[NB: Working team names into titles is an oh-so-subtle way of showing readers how clever you are. Also: food metaphors~!]
I guess it is Brewers’ week here at FanGraphs, and why not? Surely I’m only one among many non-Milwaukee fans who is enjoying their all-in season. It’s been a hoot watching as they attempt to make the playoffs with a Stars and Scrubs approach. And, as we know, anything can happen in the playoffs (Roy Halladay versus Zack Greinke in the NLCS, anyone?). The Scrubs are as fascinating as the Stars… can a team really make it to the playoffs with Yuniesky Betancourt (anagram: “Batter Nine You Sucky,” thanks Graham) at shortstop? Shortstop has been a mess for a while now in Milwaukee, and there isn’t an immanent solution in sight. However, another position that was thought to be on the Brewers’ “scrub side” prior the season, center field, has turned into a real plus. It’s the too-rarely-used (and rarely-properly-implemented) Magic of Platooning, starring Carlos Gomez and Nyjer Morgan!
While the most obvious hole that developed for Milwaukee after the Greinke trade was at shortstop (where the traded Alcides Escobar was replaced by Yuniesky Betancourt), center field also loomed as a potential issue, as the team also sent Lorenzo Cain to Kansas City. It isn’t that Cain was necessarily all that great, but leaving center field to 25-year-old right-handed center fielder Carlos Gomez (who came over from Minneosta in the terrible-in-retrospect J.J. Hardy deal) was a bit of a scary proposition. Despite his tremendous abilities in the field, a terrible plate approach and lack of power raised legitimate concerns about whether his bat would cancel out his glove.
Enter left-handed hitter Nyjer Morgan. Morgan (30) caught everyone’s attention with an impressive, proto–Gardner-esque 2009 season. However, in 2010, Morgan’s BABIP luck turned, his fielding wasn’t as amazing (including some embarrassing gaffes), and he had some ugly on-field blowups. Washington was eager to move Morgan, so the Brewers sent them poor ol’ Cutter Dykstra and some cash. Morgan, like Gomez, isn’t a big fan of the walk, but unlike Gomez, makes enough contact that when the balls are falling in he can get on-base at an okay rate. Like Gomez, he’s a great fielder, although the speed hasn’t made him into an efficient basestealer (although he is prolific).
It’s worked so far. While Gomez got most of the starts at the beginning of the season, manager Ron Roenicke seems to have decided to strictly platoon the two players. While Morgan’s .369 wOBA won’t last, with Gomez now being platooned his numbers are likely to improve, and they are both playing great in the field. So far this season, they’ve accumulated almost 3.5 WAR between the two of them, which would make them one of the better center fielders in baseball if they were one player. We have a pretty good idea that they are both good fielder, so given regression and the strict implementation of a platoon, what sort of offensive production can be expected from them going forward (i.e., what is the “true talent” of the platoon?)?
For his career, Gomez actually hasn’t hit lefties much better than righties. However, as I discussed earlier this season with regard to the Dodgers’ Jay Gibbons–Marcus Thames platoon (man, I just can’t believe that didn’t work out!), since there is more variance in platoon skill among left-handed hitters, the key part of a platoon is to get a left-handed hitter. And although Morgan only has 356 career plate appearances versus left-handed hitter, he has displayed a pretty big split. We can estimate their likely platoon skill using the basic method outlined here. Although we are getting to the point of the season in which we need to be careful when using ZiPS ROS projections as estimates of true talent, I will use them here for the sake of ease if access.
Gomez has over 500 plate appearances versus southpaws, but since he is a right-handed hitter, we regress his platoon skill versus 2200 plate appearances of a league average split. After going through all of that and applying it to his ZiPS RoS projection of a .305 wOBA, his projected wOBA versus right-handed pitchers is an awful .298, but versus left-handed pitchers it is .319, which is actually just above average this season. Morgan has less than 400 plate appearances versus left-handed hitters, but we “only” regress his skill against 1000 plate appearances of league-average splits. His ZiPS ROS projected wOBA is .318 (I think that’s probably on the high side due to rounding issues, but we’ll go with it). After estimating his platoon skill, his projected wOBA versus lefties is a miserable .287, but versus righties it is .327.
In other words, while Morgan as a full-time player might be (optimistically) about a league-average hitter, a strict platoon of with Gomez makes them above-average altogether. It’s only a difference of a few runs on offense from Morgan’s individual ZiPS RoS projection, but if you believe, as I do, that Gomez is a bit better in the field, it works out even better. Moreover, it makes the Roenicke’s questionable insistence on hitting his center fielders second more palatable.
Separately, Gomez and Morgan might be around average players overall if their fielding remained at a high level. Together, they make an All-Star level center fielder with a great glove, good baserunning, and an above-average bat. Milwaukee still has holes to fill (and one wonders, given that both Gomez and Morgan are center fielders and can out hit him, what exactly the point of Mark Kotsay is). However, center field not only isn’t one of the Brewers’ Scrub positions, it is one of the Stars.