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Are Cleveland's lefty bats a liability?

Are Cleveland's lefty bats a liability?
April 23, 2012
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Ever since Manny Acta’s first season with Cleveland in 2010, it seems like the team has been searching for a strong right-handed bat.  With its star players expressing a preference for right-handed pitching, logic dictated the introduction of a righty to diversify the lineup and provide protection from the dreaded LOOGY (lefty bullpen specialist).  After getting frozen out of the free agent market and sending Matt LaPorta back to Columbus in shame, few options were available to Cleveland for 2012.

Rather than fight the reality of the situation the Tribe’s brain trust made shrewd upgrades to the team’s pitching and defense, while further adding to the inherent left-handedness of the batting order with Casey Kotchman, Jason Kipnis, and (soon) Johnny Damon.  By embracing the lefties, have the Indians discovered an untapped market inefficiency to construct their lineup around?  Or will opposing managers mercilessly exploit Cleveland’s splits?

To try and answer these questions I wanted to break down the Tribe’s splits versus different types of pitchers, with a focus on lefty relievers.  Besides wanting to identify any emerging trends early in the season, my scope was also limited by the stats available.  As far as I can tell, no stat aggregation website offers offensive splits by starter, reliever, and handedness.  It would be tough to pull this type of data by hand for an entire season, but the first 12 games of 2012 provided a decent sample while still being manageable.

The table below shows Cleveland’s performance versus different types of pitchers to open the 2012 season, measured by OBP and SLG.  All stats used in this article are current through 4/20 and were taken from Baseball-Reference.com.

Pitcher Innings PA OBP SLG OPS
RH SP 38 172 .366 .463 .829
LH SP 25.6 120 .358 .400 .758
RH RP 28.5 122 .311 .333 .645
LH RP 22.7 99 .303 .400 .703
Total 114.8 513 .339 .406 .745

A typical platoon split will have a left-handed batter hitting better against a right-handed pitcher and vice-versa.  Not surprisingly, the Indians’ lefty-heavy lineup has done some serious damage against right-handed starters.  However, they have also held their own facing southpaws, though part of this may be batters benefiting from multiple at-bats versus a game’s starter or just poor competition over a limited span.

Considering 71% of all plate appearances in the AL in 2011 were versus right-handed pitchers, the lineup’s present punishment of righties highlights the potential strength of Cleveland’s lineup.  Obviously, there aren’t enough innings logged to draw any concrete conclusions about the lineup’s performance, just a couple promising trends.

What we can draw conclusions about is how those five opposing managers have deployed their bullpens against the Tribe.  Have they been using their left-handers more than usual when facing Cleveland?

Team Total RP Innings LH RP Innings
OAK 40.7 45%
MIN 45.4 42%
CHW 36.2 42%
KC 46 38%
TOR 42.4 36%
DET 38.5 32%
NYY 45.7 25%
LAA 34.3 24%
BOS 38.5 23%
CLE 45.4 21%
TB 32.9 19%
SEA 40.8 15%
BAL 42.7 14%
TX 32.4 13%
Total 495.2 28%

For AL teams this season, the total share of innings in relief for left-handers has been 28%.  Over Cleveland’s first 12 games, the competition has used left-handers in 48% of all relief situations.  Now, I haven’t taken the time to do this for other teams, but that seems like a dramatic increase from the league average.

It appears that opposing managers are methodically targeting the Tribe’s lineup once the starter departs.  Provided this tactic is rooted in a widely known fact (LHP tends to beat LHB) and that Cleveland seemingly lacks the resources to counter it, I would expect the trend to continue. 

Is the Indians offense as vulnerable as it appears though?  The Tribe currently rank fifth in the AL in runs scored and are coming off a road trip where they tallied 54 runs over 9 games, so they don’t seem starved for offense.  Plus, manager Manny Acta is fairly savvy when it comes to statistical trends, so he must have a strategy in mind before turning in his lineup card.  This makes the lack of activity in the lineup and mid-game a bit surprising. 

Despite some modest shuffling at the bottom of the order, the personnel used in each game have been largely consistent.  Browsing Acta’s typical lineup (see below), he tends to evenly distribute his left and right-handed bats throughout, meaning if an opposing manager wants to play the match-up game he’ll have to burn through a couple arms per inning to get the full benefit.  By staggering his switch hitters and token lefty-mashers, Acta’s lineups give opposing pitchers multiple looks per inning (the Duncan-Kotchman-Kipnis inning pokes a hole in this plan, but I never said it was perfect).

2012 Lineup Bats OPS vs. RHP* OPS vs. LHP*
Brantley L .782 .525
Cabrera S .799 .777
Choo L .757 .688
Santana S .736 .964
Hafner L .886 .638
Duncan R .918 .679
Kotchman L .838 .709
Kipnis** L .878 .744
Hannahan L .673 .811
Team   .716 .708

*2011 Season OPS
**Partial 2011 season – 150 PA

Acta does seem to occasionally counter lefty starters, timing Santana and Hafner’s rest days against southpaws so he can insert righties Lopez, Cunningham, and/or Marson in the lineup.  It’s not an automatic substitution though.  The most dramatic batting order change has been prompted by Cabrera’s unfortunate stint on the bereavement list for five games, allowing Kipnis to bat second and Donald to occupy the nine-hole. 

All of which makes it unusual that Acta is the only manager in the AL to not use a pinch hitter this season.  That’s a manager confident in his starters (or lacking a viable bench, but I don’t think the Tribe is any worse off than most).  The stats lend at least some support to Acta’s methods.  According to Baseball-Reference.com, Cleveland boasts a 65% platoon advantage against pitchers this season, the third best mark in the league (average of 57%).  Even after facing a surge in left-handed relievers and foregoing the option to pinch hit, the Indians have held the platoon edge at a much higher rate than most teams. 

So given that left-handed pitchers typically provide about a third of a team’s innings, the limited number of lefties in an MLB bullpen, and the ability of the manager to dictate match-ups through lineup construction and mid-game substitutions, is Cleveland truly at a disadvantage with their lineup?  Not really, no.

I believe Cleveland’s success will ultimately be decided by the overall quality of their hitters and (to a much lesser extent) the actions taken by the manager over the course of the season.  Cleveland fields a slightly unorthodox lineup, but I would not classify them as an extreme outlier in this case.

Team No. of LHB in Starting Lineup
CLE 6 (2 S)
MIN 4 (2 S)
NYY 4 (2 S)
SEA 4 (2 S)
DET 4
KC 4
TOR 4
OAK 3 (3 S)
BOS 3 (1 S)
TB 3 (1 S)
CHW 3
TX 3
BAL 2 (2 S)
LAA None (3 S)

S = switch hitter

Half of the 14 AL teams feature at least four left-handed hitters in their typical starting lineup this season.  Taking Hannahan’s reverse platoon split into account, the Indians are really starting five “lefties,” which brings them even closer to the norm. 

A more thorough study may be warranted, but according to stats from the 2011 season there is no significant correlation between the number of plate appearances a team gives to left-handed batters and a team’s overall offensive performance, as evidenced by the graphic below.  If the Indians’ offense falters, it’ll be because its leadoff hitter continues to bat .212, not due to the handedness of its core players.

User Comments

Chris
April 23, 2012 - 6:44 PM EDT
Two thing occur to me in addition to these points:

- most MLB bullpens have fewer lefties than righties, so most teams will be unable to throw too many lefty innings at us.
- most LOOGY's typically only throw to one or two hitters the rest of the season, so they are less likely to be able to throw multiple innings at us.
- as the series continues, the bullpen lefties will be getting tired from use. Especially in a 4-game series, most managers will be forced to use their righties.

All in all, I agree with the author that the impact is minimal in any one game, and if you consider a series as a whole, even less.
Jim
April 23, 2012 - 4:27 PM EDT
Brian and I worked a ton together in the old MVN days, and I always thought that Ontario St. was one of the most under-rated blogs on the planet. IPI is lucky to have him...welcome aboard Brian.

Teams that analyze like this (and if you think we're analyzing pitching situations a lot, then you have no clue about Manny Acta's mentality in the clubhouse. I guarantee you he has these exact numbers, and 100 times more) tend to be ready for certain situation better than others (especially against specific teams). Of course, the Indians don't have (or say they don't) the money to fix the righty-lefty issues with regards to their bats, and have had weak drafts with regards to corner-power or average, which give us potential high-leverage issues against teams with players that can better take advantage of those match-ups...

I do think the lefty-right lineup can be overplayed for the most part, but the bottom line is that when you get to the meaningful games, then the playoffs, you better have a mix, or it's going to be brutal.

Bottom line is to just have good hitters, but you have to play the percentages as well.
Charlie
April 23, 2012 - 11:13 AM EDT
Brian,

Great work, definitely enjoyed seeing the opposing manager relief deployment %s. I would be curious to see, as the season goes on, how Acta deploys his thin bench in high-leverage situations. One has to think that RHB's will be deployed as LOOGY's are brought in. Let's check back in a month or so and use Fangraph's WPA #s to see what his strategy ends up being. Welcome to IPI!
Kevin
April 23, 2012 - 11:03 AM EDT
This is a good thing to study, and a really good post. It will be interesting to see how these results hold up all year. One thing to consider is that a huge percentage of high leverage at bats should be against lefties, since they'll come late in games when the opposition has gone to the pen. Maybe measuring WPA of lefty relievers against the Tribe vs league average WPA of lefty relievers would be a decent way to measure going forward. Or shutdowns/meltdowns?

Anyway, just thinking out loud. Really enjoyed the post.
Tony
April 23, 2012 - 10:49 AM EDT
Yes, but it was the number one question a lot of people asked in the offseason, which was why the Indians would add even more lefties to an already left-handed heavy lineup. Why not sign a RH hitter? I think this is a good way to kind of see where the Indians are going based on 2011 numbers and some early 2012 trends with how the lineup is performing and how teams are attacking their lineup....and also to see how other teams usually use their bullpens. I'm sure Brian will take another look at this later in the year when the sample size is much greater and see if the early data supports what is found later.
Richard
April 23, 2012 - 10:35 AM EDT
Never before has so much analysis been done about 14 games against 5 opponents.

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