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Chavez has plenty to prove in '04

3/26/2004 - Oakland Athletics

Revisiting Monday's column (and after this I'll write about some team other than the Athletics, I promise) ...


    Rob,

    I agree that Eric Chavez is the best third baseman in the AL, but isn't it kind of dangerous to give the man $11 million a year on the assumption that eventually he'll learn to hit left-handed pitching? I remember this being an issue when he was in the minors, too. There have been some otherwise great talents, like Von Hayes, for whom this has been a perpetual problem. Is there evidence that players like this generally achieve normal platoon differentials?

    Best Wishes,
    Scott McClellan

First, checking a couple of Scott's assertions ... I don't have Chavez's complete splits in the minors, but in 1998 with Double-A Huntsville, he batted .396 in 240 at-bats against right-handed pitchers ... and .158 in 95 at-bats against left-handers. So yeah, it was an issue. But Von Hayes wasn't really so terrible against lefties. Here are his career splits (1981-1992), courtesy of the 2001 edition of Total Baseball:

OBP Slug
vs RHP .367 .443
vs LHP .320 .349

No, those numbers against lefties certainly aren't good. But what we're really talking about here isn't just struggling against lefties, but the difference between numbers against lefties and righties. And Hayes' difference, while substantial, is nowhere near historic.

Flipping through some current players, along with players of the 1980s and '90s, I found others whose performance suffered badly against southpaws.

ABvLH OPSvsRH OPSvsLH %Diff
Chavez 711 921 648 -30
R Klesko 1002 950 690 -27
J Thome 1467 1058 775 -27
D Nilsson 705 877 643 -27
Al Martin 739 821 602 -27
Hal Morris 943 846 626 -26
Mel Hall 697 789 584 -26

This list is not the result of an exhaustive survey, but I think I got most of the left-handed hitters with 1) at least 500 career at-bats against lefties, and 2) an OPS at least 25 percent lower against lefties than righties (and the stats for Dave Nilsson and Hal Morris include only what they did through the 2000 season). I did find some longtime major leaguers with even bigger percentage differences than Chavez -- Rich Becker (-40!), Randy Bush, John Vander Wal -- but they were considered so inept against left-handers that they very rarely played against them.

So yes, Chavez has been especially awful against left-handers, relative to his performance against right-handers. Is he likely to get better? Well, I found one hitter who "learned" to hit left-handed pitchers: Ryan Klesko. Here's how he fared against lefties from 1992 through 2000, and then from 2001 through 2003:

1992-2000 2001-2003
OBP Slug OBP Slug
vs RHP .382 .570 .393 .554
vs LHP .304 .336 .337 .422

What's interesting is that while Klesko's numbers against right-handed pitchers are quite similar in both periods, his numbers against lefties look more "normal" in the second period. What I can't tell you is whether Klesko really did learn something, or Lady Lucky finally favored him.

Just to refresh your memory, here are Chavez's career stats against righties and lefties:

OBP Slug
vs RHP .371 .550
vs LHP .274 .374

Compare those numbers to Klesko's from 1992 through 2000, and you'll see more than a passing similarity. Does this mean that Chavez is going to turn things around at some point, as Klesko did? I suspect that he probably will.

On the other hand, Chavez's platoon split isn't wildly out of line; as we saw in the first table, other left-handed hitters have similar numbers. It's likely that some left-handed hitters just struggle to hit left-handed pitchers, and it's likely that Chavez is one of them.

But does that mean it's "dangerous" (as Scott suggested) to pay Chavez $11 million per season? Again (as I argued on Monday), I don't think so, because for all his struggles against lefties, he makes up for them by murdering righties. There is one caveat, though (isn't there always?). As Joe Sheehan recently pointed out in his Baseball Prospectus column, opposing managers, armed with deep bullpens and situational left-handers, are well-equipped to take advantage of Chavez's weakness in the late innings of close games. In fact, since 2000 Chavez has faced 27 percent more left-handers in so-called "late and close" situations than the typical left-handed batter.

What Joe hasn't done -- and I wish he would, because I'm not smart enough to do it myself -- is translate those at-bats against left-handed pitchers into runs, and wins. How many games does he cost them every season, with his helplessness against southpaws? And to what degree does he compensate for that helplessness with his amazing defense?

Chavez is a great player. Even if you throw Alex Rodriguez into the mix, Chavez is one of the three most valuable third basemen in the major leagues. But if Chavez was on your Strat-O-Matic team, you wouldn't let him play against lefties. The Oakland Athletics are not, of course, a Strat-O-Matic team. Chavez has now been anointed as the franchise's flagship, and manager Ken Macha probably doesn't have the freedom to do what he probably should do, which is give some of Chavez's at-bats to Marco Scutaro.

Marco who?

Marco Scutaro. If you're not a Mets fan you've probably never heard of him, but now he's an A, and he can play. Scutaro's 28 and he's no Gold Glove third baseman, but over the last three seasons in Triple-A he's combined for a .450 slugging percentage and a .379 on-base percentage. Yes, that was only Triple-A ... but what would Scutaro's numbers look like if he played only against left-handed pitchers?

I don't know either, but I'm pretty sure they'd be good enough to justify a spot on your Strat team. Will they be enough to justify a spot in Macha's lineup? Not often. Unless you're Earl Weaver, you don't platoon the flagship with a Triple-A lifer, and you certainly don't pinch-hit for him.

But you know, there's nothing wrong with a day off now and then. The A's play 53 games in 2004 against the Mariners, White Sox, Royals, Twins, and Indians. And if Chavez gets the occasional day off against the likes of Jamie Moyer, Mark Buehrle, Brian Anderson, Johan Santana and C.C. Sabathia, would it really be the end of the world? I won't use the p-word if you don't.

************

About left-handed hitters ... I'm told that while, as a group, they don't show a larger platoon differential than right-handed hitters, they do have a larger standard deviation, which essentially means that you'll find more left-handed hitters with platoon splits far different from the average.

Why would this be? I asked this question a few weeks ago, and after sifting through all the responses I've got two pretty good theories.

Familiarity: Coming up through the amateur ranks, very few players see many left-handed pitchers at all, let alone quality sliders and curveballs from left-handed pitchers. If hitting is like almost everything else -- the older you get, the harder it is to learn difficult skills -- then not seeing those pitches before reaching your early 20s might make hitting them quite a difficult chore.

Selection: If a right-handed hitter struggles to hit right-handed pitching in high school, he'll never get drafted. But if a left-handed hitter struggles to hit left-handed pitching, who's going to know?

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.