry, no Venezuela): .227/.288/.346.
- I’ll do the math for you: Lamb’s .833 OPS against lefties as a pro is really good for any player against anyone.
- I’ll finish that math: Lamb’s OPS against lefties as a pro is .199 basis points higher than Peralta’s .634 OPS.
- Brandon Drury has played second base, third base, left field and right field so far this season.
Hale put the decision as one between Lamb and Drury, and if it’s just a third base decision, I guess it is. But is it really a Lamb versus Drury decision?
Back when Drury was taking reps in the outfield and Chris Owings was getting some Ben Zobrist references due to his play in center field, it seemed a hell of a lot like it was Drury, not Owings, who was the more likely “Zobrist type” on the roster.
With all of the D-backs’ moving parts right now, the only situation that has me puzzled is right field. Who on this Sedona Red earth is David Peralta’s backup in right? Peralta has seemed to improve against LHP, but make no mistake: there is still a pretty big platoon split there, mostly because he’s battered RHP so much. As noted above, Brito is not a guy you want to aim toward LHP right now, and it’s not like Owings has a recent history of beating up on LHP. If Brito is Peralta’s backup in right, we’re looking at a situation where the CF’s bat doesn’t necessarily play up, but the RF’s bat plays way, way down. Bouncing Tomas back and forth doesn’t seem like a great answer, but it might be the best one on offer if Owings takes on a “Zobrist type” role.
Enter Brandon Drury. Drury’s been shagging in left, and got the start in left just yesterday. Including Drury in the left field mix doesn’t fix the right field situation. But if Drury is an option in left, can’t he be an option in right, instead? He’s got the arm to play third base, and arm strength and accuracy is really the only big difference between your average left fielder and your average right field guy.
I listed some reasons. But for Drury playing some right field, the D-backs were looking at some situations in which they’d have to field two hitters who struggled against lefties last year in Owings and Socrates Brito when Peralta got a day off. It also seemed pretty useful that as a “Zobrist type,” Drury could pull third base starts when Lamb rested against lefties on other nights — but still stay in the game if Lamb was switched in after the lefty starter was lifted. But more than anything else, Drury offered more upside than Owings, who would have his pocket picked most if Drury was the rover, it seemed.
The one thing missing: a true “Zobrist type” is a full-time player, and it didn’t look like Drury would be that for the D-backs this year. Now? He absolutely does. Coming into tonight, he’s slashing .321/.341/.617, good for an excellent 145 wRC+. Yes, he’s faced lefties a bit more often than the average right-handed hitter might, but we’re still talking about 85 plate appearances, and some of those lefties were tough pitchers. He’s only drawn two walks, but like with Jean Segura, do you really care if the vast majority of a .340+ on base percentage comes from hits?
Drury has a .350 BABIP, the kind of thing that can look like luck. Add in Drury’s home runs, and that becomes a .371 batting average on all balls he’s hit. But of Drury’s 53 tracked balls, 7 have been over 105 mph, 9 have been 100-105 mph, and 11 have been 94-99 mph — based on what we’ve found with batted balls here at Inside the ‘Zona, that computes to an expected .389 average on his 53 total tracked balls. 17 balls are missing from that, and chances are most of those were easy outs — so you have to walk that down a bit. But based on what we know about how batted ball velocity turns into hits, Drury has absolutely earned his .350 BABIP — it’s not luck.
That he’s done that while bouncing around at four positions qualifies him as magnificent. It absolutely warrants every attempt to get him in the lineup. The whole thing about complicated time shares and the extra value a “Zobrist type” gives you, though: that doesn’t have to happen to the detriment of one player so much more than other players. It absolutely makes sense to give both Peralta and Lamb a day off every week, depending on how things fall with lefty starters. To generate more playing time, Drury can also pick the pocket of Chris Owings. And Yasmany Tomas. And Jean Segura. And Nick Ahmed! Even Paul Goldschmidt!
Lefty on the mound? Well then chances are one of Peralta and Lamb is on the bench, and Drury’s in the lineup. If both play, Owings is another candidate to sit against lefties from time to time — he’s never made lots of hay against lefty pitchers anyway. Meanwhile, any rest day for either Segura or Ahmed (with Segura sliding over to short) should come against right-handed starters, and you could say the same thing about Tomas (with Drury playing left) and Goldy (perhaps with Lamb starting at first). Add in a rest day for Drury every week, and we’re already there. With Peralta filling in at center, Lamb at first and Segura at short, Drury can essentially be the backup for every D-backs starter other than at catcher or on the mound. If replacing all backup plate appearances other than at catcher with a plus bat isn’t magnificent, I don’t know what is. That’s the same kind of impact we’d see if we replaced two average bats with two solidly above average ones. It’s huge, something like 20-30 runs of value per year, just from replacing backups. And there’s value in smoothing the path for maintaining a thirteen-man pitching staff more easily, too.
This isn’t about choosing between Lamb and Drury… or, at least, it doesn’t have to be. If Owings sits twice a week, Drury can be a full time player even with Lamb starting more than half the time against lefties. No, playing Peralta in center isn’t exactly ideal, but playing Owings in center isn’t tremendously better, either. We’re already playing a team full of former infielders. And if you’re losing a bit on defense in the outfield, doesn’t the prospect of getting Lamb’s plus glove at third base more often just look all that more attractive? Lamb’s enemy isn’t Drury — it’s Phil Gosselin, and Rickie Weeks.
So: #FreeJakeLamb. The last time I was bugged enough to push the #FreeJakeLamb hashtag on Twitter, it was April 2015 — and it turned out hours later that Lamb was dealing with a stress reaction in his foot. There’s always the potential we’re missing information, particularly about injuries — and particularly with regard to an organization that hid the true nature of A.J. Pollock‘s elbow woes from the media for all of March just this year. Once again, I risk a foot in my mouth: Jake Lamb‘s shoulder soreness, responsible for his being limited to pinch hit duties last weekend. If you could bear with me anyway, I’d appreciate it. Missing information is always possible, and that’s especially true when things don’t appear to make sense. Now, as is usually the case here, it’s not about being definitive: it’s about looking at some numbers and facts and talking them through.
Overthinking may not always be a virtue, but continuing to stay away from Lamb purely because he’s 3 for 16 against them this year really is as ridiculous as it is unnecessary. Put aside the small sample issue — considering the 3 for 16 game with 5 walks and that 2 of the hits were home runs, it’s pretty much a best case scenario 3 for 16. That’s why Lamb has a robust 145 wRC+ against lefties this year — exactly the same as the 145 wRC+ Brandon Drury had before tonight’s game. Lamb has made the adjustments — it’s time to see if they work. And it’s time to see if he’s a not-as-much-offensive-value, more-defensive-value version of Paul Goldschmidt, getting on base at the same clip against opposite-handed pitching. When I first suggested that in a not-so-serious piece, the numbers were real — their minor league records are very similar. Don’t play Lamb every game against lefties. But don’t not, either.
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