Making Sense of the Lineup Makeover
Image courtesy of © Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY SportsUsually I'd hash through everything and make you wait for the conclusion, but this thing got long. So instead, it's choose your own adventure! Here comes the conclusion, stick around for the more detailed analysis if you'd like.
Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop are all right-handed pull power hitters who are comfortably above average against right-handed pitching, making them particularly platoon proof. If you believe Target Field is a great place for right-handed hitters, it seems to make a ton of sense to seek out that profile. Also, if you’re inclined to carry a 13-man pitching staff, as is commonplace in today’s age, filling your roster with guys who can hit same-sided pitching makes a ton of sense. One-dimensional hitters really lose their value when you only have three bench spots.
Alright, that’s the quick hit take. For those of you interested in a deeper dive, here we go ...
The OBP Issue
Take a look at how those new additions stack up against some of the key departures in terms of OBP over the past three seasons.
.371 Robbie Grossman
.366 Joe Mauer
.359 Nelson Cruz
.336 Brian Dozier
.319 C.J. Cron
.313 Eduardo Escobar
.304 Jonathan Schoop
The added pop is welcome from the new faces, but the Twins ranked 16th in OBP last season as it was. They can ill afford a slip further back. This is still definitely a concern of mine.
The Lefty Issue
The Twins had a 91 wRC+ against lefties last season, which ranked 21st in baseball. To make matters worse, they also lost their best two hitters against lefties last season in terms of wRC+ (min. 100 PAs vs. LHP). Robbie Grossman led the club with a 147 wRC+ vs. southpaws while Joe Mauer finished second at 106.
So these new right-handed bats will help solve that problem, right? Well ... it's interesting. Let’s take a look.
Into the Splits
Before we continue, I think it’s important to relay the league averages for context. Here are the league batting splits of right-handed hitters from 2018 per Baseball-Reference:
RHB vs. LHP: .251/.330/.423 (.753 OPS), 21.3 K%, 9.8 BB%
RHB vs. RHP: .246/.308/.403 (.711 OPS), 23.0 K%, 7.2 BB%
So how do the new guys stack up? We’re going to first take a look at their career splits. I’ll touch on some interesting single-season trends a bit later, but it's worth pointing out an everyday player may only get around 150 plate appearances against lefties in a season. That’s not a very big sample, so I prefer to look at the bigger picture first.
Nelson Cruz career
vs. LHP: .290/.378/.549 (.927 OPS), 20.0 K%, 12.0 BB%
vs. RHP: .269/.328/.507 (.835 OPS), 23.3 K%, 7.3 BB%
Cruz has definitely been a lefty killer over his career, but there’s really nothing lacking about his slash line against same-sided pitchers. Last season, the league average OPS for a DH was .774, which he blows out of the water even against right-handers.
Cruz ranks seventh in wRC+ vs. right-handed pitchers among the 150 right-handed batters with at least 600 PAs over the past three seasons. Even though he's hit lefties much harder, Cruz actually ranks 10th vs. left-handers among the 186 right-handers with at least 250 PAs last three seasons. Point is that Cruz is an uncharacteristically balanced hitter. Was that something the Twins found particularly attractive about him?
Cruz is a great power hitter, has has a solid OBP and crushes lefties, so he checks all the boxes. But the curious thing to me is the Twins already had some interesting internal options to fill the DH spot. Tyler Austin has a career .937 OPS against lefties and Jake Cave has an .844 OPS against right-handers, making them appear to be perfect platoon partners. But in today’s age of the three-man bench, is it really optimal to try and deploy a platoon? The Twins didn’t seem to think so. Moving on …
C.J. Cron career
vs. LHP: .264/.313/.463 (.776 OPS), 21.9 K%, 5.9 BB%
vs. RHP: .258/.311/.460 (.770 OPS), 22.8 K%, 5.2 BB%
Take a look at that. Cron has essentially been the exact same guy against either side over his career. There’s certainly been some fluctuation year-to-year, more on that in a moment, but the grand totals are incredibly even. Cron appears to be a very steady option. This only adds steam to the theory that the front office was seeking out balanced hitters who do not need a platoon partner. OK, now let’s get weird …
Jonathan Schoop career
vs. LHP: .246/.292/.401 (.693 OPS) 24.9 K%, 5.8 BB%
vs. RHP: .262/.294/.461 (.755 OPS), 21.7 K%, 2.9 BB%
Huh? Schoop has actually been a good amount worse against southpaws over his career!? Does not compute. I had to triple check these numbers. Since the start of 2014, Schoop ranks 81st among 86 right-handed hitters in wRC+ vs. left-handed pitching (min. 600 PAs).
Still, just like Cruz and Cron, Schoop is comfortably better than the average right-handed hitter against same-sided pitching. And there are some interesting things to observe in the single-season splits.
Schoop has struggled against lefties for most of his career, but he hit .300/.361/.593 (.955 OPS) in 166 plate appearances against them in 2017. That was by far and away Schoop’s best season. The bigger sample doesn’t inspire confidence, but maybe the Twins expect a better performance against southpaws again in 2019.
Cron has been solid against lefties, but in no means a lefty killer over his career. In 2018, however, he hit .307/.376/.553 (.930 OPS) in 170 plate appearances them. Hmm, so Cron’s best season against lefties also lines up with his career year. That’s an interesting coincidence. Again, keep those sample sizes in mind.
When I think of Schoop and Cron in terms of their ceiling and floor, I think this splits conversation is a really good place to start. Both have shown the ability to consistently produce against right-handed pitchers. That helps give them a high floor. But what if they destroy lefties again? That’s how they could also have a high ceiling.
Projected AL Central Rotations
Let’s take a look around of rest of the division. According to Roster Resource, there are only five left-handed starters projected to occupy the rotation spots of the four AL Central rivals: Matthew Boyd and Matt Moore of the Tigers, Carlos Rodon and Manny Banuelos of the White Sox and Danny Duffy of the Royals. Not exactly world beaters.
Cleveland is expected to have an all right-handed rotation of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber. And remember, with the unbalanced schedule the Twins play nearly half their games against AL Central foes. So there wouldn’t be much advantage in the Twins adding hitters who just mashed lefties.
So why not just target left-handed hitters then? Well, balance for one thing. The Twins already have lefties Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler playing everyday and Jason Castro is expected to return as the primary catcher. Also, the switch-hitting Jorge Polanco has been much better from the left side over his career. That’s already almost half of your primary lineup.
We’ve also seen right-handed pull power play up at Target Field. According to the data on FanGraphs, the league average pull rate was 40.3 percent last season. Over the past three years, Schoop is at 44.7 percent, Cron is at 41.6 and Cruz at 41.1. That's nowhere near as extreme as Brian Dozier (51.2) or Josh Willingham (49.7), but all three are still above average. Perhaps they'll even be encouraged to pull the ball more frequently this year.
So How Does the Lineup Look?
Here’s a list of Twins hitters who are above average versus each side. In 2018, all batters (regardless of handedness) combined for a .731 OPS against right-handers and a .720 mark against lefties.
Twins hitters who are better than those averages against right-handers over their careers:
.844 Jake Cave
.835 Nelson Cruz
.813 Eddie Rosario
.802 Miguel Sano
.776 Max Kepler
.776 Mitch Garver
.771 Jorge Polanco
.770 C.J. Cron
.755 Jonathan Schoop
.739 Jason Castro
That’s 10 guys! This Twins team is going to be able to field a very deep lineup against right-handed pitching.
Twins hitters who are better than average against lefties over their careers:
.937 Tyler Austin
.927 Nelson Cruz
.846 Miguel Sano
.776 C.J. Cron
That’s it. Considering the composition of the other teams in the division, however, this doesn’t seem like such a bad problem to have. While there are fewer guys who hold their own against lefties, those top three can really mash. And just imagine if Cron and Schoop can crush southpaws like they did in their career years. It's also worth noting Byron Buxton had a .792 OPS against lefties in 2017.
But what about Willians!?!?!? His MLB samples are just so small, less than 100 total plate appearances, so I didn’t include him. But between the majors and minors last year Astudillo had an .800 OPS against right-handers (304 PAs) and an .830 OPS versus lefties (100 PAs). Lucas Duda’s not on the 40-man roster, but it’s worth mentioning he has a career .839 OPS against right-handers but just a .642 OPS versus lefties.
But What About Those Short-Term Deals?
That’s the one thing I don’t really have an answer to. I wouldn’t suggest the Twins should have signed any one of Cruz/Cron/Schoop to a long-term pact, but it seems like it would have made some sense to target at least one addition who would be around for the long haul. If not via free agency, then through the trade market.
After all the one-year deals went so poorly last season, and the front office was open about how that may have been a mistake, I expected them to focus more on long-term assets. Schoop is on a one-year deal, Cruz has an option with a very modest buyout and Cron has one more year of arbitration eligibility after 2019.
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