Remember when I said Joe Maddon had his work cut out for him in 2017? Turns out, his job might be easier than I thought. That’s because he’s projected to have two of the top five platoons in baseball this year.
MLB.com’s Mike Petriello looked at several dozen platoon positions and used Steamer projections to name the top combos as expressed by weighted on-base average (wOBA). If you’re not intimately familiar with that particular stat, think OBP but with more emphasis on extra-base hits. Makes sense, right? OBP considers all hits the same, even though that’s clearly not true in reality. Oh, he also weighted the lefty hitters at two-thirds of the total since there are more righty pitchers.
At the top of the heap was the combo of Kyle Schwarber and Ben Zobrist, who are projected to combine for a .362 wOBA in left field. That’s nearly 40 points above the average for non-pitchers (.323) and beat out the second-place pair of Yasiel Puig and Andre Ethier by 8 points. Here’s some of what Petriello had to say about Schwarbrist:
Schwarber, unsurprisingly, is expected to smash righty pitching (.378 wOBA), and there’s more righty pitching than lefty pitching to face. But it remains to be seen how he’ll do against lefties, and defensive issues and Baez’s presence probably push Zobrist out here against southpaws. He’s projected to be slightly above-average against them (.328) and certainly better than Schwarber, so the combo here could be baseball’s best duo.
The next two spots were occupied by relatively insignificant duos — the Yankees’ Greg Bird and Tyler Austin (.350) and the Orioles’ Mark Trumbo and Seth Smith (.347) — but it got interesting again after that. Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to belittle the middle. I just meant that most readers of this blog will probably have less interest in them than the guys who came in at No. 5 on the list.
Hey, there’s Zobrist again. The World Series MVP is back with another young charge, but this time he’s providing the lefty bat with support from Javier Baez. The two are projected to post an aggregate .344 wOBA that lifts them just barely above the rest of the pack. Petriello’s comments offer us more insight into how Maddon might move his men around once the season opens.
Here’s the other side of the Cubs’ left-field coin, because Baez is projected to do exactly what he’s done over his short career, which is to hit lefties well, and be somewhat below-average against righties. (Career against righties so far: .231/.268/.367.) Now, given the advantage the Cubs figure to have over the rest of the National League Central, it’s easily possible that they simply let Baez play every day in an attempt to let him improve. But the most productive combo here is having Zobrist start against righties, just because he wouldn’t be in left against them and he’s better than Baez against them. Either player could start every day here and be valuable; using them as a duo makes the team better. And doesn’t that sound like Maddon?
While there’s much more to it that just platooning by handedness, the best-on-paper managerial decisions would have Zobrist playing second base against righties and manning left against southpaws. It won’t always work that way, of course, as you still want Baez and War Bear to have exposure to those pitchers in order to improve against them. There’s also the matter of giving Zobrist a little more rest over the course of the season.
As I’ve mentioned before, I expect to see Zo’s playing time dialed back a little as Maddon seeks to keep him fresh. That doesn’t mean he turns into a role-playing bench bat, just that he’ll get more pine time as the young guys shoulder more of the load moving forward. Zobrist’s value is obviously still high, as evidenced by his presence in two of the top five platton combos in the game.
There are all sorts of other conclusions we can draw (feel free to color away in the comments below), but the moral of the story is that the Cubs are really good. At least, that’s my highly scientific assessment of them.