Platooning Ain’t Easy

“Just platoon it.” Whenever a team has a weak spot in their lineup, that’s the first thing I think of. Limp left field production? Just sprinkle some platoon on it, and you could be living large. Second base got you down? You’re just one platoon away from competence, or even excellence if you play your cards right. Second base and left field are bad? Bam, platoon them both!

It isn’t actually that easy. If you want to deploy a platoon in the majors (as opposed to in theory, my favorite place to deploy platoons), you have to wrangle with reality, which is notoriously unforgiving. In that vein, this is an article I’m writing to remind myself how hard it is to run multiple platoons at once. It’s not necessarily a reason not to platoon. It’s not even a critique of platooning. It’s just that in my head, and potentially in yours, teams are passing up platoon spots left and right. Here are some reasons why that isn’t true.

Too Many Pitchers

This one is kind of easy, but one way to end up short on platoon-able bats is to run a 14-man pitching staff. That leaves you 12 roster spots to, you know, play baseball with. There are eight positions on the field — and let’s be real, probably nine in both leagues after this year — which leaves three bench spots. Subtract one for a backup catcher, and that leaves you two “bench” spots to cover backups across all your positions and platoons.

The other examples in this article will come with specific teams who have been in this exact situation, but there’s almost no point in this scenario. The math is too obvious. You can support one platoon on 12 players if one of the platoon partners doubles as a multi-position backup, but you can’t platoon first base, or two DH-only bats, or any generic combinations of big hulking sluggers.

This particular reason not to platoon is also likely on its way out. The 26-man roster was supposed to carry a 13-pitcher maximum with it. That pitcher cap was suspended in 2020, though, a prudent decision given the strangeness of the COVID season. It remained suspended in 2021 as pitchers built up towards a full workload again. It’s likely to return in 2022, at which point this platoon limitation will stop existing.

Awkward Backups

Imagine a platoon-y outfielder — let’s say Hunter Renfroe. Imagine a lefty who can also play the outfield — dealer’s choice of Franchy Cordero, Alex Verdugo, and Jarren Duran. That’s a tailor-made platoon right there. But now let’s take a look at Boston’s starting lineups from July 21 through July 31:

Red Sox Starting Lineup July 21-31
Day Starter C 1B 2B 3B SS LF CF RF DH
7/21 L Christian Vázquez Bobby Dalbec Michael Chavis Rafael Devers Xander Bogaerts Danny Santana Enrique Hernández Hunter Renfroe J.D. Martinez
7/22 L Christian Vázquez Bobby Dalbec Michael Chavis Rafael Devers Xander Bogaerts Alex Verdugo Enrique Hernández Hunter Renfroe J.D. Martinez
7/23 R Christian Vázquez Bobby Dalbec Enrique Hernández Rafael Devers Xander Bogaerts Alex Verdugo Jarren Duran Hunter Renfroe J.D. Martinez
7/24 R Kevin Plawecki Michael Chavis Enrique Hernández Rafael Devers Xander Bogaerts Alex Verdugo Jarren Duran Franchy Cordero J.D. Martinez
7/25 R Christian Vázquez Franchy Cordero Enrique Hernández Rafael Devers Xander Bogaerts Alex Verdugo Jarren Duran Hunter Renfroe J.D. Martinez
7/26 R Christian Vázquez Franchy Cordero Michael Chavis Rafael Devers Enrique Hernández Alex Verdugo Jarren Duran Hunter Renfroe J.D. Martinez
7/28 (1) L Christian Vázquez Bobby Dalbec Michael Chavis Rafael Devers Enrique Hernández J.D. Martinez Alex Verdugo Hunter Renfroe Kevin Plawecki
7/28 (2) L Kevin Plawecki Bobby Dalbec Enrique Hernández Rafael Devers Xander Bogaerts Alex Verdugo Jarren Duran Hunter Renfroe J.D. Martinez
7/29 L Christian Vázquez Franchy Cordero Enrique Hernández Bobby Dalbec Xander Bogaerts Alex Verdugo Jarren Duran Hunter Renfroe J.D. Martinez
7/30 L Christian Vázquez Bobby Dalbec Enrique Hernández Jonathan Araúz Xander Bogaerts Alex Verdugo Jarren Duran Hunter Renfroe J.D. Martinez
7/31 L Christian Vázquez Bobby Dalbec Jonathan Araúz Rafael Devers Xander Bogaerts Alex Verdugo Enrique Hernández Hunter Renfroe J.D. Martinez

A quick note on the color coding I’ll be using the rest of the article: blue means the hitter started the game with the platoon advantage; red means the pitcher had it.

With that note covered: there aren’t really any outfield platoons here. Renfroe started three of four games against righties. Verdugo drew a start in six of the seven games against lefties. Duran got plenty of run against lefties, too. Cordero is the closest thing to a platoon partner for Renfroe, but the Sox mostly started both of them against righties. The Sox played against plenty of lefties, and having Bogaerts, Hernández, and Martinez in nearly every starting lineup made for a lot of good matchups, but some of the sketchier parts of the roster didn’t get the extra help they needed.

Why? The backups didn’t really work out. Kiké Hernández is theoretically well-suited to platoon with Duran or Verdugo, but he spent a lot of this stretch playing the infield. Cordero and Renfroe couldn’t platoon because Cordero started at first base over Bobby Dalbec and Michael Chavis, both righties. Chavis was a multi-position backup until he was traded on July 30, but to the extent that he was platooning, it was a sideways rotation with Duran in center, and the team eventually benched Chavis against lefties in favor of Duran anyway.

In other words, the rotations here just didn’t quite work out to allow any clear platoons. Some kind of Duran/Renfroe, Duran/Hernandez, Verdugo/Renfroe, or Verdugo/Hernandez combination might have worked to juice up an outfield spot; Renfroe is best used against lefties, and the Sox faced a ton of them in this sample. But the rotating cast of first and second basemen, combined with the intermittent need to spell everyday infielders, meant that the players you’d want for your outfield platoons were mostly busy elsewhere.

The Red Sox still managed one platoon, more or less: first base, where they had the handedness advantage in eight of their 11 games. But where would they create a second platoon? A lefty second baseman would be nice, but both of their options there were right-handed multi-position types. A lefty outfielder? They were awash in those, and they still couldn’t manage to platoon Renfroe. The Boston lineup had some enviable flexibility due to Hernández, but it didn’t translate into obvious platoons, even with someone like Renfroe on the squad, because of where the backups played.

Who Would They Use?

The Red Sox didn’t manage to platoon as much as you would expect, but maybe they were hamstrung (in this particular endeavor) by a locked-in DH spot. If you’re using your DH spot to rotate players, that means more opportunities for platoons. Let’s use that July 28 double-header as a jumping-off point for another platoon-deficient team:

Blue Jays Starting Lineup July 28-August 8
Date Starter C 1B 2B 3B SS LF CF RF DH
7/28 (1) R Alejandro Kirk Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Marcus Semien Cavan Biggio Bo Bichette Lourdes Gurriel Jr. George Springer Randal Grichuk Teoscar Hernández
7/28 (2) R Reese McGuire Lourdes Gurriel Jr. Marcus Semien Santiago Espinal Bo Bichette Teoscar Hernández George Springer Randal Grichuk Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
7/29 L Reese McGuire Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Marcus Semien Santiago Espinal Bo Bichette Cavan Biggio Randal Grichuk Teoscar Hernández George Springer
7/30 L Alejandro Kirk Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Marcus Semien Santiago Espinal Bo Bichette Teoscar Hernández George Springer Randal Grichuk Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
7/31 L Alejandro Kirk Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Marcus Semien Santiago Espinal Bo Bichette Lourdes Gurriel Jr. George Springer Teoscar Hernández Randal Grichuk
8/1 R Reese McGuire Cavan Biggio Marcus Semien Santiago Espinal Bo Bichette Lourdes Gurriel Jr. Randal Grichuk Teoscar Hernández George Springer
8/2 R Alejandro Kirk Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Cavan Biggio Santiago Espinal Marcus Semien Teoscar Hernández George Springer Randal Grichuk Bo Bichette
8/3 R Reese McGuire Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Marcus Semien Breyvic Valera Bo Bichette Lourdes Gurriel Jr. George Springer Teoscar Hernández Corey Dickerson
8/4 R Reese McGuire Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Marcus Semien Breyvic Valera Bo Bichette Corey Dickerson Randal Grichuk Teoscar Hernández George Springer
8/5 R Reese McGuire Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Marcus Semien Santiago Espinal Bo Bichette Lourdes Gurriel Jr. George Springer Randal Grichuk Corey Dickerson
8/6 R Alejandro Kirk Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Marcus Semien Breyvic Valera Bo Bichette Lourdes Gurriel Jr. Randal Grichuk Teoscar Hernández George Springer
8/7 (1) R Alejandro Kirk Lourdes Gurriel Jr. Marcus Semien Santiago Espinal Bo Bichette Corey Dickerson George Springer Teoscar Hernández Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
8/7 (2) R Reese McGuire Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Marcus Semien Breyvic Valera Bo Bichette Corey Dickerson Randal Grichuk Teoscar Hernández George Springer
8/8 R Reese McGuire Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Breyvic Valera Santiago Espinal Marcus Semien Lourdes Gurriel Jr. George Springer Teoscar Hernández Corey Dickerson

The Blue Jays seem like an ideal candidate to run a ton of platoons. Randal Grichuk? Platoon central. Cavan Biggio? He can play anywhere, and also mostly shouldn’t face lefties. Corey Dickerson is positionally limited, but he crushes righties. Not only that, but in Alejandro Kirk, the team also has a catcher who can shift to DH against either handedness of pitcher with no problem. Toronto is heavily right-handed in its base configuration; in two of the games against lefty starters, every hitter in the lineup batted righty. But a few good lefty bats replacing the less fearsome hitters (no one was bumping Springer, Guerrero, Semien, or Bichette out of the lineup) would go a long way toward extending the lineup against right-handed starters.

But the Jays didn’t shift Kirk to DH to add another platoon-proof bat. They also mostly didn’t sit Grichuk against righties, because they were busy giving everyone rest. Biggio hit the IL on August 3, and after that, they didn’t really have a lefty infield bat to make the rotations sing; Valera is a switch-hitter, and no one’s idea of a platoon bat. There simply weren’t any lefties to use.

Even with Biggio in the lineup, Espinal drew three starts against four righties. That’s because Biggio and Espinal double as backups at multiple other positions, so their platoon often becomes “just start both.” Guerrero needs a day off at first? That’s Biggio’s cue. When Bichette rested, that often moved Semien to short and Biggio to second. It’s useful to have a versatile defender who can hit, but unless there’s another lefty bat to handle the “platoon” part of his job, someone needs to play third base, and that someone in this case was Espinal.

When Dickerson came off the IL, there was a perfect opportunity to add a platoon piece in the outfield. But with the outfielders rotating through DH, there wasn’t quite as much space as you’d think. Dickerson joined the team the same day Biggio hit the IL — he’d been on the shelf himself — and crowded Grichuk out a bit. But Grichuk still started four of the next seven contests against righties. If you looked at the Jays’ lineup, you’d definitely pencil in a Grichuk/Dickerson platoon, but given that the team had no real outfield depth behind them, whichever side of the platoon was “off” that day frequently spelled another outfielder anyway.

The Jays weren’t roster-constrained at all during this time. If they had another impact bat, they could have plugged them into the lineup immediately; when they activated Danny Jansen from the IL on August 31, they started using Kirk at DH on occasion to hide Grichuk against righties. The problem is simply that despite a flexible roster, the team didn’t have a worthy bat to gobble up plate appearances against righties. Apparently, you can’t just say “platoon” and expect everything to be okay. Who knew?

How Platoons Actually Work

Let’s stay in the AL East for an example of how things look when you’re maximizing your roster and acquiring the right platoon bats to use those roster spots. After the trade deadline, the Rays had a new-look team with Nelson Cruz and Wander Franco as fixtures in the everyday lineup. That’s not to say they weren’t a little bit lefty-heavy, but they played musical chairs quite well:

Tampa Bay Rays Starting Lineup August 10-17
Day Starter C 1B 2B 3B SS LF CF RF DH
8/10 L Mike Zunino Jordan Luplow Brandon Lowe Yandy Díaz Wander Franco Austin Meadows Manuel Margot Randy Arozarena Nelson Cruz
8/11 R Francisco Mejía Ji-Man Choi Brandon Lowe Joey Wendle Wander Franco Austin Meadows Brett Phillips Randy Arozarena Nelson Cruz
8/12 R Mike Zunino Yandy Díaz Brandon Lowe Joey Wendle Wander Franco Austin Meadows Kevin Kiermaier Brett Phillips Nelson Cruz
8/13 R Mike Zunino Yandy Díaz Brandon Lowe Joey Wendle Wander Franco Randy Arozarena Kevin Kiermaier Manuel Margot Nelson Cruz
8/14 R Francisco Mejía Ji-Man Choi Brandon Lowe Joey Wendle Wander Franco Austin Meadows Kevin Kiermaier Randy Arozarena Nelson Cruz
8/15 L Mike Zunino Jordan Luplow Mike Brosseau Joey Wendle Wander Franco Austin Meadows Manuel Margot Randy Arozarena Nelson Cruz
8/16 R Francisco Mejía Ji-Man Choi Brandon Lowe Mike Brosseau Joey Wendle Manuel Margot Kevin Kiermaier Brett Phillips Austin Meadows
8/17 L Mike Zunino Jordan Luplow Brandon Lowe Yandy Díaz Wander Franco Randy Arozarena Kevin Kiermaier Manuel Margot Nelson Cruz

Compared to the other teams we’ve looked at, that’s a veritable sea of blue. The machinations involved in getting everyone their rest and mostly finding good matchups is impressive. Wendle started all five games against righties and only one of three against lefties. Phillips and Choi only played against righties, and Luplow only played against lefties. Lowe’s rest day came against a lefty; Cruz’s came against a righty. Arozarena played almost every day, but when he got two days off, they were both against righties.

If you’ll notice, though, the Rays used 15 position players to manage that juggling act. Off stage, they were running through relievers like mad. Over these eight days, they called up seven different relievers, shuffling the bullpen often enough that they frequently had fresh arms despite fewer pitchers available on any given day. Even then, Brosseau got sent back down on August 17, Luplow hit the IL a few days later, and both were replaced with pitchers. Even the peripatetic Rays couldn’t maintain their max-platoon approach for long.

So, should teams platoon wherever they can? Absolutely. Managers and front offices aren’t dumb; they try to put their players in the best position to succeed. But there are myriad ways that “platoon where you can” turns into “just run out Hunter Renfroe against a righty” more quickly than you might expect. If you think your favorite team should run more platoons to hide weak bats, trust me: it’s trying. The rigors of building a major league roster just don’t let them sometimes.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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MikeSmember
6 months ago

Not only is it harder to do it because teams carry so many pitchers, it is easier to neutralize it because the other team also carries a lot of pitchers. The three batter rule makes it a little more difficult, but it is still likely that the other team can neutralize your platoon or force you to make a switch (further shortening your bench) as early as the 5th or 6th inning these days. It just doesn’t have as much benefit as it did when starters went longer and bullpens were smaller.