Last week, Bill Baer wrote up a terrific idea he had at Crashburn Alley: the Phillies should play Freddy Galvis at third base whenever John Lannan starts. The thought makes perfect sense and represents the type of minor adjustment that could benefit the team and maximize the utilities of different rostered players.
As Baer outlined, about 78% Lannan’s batters faced put the ball in play, 53% of those balls in play are grounders, and over half of those grounders are pulled. Having shaky defense at shortstop and third base would hurt the Phillies run prevention with Lannan on the mound. Jimmy Rollins remains an elite defensive shortstop but the Phils are set to start Michael Young at the hot corner. Young hasn’t played third base regularly since 2010 and was a poor defender even then.
Young’s acquisition also leaves Galvis without a clear role. The Phillies could insert him at second base to give Chase Utley a rest and play him alongside Ryan Howard. They could also move Utley to first and play both he and Galvis on the right side of the infield. Rollins might need a day off every now and then as well. Where Galvis could really help the team in a more consistent manner is, as Baer suggested, by playing third base whenever Lannan starts.
I want to take that idea one step further. Not only should Galvis start at third base whenever Lannan pitches, but when Lannan is opposed by a fellow southpaw starter, the Phillies should sit Ryan Howard and play Young at first base. This alignment improves the offense by using Young against the lefties he crushes instead of Howard, who is quite poor against same-handed pitching, and clearly improves the infield defense.
No, Ryan Howard is not going to be used in a platoon, but the Phillies will look to rest him every now and then. Why not provide structure to those rests in a manner that removes him from the lineup when his impact wouldn’t be felt anyway?
It’s not like Lannan is going to face another lefty in all 30+ of his projected starts. We’re talking about maximizing roster productivity over 10-15 games by resting Howard in games where he has a greater chance of struggling. He gets a deserved and needed day off and the Phillies experience a net gain on both offense and defense.
The major reason for the improvement is the difference between Young and Howard facing lefties. Consider their numbers against southpaws from 2009-12 shown below.
Howard vs. LHP:
2009: .290 wOBA, 71 wRC+
2010: .359 wOBA, 121 wRC+
2011: .283 wOBA, 75 wRC+
2012: .261 wOBA, 60 wRC+
Young vs. LHP:
2009: .372 wOBA, 119 wRC+
2010: .379 wOBA, 130 wRC+
2011: .389 wOBA, 139 wRC+
2012: .346 wOBA, 112 wRC+
Even last season, when Young had his worst year, he was still 12% above average against lefties and substantially better than Howard in this split. Granted, Howard wasn’t on solid footing last year — pun completely, completely intended — but at this point it’s safe to say that he is markedly below average against same-handed pitching.
Young, meanwhile, is not only much better against lefties relative to Howard but relative to the entire league. The impact of the difference is far less over just the 10-15 starts in question here, but it’s still material. And while it was a small sample size of 63 PAs last year, Galvis did perform much better against lefties than righties, with a 98 wRC+. His minor league splits weren’t as favorable in this regard, but even so and as strange as it may sound, Galvis and Howard might actually be equal hitters against lefties.
By playing Young at first base against lefties when Lannan starts, the Phillies put themselves in a much better position on offense. By replacing Young with Galvis at third base in these games the Phillies improve their infield defense in an important manner given Lannan’s modus operandi. Adding in the chances that Young improves first base defense in these games while Galvis hits lefties at a rate similar to or better than Howard, this seems like a very easy and logical way to improve the team.
The Phillies have a number of question marks heading into the season and, as such, should look to maximize productivity through minor adjustments whenever possible.
These adjustments might not seem like much in isolation but could add up to an extra couple of wins when taken together. Playing Galvis at third base when Lannan starts is an example. Resting Howard in Lannan’s starts against lefties and moving Young to first base to facilitate Galvis’s start will prove even more beneficial, as the Phils get to rest their slugger while actually improving.