A few weeks ago, I wrote about some interesting platoon splits of a couple of left-handed hitters who had my attention. When I started looking at some right-handed hitters who had splits I wanted to discuss, they also turned out to be players with a big impact this year: the winner of the 2013 National League batting title, the most exciting young player in years, and the hero of last night’s NLCS game. Their splits are interesting in themselves (at least to a certain type of baseball fan), but also are concrete way of thinking about more general principles with respect to platoon skill.
So, who had Michael Cuddyer to win the NL batting title prior to the sesaon? In 2012, Cuddyer looked like a bad signing for the Rockies, but this past year, at 34, he had the best season of his career. Cuddyer hit .331/.389/.550, and while his home field helped a great deal (it is no coincidence that Cuddyer is the sixth Colorado player to win the NL batting title in their relatively short history), a 140 wRC+ is still excellent. It was almost certainly well over his head, as his walk rate, strikeout rate, and power were pretty much the norm for Cuddyer, but his BABIP was .382, far above anything he had ever done before.
Discussion of Cuddyer’s overall true talent can wait for another time. What is germane here is Cuddyer putting a really large platoon split: a .411 wOBA versus right-handed pitchers in 401 plate appearances, and a .354 wOBA versus left-handed pitchers. One could break this discussion down by every component, although it would also suffer from sample size issues. One note along those lines: Cuddyer’s plate discipline by platoon this year was about the same as always: he walks less versus right-handed pitchers, but in 2013 his power was better versus them and, yes, his BABIP versus right-handed pitchers was .399.
A closer scouting or pitchf/x analysis might find something Cuddyer changed in his approach this season. From a simple statistical standpoint, this is a pretty big departure for Cuddyer. He has sported reverse splits before 2013, but they were all in season during which his playing time was short (all less than 300 plate appearances) for whatever reason, thus increasing the influence of random variation (2002, 2003, 2008). For his career, including 2013, Cuddyer’s platoon split is just slightly larger than usual for a right-handed hitter in this era at about 10 percent. There is less variation in platoon skill among right-handed batters than lefties. That does not mean this sort of thing never happens — obviously, it does. But is usually pretty random, and that seems to be the case with Cuddyer. It was still just 139 plate appearances versus left-handed pitching.
Maybe you’ve heard of him. Writing something interesting and new about Mike Trout is difficult in one way because so much as been written. On the other hand, it is pretty easy, since it is a fair to assume readers know plenty about Trout, at least of the general stuff, so one can get right to the point.
I would guess his platoon split has been noticed as well, but here it is anyway: for his brief career, Trout has a pretty pronounced reverse split: a .413 wOBA versus righties and an absolutely dreadful (ahem) .385 wOBA versus left-handed pitching. And (alert: cherry picking about to ensue) that would be even more impressive if one takes out his brief 2011 appearance, during which he had a pretty big normal split.
Does that mean we should expect Trout to continue to hit righties better than lefties? Anything could happen. A closer, more granular approach might reveal reasons for thinking so. But although after his 417 career plate appearances versus southpaws it is fair to say that Trout is likely to have a smaller platoon skill than most right-handed hitters, it is still just 417 plate appearances. One needs 2200 plate appearances for a right-handed hitter versus lefties before one regresses just halfway between observed performance and average. That is the general principle. A more concrete way of looking at it might be that 417 plate appearances is not even one full season. FanGraphs readers know how little even one full season tells us about a player, and 417 plate appearances is just two-thirds of a season.
So, yes, given just the basic statistical evidence (with all the limitations that should imply), we would expect Trout’s split to normalize. Like just about everything with Trout, it will be fun to see if he can continue to defy expectations (assuming that is still possible).
I just discussed Matt Holliday (in a different context) last week. But hey, it is the playoffs, and he is a big figure in this season’s playoffs, so why not talk about him? He certainly fits here: after more than 6000 career plate appearances (including more than 1400 versus lefties), he still has a slight reverse split.
It started pretty much right away during his 2004 debut, when he had a .372 wOBA versus righties and a .325 versus lefties. He did not have a reverse split during the next two seasons, but it it was close to even (a .003 wOBA difference each year). In 2007 and 2008 the reverse split was big again, at about eight percent one year and six percent the next — that is almost the split one would expect from a lefty. It was unusual enough that one might have suspected that Coors Field had something to do with it. But it continued in 2009 after he was traded to the As (and then Cardinals), and he finished that season with his largest reverse split yet at 11.5 percent. In 2010 he had something of a normal split (if a bit smaller than average), and then in 2011 a slight reverse split. In 2012, Holliday had a huge normal-direction split at almost 20 percent (.433 wOBA versus lefties, .359 versus righties). This past year, he was up to his usual tricks, with about a nine percent reverse split.
What can we take from this list of seasonal performances? There might be a number of things, but here are just a couple. First, it is a reminder that one season of platoon splits taken in isolation do not tell us much, especially with right-handed hitters. If one looked at just 2012 for Holliday, one would think right-handed specialists relievers should be reserved for him. For his career, though, we know that is not true (at least in general, there are probably specific sorts of right-handed relievers that would be good against Holliday, as with all hitters and pitchers).
With 1457 career plate appearances versus lefties, Holliday is pretty established as player who, at the very least, has a smaller-than-average split. But just as looking at 2012 alone might give up the wrong idea about Holliday’s platoon skill, just looking at his observed performance from 2007-2009 does not tell the whole story. After those three seasons of big reverse splits, he still turned around to have a pretty typical split in 2010. Indeed, even with only a couple of big normal-split seasons, Holliday still has just a slight (under two percent) reverse split. Yes, 1457 career plate appearances seems like plenty, but given the relative lack of variation in platoon skill among right-handed hitters, we still have to regress him closer to the mean than to his observed performance.
Matt Holliday might have the smallest true talent platoon split (or even a reverse split) among any of the good right-handed hitters in baseball today. But even without all of the math, just an examination of his seasonal splits shows that his platoon performance is still subject to random fluctuations, and we cannot simply assume that he will hit righties better. That may be a boring and predictable lesson, but it does not mean one cannot enjoy Holliday’s exceptional platoon performance anyway.
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