The New York Yankees are normally very active in their pursuit of the most talented free agents, but this year they took a different approach. One reason that this approach is feasible is that manager Joe Girardi is excellent at taking advantage of the Yankees platoon splits. Evan Halpine-Berger explains how Girardi’s use of the roster makes New York a better team.
Throughout his tenure with the Yankees, Joe Girardi has been meticulous in ensuring the Yankees gain the platoon advantage as often as possible. He has not hesitated to put what he believes is the best lineup on the field, even if it means sitting a star or two more often than they’d like. Case in point was last year’s Wild Card game. The team had 153 million reasons to have Jacoby Ellsbury leading off against Dallas Keuchel in New York’s biggest game of the year, but Girardi chose to put fourth outfielder Chris Young near the top of the lineup instead. Similarly, the skipper opted to start Rob Refsnyder, shaky defense and all, because of his history of crushing southpaws (albeit in the minors).
While he may have to deal with an occasional bruised ego, Girardi’s reliance on platoons is a big reason that the Yankees have outperformed expectations the last few years, even as pundits keep writing them off as washed up. New York has ranked third or higher in the American League in the percentage of plate appearances in which their batters have the platoon advantage in six of Girardi’s seven seasons as the Yankees manager. The only glaring exception was 2013, when every player on the roster simultaneously suffered a crippling injury during grapefruit league play. New York had to bat the expired Vernon Wells and Lyle Overbay in the middle of their lineup for much of the year. When you’re struggling to keep warm bodies on the field, you can’t worry too much about platoon advantages. If you eliminate that season, Girardi has consistently been among the best in the league at creating favorable matchups for his offense.
|Platoon advantage percentage by season(Compiled from Baseball-Reference)|
|2009 – 70% (1st)|
|2010 – 68% (1st)|
|2011 – 65% (2nd)|
|2012 – 64% (3rd)|
|2013 – 55% (12th)|
|2014 – 70% (3rd)|
|2015 – 73% (1st)|
Despite being a switch-hitter, Carlos Beltran has a significant split. He was 28% better against right-handed pitching (RHP) by wRC+ last year (127 vs. 99). Hicks’s primary role will be as a platoon partner and defensive replacement for the aging Beltran in right field. He’s well suited to this role because of his own struggles against right-handed pitchers, to the point where his lack of confidence from the left side caused him to temporarily gave up switch-hitting. He was 59% better against RHP by wRC+ in 2015 (139 vs. 80). Hicks will also be used to spell left-handed outfielders Ellsbury and Brett Gardner on occasion, but because both typically feature a reverse platoon split, that’s not especially helpful.
There is every reason to expect this to continue in 2016. Although there are few – if any – outright platoons in the starting lineup, general manager Brian Cashman has done a nice job of adding pieces that will give Girardi many different options when filling out his lineup cards. The Yankees have three returning switch-hitters in their starting lineup in Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, and Chase Headley. Cash added a fourth in Aaron Hicks this winter to that group. Those four go a long way towards ensuring the team often has the advantage at the plate. In addition, there are several other spots in the lineup where Girardi has interesting platooning opportunities.
Perhaps the second most obvious platoon on the Yankee roster is behind the plate. There are a two major reasons for Girardi to split playing time at catcher between Brian McCann and Gary Sanchez in 2016, despite the fact that McCann actually had a slight reverse split last season. First, Sanchez absolutely crushed left-handed pitchers (LHP) in the high minors, posting OPS marks of .827, .903, and .867 the last three seasons. There is no point in promoting one of their top prospects if he’s not going to play, so getting him started against opposite-side pitching is a good way to ease him in and increase his confidence. The other major reason is to take some of the stress off of Mac. No catcher has more games behind the plate than McCann in the past decade. At 32-years-old, that’s going to start catching up with him, and the Yankees are going to be paying him handsomely for at least three more seasons. Developing a Joe Girardi/Jorge Posada timeshare could be helpful to both players.
Other potential platoons will depend on who they decide to carry in the fourth bench spot. One of the better options would have been Alex Rodriguez and Gregory Bird at DH. A-Rod had a 148 wRC+ in 193 PA vs. LHP in 2015, while the Bird Man had a 147 wRC+ in 129 against RHP. Put them together, and you may have the most fearsome DH in the American League. Unfortunately, the news that Bird will miss the 2016 season with shoulder surgery put an end to that idea. Another alternative would be to carry Rob Refsnyder in the free bench spot, and use him indirectly as a platoon partner for Didi Gregorius., with Starlin Castro shuttling between second base and shortstop. This comes with many logistical concerns, including stunting Didi’s progress versus left-handers, as well as taking time away from Starlin learning his new primary position.
All of these choices should allow the Yankees’ skipper to continue to squeeze an above-average offense from his mix of declining, injured, and inconsistent performers. With a few weeks left until spring training, don’t be surprised to see one or two additional platoon-type players brought in as non-roster invitees to provide Girardi with even more choices. Juan Uribe, Alberto Callaspo, Casey McGehee, and Clint Barmes are still hanging around looking for work. As the season goes on, Aaron Judge could emerge as another dangerous weapon against LHP. Because of all the age and injury questions on the roster, it’s possible that we’ll see a number of different lineups this season. However, Joe Girardi has proven himself worthy of the trust of Yankees’ fans when it comes to his tactical skills and putting the best possible lineup on the field.
Evan Halpine-Berger has written about the Yankees’ offseason on SoSH and runs GardyGoesYardy.com where he writes about the Yankees’ and their young players, and who will be the best Yankee in 2016
Follow Evan on Twitter @GardyGoes_Yardy.