Ryan Howard is a good hitter. A very, very good hitter. He has a .921 2009 OPS and a .961 career OPS (142 OPS+). Howard's splits look like this:
vs. RHP, career: .307/.409/.561 (1.071)
vs. LHP, career: .224/.308/.446 (.754)
Against righties, Howard is every bit the monster he's reputed to be. Against lefties, he's a well below-average first baseman. But wait, there's more:
vs. LHP, 2008-09: .212/.290/.406 (.696)
vs. LHP, 2009: .198/.284/.348 (.632)
Every club's AAA squad has a right-handed hitter who could probably play a passable first base and put up a .700 OPS against left-handed pitching.
Of course, you can't platoon Howard. You should, but you can't. His overall numbers and his resultant reputation are just too good. He's not going to lead the NL in homers and RBIs every year by platooning. Also, in his (almost deserved) MVP year of 2006, he did put up a .923 OPS against lefties (which is pretty much the whole difference between MVP-quality Howard and the last couple years' pretty-decent-first-baseman Howard).
But consider another case. Tonight, the Twins were facing White Sox southpaw John Danks. They started Jason Kubel at DH and in his customary #5 slot in the order, and they started Delmon Young in left field and in the #8 slot. Forget for a moment that it's crazy to play either of these guys in the field, and just consider this (vs.LHP/vs.RHP):
Kubel's splits, career: .667/.844, 2009: .622/1.010
Young's splits, career: .805/.697, 2009: .861/.578.
Kubel, looking at his total line, has always been a good hitter, and has been one of the 15 or so best hitters in the league in 2009, with a 140 OPS+ and .387 wOBA. Young, on the other hand, has been as disastrous as ever, with a 78 OPS+ and .288 wOBA. Yet: Kubel is just as helpless against lefties now as he's always been, or even more so--the only difference is that he's crushing righties rather than just holding his own against them. No matter how lovely his overall numbers are (and add a .300 average, 22 homers and 77 RBI to that OPS), Kubel has no business ever serving as the designated hitter against a left-handed pitcher. Ever. Delmon Young is Kubel's perfect platoon partner, and DH vs. LHP may be the only role for which Young is actually suited.
There's another great reason to platoon, too. Say you're playing a team with a southpaw starter but a shortage of lefties in the 'pen, or a right-handed closer that you know they're going to use in the ninth. How awesome is it to have the luxury of using Ryan Howard or Jason Kubel (or your righty thumper if the situation is reversed) at exactly the right time, rather than just hoping his turn in the order comes up when you need it to?
So here's my idea, for some future really, really ballsy manager and/or GM:
We need to stop thinking of "hitting" as a skill. Rather, there's hitting vs. LHP and there's hitting vs. RHP, and they're totally separate skills, and your ability to do one doesn't make it a whole lot more or less likely that you can do the other.
So Ryan Howard has been awesome, and has put up some awesome stats, but he hasn't somehow earned the right to keep sucking against LHP by virtue of being awesome against RHP, any more than Tim Lincecum has earned the right to start in center field by virtue of being an awesome pitcher.
This kind of thinking would lead to a lot more platoons in more extreme situations (and there are a lot of them), and teams would properly value right-handed hitters whose numbers look bad because they hit against RHP 70% of the time, but who are highly valuable as the less-used half of a lefty/righty platoon. But even more commonly, it would change the way managers set batting orders and rest players. Almost every player (as we all know, but which I don't think people pay enough attention to) has a significant split in favor of opposite-handed pitchers. For instance, Mauer is a Hall of Fame .951 career vs. LHP and a merely pretty-good-for-a-catcher .762 vs. LHP, and while he deserves to start most games against both, he's probably not a #3 hitter against lefties, and he should never get a day of rest when a righty is on the mound unless the team has faced six righties in a row. Even Roberto Alomar, a switch-hitter and future Hall of Famer, probably batted high in the order far too often against LHP, against whom he had an OBP 50 points lower than he had against RHP (.337/.386).
It's not a big deal on a case-by-case basis (except in extreme cases like Howard and Kubel), but a manager who really looked at these things, roster spot by roster spot, and utilized significant platoon advantages whenever possible -- in setting the lineup and order and actually using platoons where appropriate, not merely pinch-hitting at the end of the game -- might pick up an extra win or two over the course of the season. And DHing Kubel against lefties just has to stop.
3 hours ago