Matt Strahm, Kansas City Royals

Closing in on Cleveland: A Litany of Lefties

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how important it was for the Royals to see improvement in their games against the Indians, because of the fact that divisional games are zero-sum games, and how newcomer Brandon Moss could be a big part of that improvement. I also noted that the pitching wasn’t necessarily awful, but it was far from good. On the bright side, there’s a chance the 2017 Royals pitching staff can do a better job of holding down the 2017 Indians offense.

While the Indians had an excellent offense last year, they did see relatively worse performances when facing left-handed pitchers. As a team last season, Cleveland had a .763 OPS against righties and a .748 OPS against lefties. A 15-point difference isn’t huge, but there is a difference.

Since that’s just a one-year sample, and since the lineup may look different this year, I wanted to get a bit more data on their potential platoon problem. The following is a table containing most or all of the position players for the 2017 Indians, along with their numbers against both left- and right-handed pitching since the start of the 2014 season. The last column shows how much worse or better each hitter is against lefties.

Name PA v L OPS vs L PA v R OPS v R Diff v L
Jason Kipnis 646 0.667 1238 0.816 -0.149
Tyler Naquin 40 0.775 325 0.898 -0.123
Michael Brantley 475 0.806 840 0.899 -0.093
Lonnie Chisenhall 238 0.682 1075 0.753 -0.071
Edwin Encarnacion 379 0.871 1489 0.913 -0.042
Carlos Santana 639 0.787 1375 0.812 -0.025
Abraham Almonte 219 0.668 452 0.680 -0.012
Francisco Lindor 376 0.806 746 0.812 -0.006
Jose Ramirez 377 0.729 862 0.734 -0.005
Roberto Perez 145 0.697 360 0.664 0.033
Austin Jackson 423 0.714 963 0.653 0.061
Yan Gomes 338 0.741 833 0.662 0.079
Brandon Guyer 505 0.873 519 0.652 0.221

That’s a lot of numbers! The most important column is that last one, though, so you can focus on that for now. As you can see, the Indians have a handful of players with significantly worse numbers when facing lefties. That’s not to say they’re “bad” against lefties, but any slight advantage you can take away from Brantley, Naquin, Encarnacion, and Santana is an advantage worth taking. (As a side note, Brantley is going to miss some time again this season, and I’d put a large sum of money on Naquin’s numbers against lefties regressing this season, but the numbers are the numbers for now.)

Left-handed batters Kipnis and Chisenhall obviously have their issues with southpaws, but Kipnis isn’t going to be subbed out against them as Chisenhall will be. That brings us to a slight complication: Terry Francona.

Tito loves making moves, and he’s quite fond of platooning players to put them in the best possible position to succeed. In other words, Naquin and Chisenhall may get starts against righties, but if a lefty comes out of the bullpen, Guyer or Jackson would probably step out of the dugout. And if a lefty has to face Guyer, he might as well just get the plate appearance over with and plunk him in the backside, because the only possible outcomes are a hit by pitch or an extra-base hit. That’s just what Guyer does.

On the other side of that scenario, if a lefty starts, Guyer and Jackson would probably be in the lineup, with the other two set to come off the bench when an opposing manager goes with a righty from the bullpen. Tito wants to maximize his offense’s chances of success, particularly in high-leverage situations. The best way to combat such a strategy is to have quality left-handed pitchers up and down the roster. As it turns out, the Royals may possess that quality.

Danny Duffy and Jason Vargas are locks for the rotation, and while Nathan Karns could sew up the fifth spot, Travis Wood also has a good chance to be in that role, which would give the Royals three lefties in the rotation. When those three start against Cleveland, they automatically gain a slight advantage. Wood has had some problems with right-handed bats in his career, so there could be concern there. But he also is surrounded by one guy who’s always had a terrific changeup (Vargas) and another whose breakout season can partially be attributed to a new grip on his changeup (Duffy). Oh, and his pitching coach is a certified wizard. Improvement isn’t guaranteed, but it’s certainly not impossible.

In addition to those arms, the Royals should have Matt Strahm in some type of setup role, which will be extremely important in this season series. Let’s explore a hypothetical scenario:

Vargas gets the start in Cleveland, and gives up a couple of runs in five laborious innings of work, as his own offense provides four runs of support. With Guyer, Perez, and Jackson due up, Ned Yost decides to bring in a right-handed reliever for the sixth. In comes Joakim Soria. After the fine folks of Twitter fire off a series of angry tweets, Soria takes the mound as pinch hitter Lonnie Chisenhall steps in to the box. Chisenhall predictably doubles, and after Perez grounds out, Naquin pinch hits for Jackson. A single gives the Indians another run, and even though Soria induces an inning-ending double play, the damage has been done.

Fast forward to the eighth inning, and the Royals are clinging to a one-run lead. Chisenhall, Perez, and Naquin are set to bat, and with no more righty bats on Tito’s bench, Yost can bring in Strahm without worrying about losing the advantage. Strahm retires the side in order, as does Kelvin Herrera in the ninth, and the Royals walk away from Progressive Field with a much-needed intra-division victory.

Now, that is a pretty specific set of circumstances, but it’s not an outlandish possibility. The reverse could also work: right-handed starter and reliever sandwiching a lefty reliever, forcing Guyer and Jackson to face a tough righty in the later innings. And to reiterate, simply by starting a left-handed pitcher, the Indians’ expected offensive production will decline.

Ideally, the Royals would have multiple lefties in the bullpen, which is why I’d prefer having Karns start and Wood relieve, but they can make it work either way. While they may not make a huge impact, or even appear in the big leagues, Scott Alexander, Mike Minor, and Eric Skoglund also throw baseballs with their left hands, and could conceivably be used to help attack Cleveland’s relative weak spot. There are options.

Things can change, and perhaps their offense performs better against lefties this season. Maybe their switch-hitters and Encarnacion do enough to overcome any poor numbers from their role players, as well as make up for the time Brantley is on the disabled list. But if this platoon problem can be exploited by someone, even ever-so-slightly, the Royals are well-positioned to be that someone. They’ll be rolling out left-handed starters two or three days out of five, and with at least one solid lefty in the bullpen, Yost will have enough weapons to try and tip the scales back in his favor.

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