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Seth Smith’s Platoon Split as a Crisitunity

Despite the prestige of being 2011’s Most Average Player, Colorado Rockies outfielder Seth Smith has been the subject of trade rumors since the end of the season. Trading Smith might be a good idea for the Rockies if it enables them to fill a hole elsewhere, but Smith himself is better than one might think. He is not a great fielder, although it he is not horrible (the Rockies gave Brad Hawpe more than 6000 innings in the outfield, after all). What seems to bother many people is the large platoon split that the left-handed-hitting Smith has shown in his major-league career. However, Smith’s splits are at least as much of a potential opportunity as they are an impending crisis. It is, as a wise man might say, a crisitunity.

Smith (who will be 29 at the beginning of the 2012 season) has been a good hitter so far in the majors. He does not have any one exceptional skill, but his above-average strikeout rate, walk rate, and isolated power, have enabled him to put up a .360 wOBA (.275/.348/.485), which is above average (113 wRC+) even with Coors Field as his home park. However, Smith really has been dreadful against left-handed pitching. He has put up a horrific .262 wOBA (.202/.269/.319) in 239 career plate appearances against southpaws. It is understandable that people would latch onto this, but focusing on it as some sort of “fatal flaw” that seriously devalues Smith is a mistake.

First of all, in very simple terms, Smith’s terrible performance against lefties is only a fraction of his overall offensive contribution. His career .360 wOBA is still a .360, no matter how it is sliced and diced. After all, one would not say that Smith offense is even better than it looks because in 1209 plate appearances against right-handed pitching he has hit .290/.364/.518 (.377 wOBA). All of it “counts.”

More importantly, we need to distinguish between observed performance and true talent. Just as one should regress a player’s performance in general to the mean to estimate his true talent, one must do the same (and to a greater extent) with platoon splits. While Smith’s observed split is large, according to The Book a left-handed hitter’s platoon skill is regressed halfway to league average at 1000 plate appearances versus left-handed pitchers, and Smith is just about a fifth of the way to that point. Without getting into all the details, if we assume that Smith’s true talent for 2012 is .350 wOBA (that’s just an approximation for the sake of this example), I have him as a true talent wOBA of .311 versus left-handed pitching and .358 versus right-handed pitching. That is still a larger-than-average split for a left-handed hitter, but it is not as bad as it has looked.

One might point out that Smith’s overall projection is distorted because he has been semi-platooned during his career, with about 17 percent of his plate appearances coming against left-handed pitchers, as opposed to the roughly 25 percent most lefty hitters get. But even if we make that adjustment for his overall projection, it brings it down to about .346 wOBA, about two or three runs a year worse if he faces the usual distribution of left- and right-handed pitching.

So the “crisis” of Smith’s platoon split is probably not quite as serious as it looks. Moreover, there is substantial opportunity here, as well. If Smith was the exceedingly rare sort of player who had no platoon split, he would just be another .350 wOBA hitter (again just using that figure as an example). However, because Smith has a larger projected split than usual, there is opportunity here to leverage that split into a platoon situation that increases his value. As above, assume that Smith is a .346 wOBA hitter if he faces a roughly typical complement of 25 percent left-handed pitchers. For the sake of argument, let’s say the Rockies acquire someone like Scott Hairston as their fourth outfielder. Using the same estimation techniques, I have Hairston as roughly a .340 wOBA hitter versus lefties in 2012. If he gets Smith’s plate appearances versus RHP, rather than a .346 hitter, you have a combined .354 wOBA hitter, about a four or five run improvement over a full season.

And remember — this is an advantage that grows larger that larger Smith’s platoon split is. If you think (for whatever reason) that Smith’s split is larger what I have estimated it to be, that does not just mean he is likely to be worse .311 wOBA versus lefties. It would also mean he is likely to be better .358 wOBA versus righties. That is the “crisitunity” aspect of this situation — the larger Smith’s true talent split is, the more value would be gained from platooning him.

Four or five runs over a full season may not seem like much, but those sorts of differences add up. After all, teams spend millions on relievers for just that type of edge. Of course, platoons never work perfectly for various reasons. Late in games, teams that started a right-handed pitcher could still bring in lefty relievers to face Smith in high-leverage situations. Without looking specifically at the game logs, I would guess this is happening, given Smith’s poor performance in high leverage situations as measured by his Clutch scores in recent seasons. (I do not think that Clutch represents a repeatable skill in itself. It does reflect how a player has performed relative to the leverage of his plate appearances in the past. Ggiven what we know about how Smith has performed against southpaws in the past, it is a reasonable inference that he has faced them them more frequently in high-leverage situations.) While having a platoon righty on the bench would not completely solve that problem due to the difficulty of pinch-hitting, it would mitigate it, as would Smith’s expected regression to the mean against lefties.

Seth Smith is certainly not a star, but he is a useful player. He is not likely to make much more than $2 million dollars next season, which is a bargain price for a roughly average player. Right-handed fourth outfielders are pretty cheap, and one does not need a star partner to platoon with Smith. The Rockies (or whichever team ends up with Smith) should see the crisitunity in the situation: his large platoon split is more of an advantage to be maximized rather than a reason to search for a replacement.