Platooning is a smart idea for teams having trouble filling a position. However, it requires the right players to make it work. While the Dodgers have a nice idea in trying to use a platoon in left field, by populating it with Jay Gibbons and Marcus Thames, they are probably going to get weak overall offense, potentially horrible defense, and an unwieldy roster.
I am grateful to Ned Colletti and the Dodgers for giving me the motivation to update and improve my basic spreadsheet for estimating hitter platoon skill. I’m sorry to report that the results I get once I plug in the overall projections from CAIRO are so unfavorable.
Thames himself isn’t really a problem as a hitter. For the money, a .249/.311/.448 with a .327 projected wOBA (according to these weights) isn’t all that bad for a platoon hitter. Thames’ platoon skill gets exaggerated because people forget that right-handed hitters’ platoon splits regress heavily to the mean. However, even after accounting for that, I have him as a .344 wOBA hitter versus southpaws, and .314 versus righties. He’s a decent choice for the right-handed half of a platoon.
The problem is Gibbons. I’m happy that he returned to the minors not long after we mentioned him in a “where are they now” post last year. The lefty is the key to any platoon because a) he will get most of the plate appearances, and b) since the platoon skill of lefties varies more than that of righties, by finding a guy with a bigger-than-usual split, a team can leverage that for maximum value. Unfortunately for the Dodgers, Gibbons is a probably a terrible hitter overall at this point in his career (CAIRO projects .256/.296/.409 for .304 wOBA). Moreover, he doesn’t have a very large split — his observed split is actually slightly smaller than the league average for lefties over the past four seasons. When I run his catcher-esque .304 wOBA projection through the mighty platoon-a-tron, I get a Jason Kendall-esque .283 wOBA versus southpaws, but hey, he might hit .311 versus righties, so, oh… wait, that’s worse than his platoon partner’s projected wOBA versus righties? Uh oh…
Generously assuming that the platoon works “perfectly” and that one-third of the plate appearances are Thames versus a lefty, one gets about a league-average hitter, or, assuming average defense, about a 1.3 WAR two-headed left fielder. Not terrible for the money, but hardly what a contender wants to see in one of their starting spots.
And about that “average defense”: Thames is a guy who has bad defensive numbers that don’t quite match his horrible reputation, but keep in mind that the sample is limited because he’s seen as so bad that both Detroit and New York opted to put him at designated hitter as often as they could. As for Gibbons, his numbers from his days in Baltimore are better than I thought, but keep in mind that a) Baltimore was so “impressed” with his outfield skills that they constantly shuffled him between the outfield, first base, and DH, and b) that was several years and injuries ago. My guess is that combined 5 runs below average over a full season is kind, but that still puts them under 1 WAR combined. At that point, one has to wonder if the Dodgers aren’t better off just going with Tony Gwynn, Jr.’s glove-only approach in left (or preferably, center with Matt Kemp switching to left) rather than taking up all the extra roster space.
That is the final reason, beyond the offensive and defensive issues, that this seemingly inexpensive roll of the dice is problematic: the Dodgers are going to have to keep Gwynn around anyway. Gibbons and Thames can barely play the corner outfield, and with the other starting outfielders being right fielder Andre Ethier and center fielder Matt Kemp (who are unlikely to overshadow the Ichiro Suzuki-Franklin Gutierrez combination anytime soon), the Dodgers are going to need someone to back up Kemp in center. So Gwynn has to stay. That is five roster spots taken up with outfielders for very little gain. Thames has a place on a major league roster as a right-handed DH/emergency outfielder and Gibbons is nice Triple-A depth/minor league deal material. As a left-field platoon on a team trying to contend, they aren’t a winning combination.