The Braves entered spring training with few questions left to be answered. The outfield is set as are first, second, short and in reality the rotation as Julio Teheran was never seriously challenged by Sean Gilmartin. The only questions were bench bats and at third base.
No Ties In Baseball
Well except for that one All-Star game and in spring training. Yet the Braves third base battle failed to produce a winner and Friday Gonzalez declared it a draw.
A Quick Recap
Chris Johnson entered the competition as a former number one pick with three years major league experience, questionable defense and for some reason a media expectation that he was the third baseman after coming over as part of the Justin Upton trade. Juan Francisco was known for enormous power an erratic arm and lots of strikeouts – even though he and Johnson strike out at roughly the same rate. With just a few days left before the season starts their spring numbers are almost dead even.
While Johnson has more games that Francisco he also has at least three starts at first base and while I can’t find an innings total anywhere Francisco seems to have just a few more at third. This is likely due to the plan to use Johnson as a backup to Freddie Freeman at first base. Even numbers, one RH bat and one LH bat, it’s a perfect opportunity to platoon and get the best of both sides. Except well it isn’t.
Chris Johnson hits RH pitchers better than he hits lefties; a reverse split. When you hear the announcers and talking heads talk about left/right splits they say that Francisco and Johnson are about even. In searching for research on the effectiveness of the platoon I came upon a a pair of articles by Bojan Koprivica over at the Hardball times – Platooning: the meaning of mean (Part 1) and Platooning: The value for a team (Part 2) – where he concluded that:
. . .a somewhat educated estimate is that by aggressively matching up a lineup—provided you have the players to do so—a team stands to gain about one to one-and-a-half additional wins per season. (italics and emphasis added)
If in fact Johnson and Francisco are about even or close to even is the potential for perhaps,maybe, possibly but imprecisely quantifiable chance of winning one game a year worth it?
Last year the Braves faced R/L starting splits of 62.3% RH and used a platoon 108 times for a net gain of 4.5 runs; just under 1/2 a game if, as most assume, it takes 10 added runs to equal one more win. Assuming similar numbers this year, a straight platoon means Francisco starts 62% of the games. If you give Freddie Freeman a day off that would presumably be against a left handed pitcher increasing Francisco’s games by six or eight to 65%. I can’t find any split stats for spring training but I’ve watched Francisco against left handed pitchers this year and he’s been at least 1-4 in those games. Johnson has been about the same.
According to the Hardball Times article in 2012 the Mets used a platoon most often – 535 times – followed by Oakland – 464 times. He says his numbers are probably conservative and platooning could be worth more than one to one and one-half wins a year he projects and certainly one or two wins can be the difference, it was for Oakland last year. The teams that reached that a number high enough to gain a win platooned “aggressively.” The numbers for Francisco and Johnson suggest that the difference between them is so close it’s likely a platoon would make no difference at all; the men are simply too much alike. That being the case, why platoon?
That’s A Wrap
There are reasons to choose Francisco and a case can be made for Johnson as well. But there is little to support using a platoon. Managers get paid for making the hard decisions and this calls for a hard decision. If I were Gonzalez I’d start Francisco at third and use Johnson off the bench, his the playing time at first base suggests that Gonzalez has at least considered that and Johnson fits the bench role better than Francisco. Gonzalez may favor Johnson instead. A platoon ducks the decision and will eventually fail. The Skipper needs to make a choice not duck it. What would you do?