St. Louis Cardinals
The seemingly-expanding use of lefty/righty matchups at all levels of baseball may be at least a partial reflection of the staggering amount of data readily available on both pitchers and hitters. "I do it because I can," an honest skipper might say.
Yet, there is proven value in exploiting a perceived weakness in an opponent at least as much as there is delight in beating the odds.
For years, St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has been considered a pioneer in this area, as well as its National League-only cousin, the double-switch, and shows no plans to deviate from either. His clubs typically carry either two or three left-handed relievers and these pitchers are often among his most frequently called-upon over the course of a season.
After spending the first 17 years of his eventual Hall of Fame managerial career exclusively in the Junior Circuit, the cerebral La Russa has stated on many occasions his preference for the NL-oriented strategies that are at least partially enabled by the use of situational relievers. I agree with him.
Lefty vs. lefty, righty vs. righty. It matters, and it matters because the good managers are doing far more than making a hitter go after a curveball that breaks away rather than in. If you look at the reigning World Champions, you find one of the most cerebral managers ever, Tony La Russa, and you find him, very often, making multiple pitching changes in the same inning.
Does it work? Let's return to the part where we referred to the Cardinals as the 'reigning World Champions.' It's not all about the breaking ball; it's about the mental game. It is supposed to be tougher, but it also breaks the rhythm. When a manager goes this route, it's typically late in a game, in a tough situation. The opponent's are probably threatening, and with that threat comes momentum. Want to kill momentum (and television ratings) in a baseball game? Change pitchers three times in three hitters. Suddenly the half-inning takes 40 minutes, and 'momentum' is replaced with 'dinner plans.'
Like most of the great things in baseball, the lefty/lefty or righty/righty matchup isn't just about balls and strikes, homers and outs.
Tony La Russa's biggest impact on baseball was his use of the righty-lefty matchups in the bullpens of the Oakland A's in the late-1980s. Traditionalists bemoaned the three hour games that resulted from his use of situational relievers, but no one could argue with the results, as the A's had one of the best bullpens in baseball during that time period. Now it is rare to see a team that doesn't use situational relievers. Guys like Mike Meyers, Ricardo Rincon and Chad Bradford have seen their careers extended specifically because of their ability to retire the same-side batters. This season, the A's selected left-hander Jay Marshall in the Rule 5 draft specifically so that he could be the A's situational left-hander in 2007. While there is an inherent value in playing the matchups, there are cases of "matchup play" being overblown. A bullpen can be stretched too thin if relievers are used only one out at a time on a regular basis, and the best relievers in the league are still the ones who can get out hitters from both sides of the plate. Still, when faced with the prospect of having to retire a David Ortiz or Jim Thome in the eighth inning with runners on base, most managers will be happy to be able to point to a situational lefty to get the job done.
Before his departure at the end of last season, former Rangers manager Buck Showalter was a big believer in going by the book on righty/lefty matchups. As is usually the case when a manager makes a move that leaves the fan kind of indifferent or perhaps a little dissatisfied, if it works the manager is a genius for going to the bullpen and utilizing his guy at the right time. But if it fails, then boy, look out. During Buck's time with the Rangers, this was certainly not any different.
But, as long as the great game as we know it now has the meeting on the pitcher's mound that has to be broken up by the home plate umpire, "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" during the 7th inning stretch, or any other underlying moment or occasion that usually takes place during any given game, there will be a place in the game for the righty/lefty matchup. It's just a part of baseball. Not to mention it's how guys like Kiko Calero make a living.
San Diego Padres
With an affinity for the National League style of play, there is a certain grace in the execution of playing matchups and the percentages. When the game is on the line, bringing in a situational reliever to get that crucial out is the brilliance of baseball – and even more so when it backfires.
The key here is the thinking that goes behind the move to bring in a left-handed pitcher to face a southpaw batter. Was it made to break up the momentum? Was it made because the pitcher has this hitter's number? Or was it made because the percentage play says to do it? The beauty of the situation is it does not matter – right or wrong, the intrigue sells, wins games and loses others. It is those defining moments that make the game of baseball so great.
Toronto Blue Jays
Lefty/righty matchups are not overblown or overused in baseball. Most left-handed batters struggle when facing left-handed pitching, and, therefore, managers are correct to try and utilize this to their advantage, especially if they have a tough left-handed pitcher or sidearmer in their bullpen.
Although this is not the case for all batters, pitching coaches will tell you it's tougher for a left-handed batter to recognize a breaking pitch from a southpaw, especially if he's seeing that pitcher for the first time in the game.
San Francisco Giants
The specialist roles are a stereotype, so they are absolutely overblown and overrated. But, that doesn't mean they don't have their place. The thing to do is to not judge a pitcher (or hitter) by his orientation. Many left-handed pitchers have a natural cut away from lefty hitters, which makes their pitches naturally harder to hit. But not always. On the other hand, hitters with the right mindset and the right stroke can easily go against convention.
Situational use of players has to involve looking at more than the 'Bats' and 'Throws' section of the baseball card. It has to involve knowing if the individual player is suited for specialist-type duties, and who he'd be facing. If so, not only is the use of situational match-ups still appropriate, it's intelligent.
Righty/lefty moves are generally good moves, but managers can sometimes think themselves into trouble. Take the case of David Dellucci last season with the Phillies. As a left-handed hitter, Dellucci was the first one off the bench to face a right-hander, which looks like a smart move since he hit .299 against righties and just .200 against lefties. Let's say it's late in a close game and the pitcher is due up. The bases are loaded and Charlie Manuel looks for a pinch-hitter against a right-handed pitcher. Dellucci would be the first choice, but maybe not. In that situation, Dellucci hit just .083 while Abraham Nunez hit .286 in the same situations, though he was just a .211 hitter on the season. You could make an argument that Nunez would be the better choice.
The question is just how far do you take the numbers analysis? The best managers look at the numbers, but they also have the instincts to know who to go to in a certain situation. Keep in mind, too, that hitting a player who hits a hundred points higher in a certain situation is only successful in one out of every ten at bats. Managers who go just by the numbers are asking for trouble unless they can consistently find that one out of every ten at bats. That's where instinct helps.
Pirates' manager Jim Tracy is a firm believer in situational matchups. According to the Bucs' skipper – there are situations when a left-hander is best suited to create a left on left matchup and there are other times where you may be better served to go the other way.
I think a lot of it has to do with strategic implications that the other side of the field can do with the move that you're going to make. Sometimes you're going to try to create a lefty-lefty matchup, but you know if you put a lefty in you are going to get a right-handed hitter from the other side of the card. Over on the other side of the field rather than deal with or make the move you're creating a left on left situation you end up with a mismatch because you make the move knowing that they have a better right-handed hitter sitting on their bench.
Platooning left-handers with right-handers has been in vogue since manager Casey Stengel had success alternating Hank Bauer and Gene Woodling in the Yankees' outfield in the 1950s. Earl Weaver got great accumulated production in Baltimore in the late 70s and early 80s with Gary Roenicke and John Lowenstein. There are several other notable examples.
It is gaining popularity now because low and mid-market teams recognize that a way to compete with the big boys who can spend $15 million on one player for a position is to sign two players to $3 million contracts apiece and try to accumulate similar numbers.
There are always going to be right-handers who hit lefties better and lefties who tee off on right-handed pitchers. Using them in a platoon situation is nothing new, and it is a tactic that likely will see increased popularity given other variable trends in the game.