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Platoon network: 2017's projected top duos

Cubs left field of Schwarber, Zobrist could be baseball's top combo
January 30, 2017

How do you make players look better than they are? One great way is not to ask them to do something they can't really do. For example, guys like Andrew Miller and Zach Britton look a lot better as relievers than they did as starters. Mark Trumbo is a lot

How do you make players look better than they are? One great way is not to ask them to do something they can't really do. For example, guys like Andrew Miller and Zach Britton look a lot better as relievers than they did as starters. Mark Trumbo is a lot more valuable at first base than he is in right field. There might not be a single thing a manager can do that's more important than simply "put his players in a position to succeed."
When it comes to the lineup card, nowhere does that stand out more obviously than in platoon situations, where it's easy to gain an advantage -- or hide a disadvantage -- by deploying a strong platoon. Terry Francona didn't win the American League Manager of the Year Award simply by having Cleveland lead baseball in platoon advantage both in hitting and pitching, but it didn't hurt. When you take only the strongest parts of two players, they can combine to approximate a bigger (and almost certainly higher-paid) name.
That being the case, who heads into 2017 with the strongest hitting platoon situations? We scoured the depth charts and identified more than 40 potential platoon positions where it's unlikely one player will be in the lineup every single day, and used platoon split projections from the respected Steamer system, which uses a variety of Minor and Major League data as inputs. We'll express the output in Weighted On-Base Average, which is very similar to OBP except it gives increasingly more credit for extra-base hits rather than treating all times on base the same, and we'll give the lefty side of the platoon two-thirds of the weight, given the larger number of righty pitchers in the game.
For reference, the 2016 Major League average wOBA for non-pitchers was .323. Let's see who looks the best here.
1. Cubs LF: Kyle Schwarber and Benjamin Zobrist (.362 wOBA)
2016 equivalent: Jonathan Lucroy
It's appropriate that we begin with the Cubs, because Joe Maddon's propensity to mix and match makes finding the right platoons difficult. In this case, we've assumed that the switch-hitting Zobrist will split his time between second base for roughly 100 games and left field for 40 or more games, forming something of a three-way platoon situation with the lefty Schwarber and righty Javier Baez. (More on that in a second.)
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.
2. Dodgers RF: Yasiel Puig and Andre Ethier (.354 wOBA)
2016 equivalent: Justin Turner
Our first controversy, most likely, given the rough 2016 seasons for both Dodgers, but remember, platoons exist in part to hide weaknesses and maximize strengths. Ethier has been unable to hit lefty pitching for his entire career, though the Dodgers only moved to keep him away from it more recently. You can see that in his huge platoon projections, which give him an unplayable .278 against lefties while seeing him as above average against righties. By simply avoiding the lefty pitching he can't hit, he'll look better. Really, though, this projection depends on what sort of Puig we see, because he's taken a step back each year in the big leagues. A league-average Puig and a righty-mashing Ethier could be better than the sum of their parts is the idea.
3. Yankees 1B: Greg Bird and Christopher Austin (.350 wOBA)
2016 equivalent: Evan Longoria
It's easy to forget how productive Bird's brief 2015 debut was (.261/.343/.529, 137 wRC+), since he missed all of 2016 due to injury. Most of that came against righty pitching, because even in the Minors, there were questions about whether he could hit lefties -- he hit just .215/.307/.397 against Minor League lefties in 2014, to cherry-pick an example. But he's projected to continue to smash righties (.359 wOBA), and in the post-Mark Teixeira era, the Yankees are going to go with youth at first base. If the righty Austin really can produce his projected above-average .333 wOBA against lefties, New York has a nice pair here.

4. Orioles RF: Seth Smith and Trumbo (.347 wOBA)
2016 equivalent: Jason Kipnis
This is more about Smith than anything, because he's long been one of the most notable platoon bats in the game, crushing righties (.272/.355/.472 career) and either being unable to hit lefties (.202/.282/.312) or just avoiding them entirely (nearly six times as many PA against righties). You can ignore Trumbo's one-year poor blip against lefties in 2016, because that's never been an issue for him, so taking Smith against righties and Trumbo against lefties gives the Orioles the best of both worlds, and Trumbo would remain in the lineup as a DH against righties anyway.
If there's a problem here, it's that the O's need more than just Trumbo -- left fielder Hyun Soo Kim was very productive against righties, but had literally zero hits (in very few chances) against lefties.
5. Cubs 2B: Zobrist and Baez (.344 wOBA)
2016 equivalent: Adam Eaton
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?
The next five
.343 wOBA -- Indians LF (Michael Brantley and Brandon Guyer)
.341 wOBA -- Pirates 1B (Josh Bell or John Jaso and David Freese)
.340 wOBA -- Mariners 1B (Daniel Vogelbach and Danny Valencia)
.340 wOBA -- Twins 1B (Joe Mauer and Byungho Park)
.336 wOBA -- A's RF (Matt Joyce and Jake Smolinski)

Mike Petriello is an analyst for