Platooning Minutia

I’ve been thinking a lot about platooning lately, I just finished up a book on Casey Stengel and I’m in the midst of the playoffs in my Strat league. If you know anything about Casey Stengel or if you’ve ever played Strat then you probably have pondered platoons before. Furthermore the recent Reds signing of Jeff Conine has seemed to strike fear in the hearts of some baseball fans. Some people (mostly Reds fans) are afraid that he’ll somehow find his way into the lineup in the outfield or even against right-handed batters. Conine has already been earmarked as the RH 1st base option of the moment, his .337/.400 line from last year makes him the perfect bookend to Hatteberg, another player in the long line of BA driven Reds first baseman. Don’t get me wrong, Conine has his perks, I should know he’s a starter 50% of the time on my Strat team. (I did mention the playoffs right?) Anyway, back to the platoons.

Platoons are a funny thing, especially if you grew up a fan of the Reds with the Big Red Machine; a team that knew no platoons. But that was standard for that era, because platoons are like the long ball and the bunt; it appears and then vanishes as simply as it had previously appeared. I can point you to a brief history of platooning in Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (page 117) he covers it better then I and if you are reading this site and have never read that particular work, do your self a favor and get it.

If you want to break down the platoon arrangement mathematically you can see how it was done by the Baseball Prospectus team in their book Baseball Between the Numbers, to cut to the chase they state: “Any general manager who signs a player based on his individual platoon splits is crediting him a skill no batter has definitively possessed.”

It wouldn’t be baseball if the odds weren’t being tested all the time. Take James citing of the first platoon from the 1887 Indianapolis Hoosiers. The players were Gid Gardner (RH) and Tom Brown (LH) and the position the shared was first base. Not mentioned is the man likely responsible for that decision, probably this is due to the Hoosiers having three managers including Watch Burnham. A 27-year-old man who never played in the major leagues, but managed the 1887 to a 6-22 record that season. Could it have been Watch?

And could have the platoon really not have mattered?

Gid Gardner       .175  .307  .238
Tom Brown        .179  .228  .243

Like most trends in the game platooning took hold when it was part of the tools used to win the World Series. This was way back in 1914 and the manager was George Stallings who had a pretty nice left-handed slugger (in deadball terms) in Less Mann, but wanted a little more from the right side, that’s where Cincinnati comes in trading the Braves Herbie Moran a batter with little pop but some on base skills. He would share the outfield spot with Mann through their impossible runs and their sweep of the A’s in the World Series. After that the use of platooning began to take hold of the league and was used by every team in some capacity. However it wasn’t termed platooning back then, it was called “switching” or was simply not mentioned. The term platoon was used in The Sporting News prior to World War Two as a description of a “group” on the field or in reserve; it was often centered on the pitching staff.

Platooning faded in the 1920’s and pretty much vanished from the game during the depression. The term “Platooning” found it’s way back to the front page of the sports section following the war when the Army College football team began to use players for both Defense and Offense. This “Two-Platoon” system was booed by fans and derided by former players. But it eventually began to become part of the game that we all see today.

After the uproar dies down in the world of football the world of platooning finds its way to New York where new Yankees manager Casey Stengel uses it openly, frustrating players, but playing the odds, like a Strat player, like a card player. Casey becomes known as the great platoon guy, in the same manner that Tony LaRussa is derided for his use of the bullpen Casey was derided for the use of his bench and his match up fetish, whether it was dictated by situation or a RH/LH split Casey had a reason for it and he’d tell you as soon as he could. Eventually baseball dropped the “Two” preface and the term platooning was applied to whatever player matchups or role sharing scenario was happening on the ball club.

You have to wonder about what made Casey such a lover of the platoon; my guess is because it worked so early in his career when he played under McGraw. You see Casey was a LH hitter who couldn’t hit left handed pitching. Acquired in 1921 he never faced a left hander as a Giant that season, in 1922 Casey came to bat as a New York Giant 247 times and only 6 of those at bats were against left-handers. I his other 241 at bats against right handed pitching he had a line of .365/.432/.564.

Most managers bring a bit of their playing career into the dugout, Casey definitely did.

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