Very few people like platoons. I mean, besides Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver and successful organizations like the Oakland Athletics and the Tampa Bay Rays. But the real point is that fans, players and I think even some managers really dislike having to use platoons. It is only natural for competitive people like professional baseball players to loathe having to take days off due to starting-pitcher handedness.
I can even empathize with managers who I know would prefer to have eight clear-cut starters that fit into nice neat roles that make it a breeze to fill out a lineup card. I understand fans' frustration with the public acknowledgement that your favorite team's roster contains flawed baseball players.
I can understand the distaste for the fact that the Cubs have featured 12 different combinations of players in the first eight spots in the lineup in 12 games, but this is a necessary "evil" for this roster, as I have explained in the past here and here. Not to completely rehash the arguments I laid out in those earlier pieces, but I think a simple thought exercise demonstrates the necessity of some roster shuffling on a daily basis.
Pick your eight favorite current position players on this roster and assemble the lineup in whatever way you want. After you've done that I think it is safe to say that I can list 20 other major league lineups that are better on a day-in, day-out basis. The Cubs roster is not going to stack up well head-to-head with just about any other team's top of the roster. The Cubs do have some advantages though, and that is a deeper roster than a lot of teams. Mixing and matching based on the opposing pitcher, and other factors, could result in maximizing this flawed, but not talent-barren, roster.
The argument typically tends to fall around wanting to see players like Junior Lake and Mike Olt play everyday. The new shiny toy and the possibility of untapped potential is tantalizing for what is most likely going to be a very disappointing season at the major league level. Every time that a Rick Renteria lineup has been available publicly without Olt and Lake, there is a rather large gnashing of teeth among Cubs fans.
This is really ignoring the fact that neither Mike Olt or Junior Lake has been treated the way Don Baylor or Dusty Baker treated rookies in their tenure. The reality of the situation is that Olt and Lake are among the only four players to play in all 12 games so far and rank 9th and 6th in plate appearances, respectively.
Neither player has been relegated to the short end of a platoon so far, and that is the correct usage for each player for a variety of reasons. Mike Olt has fewer plate appearances between the two, and it is easily explained given the health issues that he has faced so far. I would like to see him snag a few games at 1B this year against particularly tough lefties, but otherwise I won't grouse too loudly about that situation.
Junior Lake has played extensively, and, well, is not without his blemishes. His strikeout rate and walk rates paint the picture of a player with limited offensive upside. His numbers have been strong so far due to a very high BABIP that is likely unsustainable. Junior Lake is as Jason Parks described him:
I’m not suggesting he can alter his approach, but if you allow yourself the opportunity to dream (take drugs if necessary), Lake has the tools to hit 30-plus bombs in a season, steal 30-plus bases, and be a weapon on the defensive side of the ball.
I don't mind that player spending some quality time on the bench next to either a member of the coaching staff or a veteran player and learning from time to time. Ride the hot streak as much as you can, but shield him from opponents likely to be able to exploit his approach on breaking stuff, especially from same handed pitchers.
This roster requires a particularly gifted strategic manager to handle. No combination of players is likely to result in this even being an average offense, but with creative usage maximizing the strengths of the players available, it is possible for this collection to over-perform the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, the limited amount of evidence so far suggests that Rick Renteria might not be up to that challenge.
That isn't meant as a knock on Rick Renteria, because ultimate a manager's job transcends into so many areas that we cannot see that he could still be an excellent manager. The most glaring piece of evidence came from the ninth inning of the last game against the Cardinals. Renteria choose to pinch-run for Welington Castillo, which made sense given that he was the tying run on first base.
But Renteria bypassed two very athletic pitchers in Travis Wood or Jeff Samardzija for backup catcher John Baker. The decision was ultimately meaningless, but that is one example of not finding even that slimmest of edges that this roster needs to discover on a daily basis in order to compete with more talented opponents.
All of that said is why the Cubs should mix and match the roster. But they do have talented hitters in Junior Lake and Mike Olt (I would add Justin Ruggiano to the group but I will leave that point aside for now) that can't and haven't been relegated to the short end of the platoon. The Cubs face two right handed pitchers in New York that perfectly highlight the way that these players should be utilized.
The Cubs should place more righties in the lineup against Masahiro Tanaka. In his limited career, Tanaka has shown some extreme platoon splits. Right-handed bats have hit for an .840 OPS against Tanaka and left-handed hitters have a .460 OPS. The sample size is extremely small (it takes somewhere between 500 and 700 PAs for splits to stabilize for pitchers), and his pitch selection hints that it might normalize, but Tanaka will always be tough on lefties.
Again, we are dealing with a very small sample size, but notice the dramatic drop in split-finger fastballs against right-handed batters. Tanaka goes to his slider more than the split-finger fastball, which is no where near as devastating a pitch as the splitter. Stacking the lineup with right handed bats is one way to limit the amount that Tanaka gets to use his most devastating weapon. This pattern is something you see even with pitchers like Jeff Samardzija.
Game two starter is Michael Pineda and he is a completely different pitcher. Pineda relies heavily on a fastball-slider combination that is extremely tough on right-handed bats. Pineda still falls well short of having enough plate appearances for his splits stats to be extremely trustworthy, but he shows the far more traditional splits of a starting pitcher. Right-handed bats have a mere .578 OPS and left handed bats have a .658 OPS. This is when Renteria should stack the lineup with left-handed bats and give Lake and Olt a day off.
The sample size we have to judge Rick Renteria by is extremely small and the roster he has been given is an impossible challenge. But there are small advantages to be gained in particular matchups, and the next two games will offer some clues as to whether Renteria is skilled at exploiting them.
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