However, as it is with any manager, Leyland has both good and bad characteristics. The marginal difference he makes relative to other managers is very difficult (or virtually impossible, depending on how one parses the situation) to measure. One thing beyond how he has chosen to use his relievers that has stood out to me is how he’s kept his two catchers – Alex Avila and Gerald Laird – in a platoon through the postseason.
While Avila had a big home run versus the Oakland Athletics in the American League Divisional Series, neither catcher has hit all that well in the playoffs. Avila has put up a .222/.222/.444 slash line which only compares favorably to Laird’s .111/.200/.111. Despite the shabby offensive outputs from both players, it remains surprising that they would find themselves in a platoon with one another. After all, Avila hit .295/.389/.506 (141 wRC+) last season, so platooning him (at least somewhat) this season likely isn’t how most teams would’ve used him.
Yet it also shows at least a little bit of forward thinking. For one thing, despite catching in 133 games in 2011, by the time the playoffs rolled around, Avila could barely run due to knee problems — not a great thing for a catcher. So the Tigers probably went into the year knowing they needed a decent backup. Moreover, while Avila’s offense in 2011 was outstanding by any standard, and even moreso for a catcher, the Tigers probably also knew that some regression was to be expected. Avila is not the sort of hitter who was going to maintain a .366 BABIP, and Comerica Park, where the Tigers play their home games, is generally pretty tough on left-handed hitters.
The player the Tigers brought in to spell Avila was their old friend Gerald Laird, a.k.a. One Man, Five Tools. Laird had a good season for Detroit in 2009 (primarily due to his defense), but in 2010 his bat fell from bad to horrific, and his glove dropped off, too. The Tigers let him walk and he signed on with St. Louis to be their backup catcher in 2011. Prior to the 2011 season, I wrote the following for the FanGraphs+ fantasy supplement about Gerald Laird:
If you’re reading a fantasy profile for Gerald Laird, then you’re either lost, incredibly bored, or in something like a 38-team NL-only league. “One Man, Five Tools” won’t even help you much in a Bizarro league, as he’s been signed to back up Yadier Molina in St. Louis. It’s really too bad, since Laird can’t run, hit for average or power, and yet used to get marched out there almost every day in Detroit (to be fair, he’s a good defender). He’s a Jason Kendall in training, except without the playing time. If that appeals to you, go nuts. Otherwise, go to bed, it’s Gerald Laird.
Since he was backing up Yadier Molina, Laird only got 108 plate appearances, although obviously his .232/.302/.358 (77 wRC+) hitting was what carried the Cardinals to the postseason and the World Championship. But it actually did represent regression to the mean, at least for Laird. So the Tigers brought him back.
Every team needs a backup catcher, and spending $1 million on Gerald Laird was not going to kill the Tigers either way. Although the playing time difference is significant, in terms of fielding (controlling the running game and blocking pitches), Laird and Avila are probably roughly the same in overall true talent the last few years (2012, 2011, and 2010). One thing perhaps worth noting is that, at least prior to 2012, Avila was one of the better pitch framers in the league, while Laird was one of the worst. However, even if we peg the difference in true talent as 20 runs over an entire season (which would be high), Laird was only going to get into about a fifth of the games, anyway.
The main reason Laird made sense was becasue he’s a right-handed hitter, and Avila is a lefty. As we saw with the success of this year’s Oakland As, platooning is an old strategy that can be useful for maximizing production and roster space if done with the right players. Avila and Laird actually have larger than average observed platoon splits. Over the last few years, the average wOBA platoon split for left-handed hitters has been about ten percent, while for right-handed hitters it has been about seven percent. Avila’s observed career split is just over 14 percent, and Laird’s is just over nine percent.
If we just look at the season itself, the platoon (of course, it was not a “precise” platoon, but that is tough to do, especially with catchers needing a different kind of rest schedule) worked quite well. As expected, Avila regressed to a .327 wOBA. He had a .349 wOBA in 331 plate appearances versus right-handed pitchers, but only a .257 wOBA in 103 plate appearances versus lefties. Laird, on the other hand, had a .274 wOBA in 109 plate appearances versus lefties this season, while sporting a .369 wOBA versus righties in 82 plate appearances this season. Just as one would expect.
Wait, what? That’s a misprint, right? Laird hit righties better this year? Yes, check it for yourself.
See, that’s the thing about platoon splits – they’re subject to all sorts of randomness. The big factor in this case is that Laird didn’t even have 200 plate appearances this season, and only 82 of them were against southpaws. Thus, we invoke Voros’ Law. Luckily for Tigers fans, Leyland did not over-react to this randomness. Although Laird somehow only managed a .274 wOBA versus lefties, that was still better than Avila’s .257 this year. Again, one has to make these decisions based on true talent rather than a small sample of observed talent.
Using the method from The Book that’s outlined here and applying it to the current Oliver true talent projections for Laird and Avila, the results are, well, pretty interesting. Oliver currently has Avila as a .340 wOBA true talent hitter, so I estimate his true talent versus righties to be .348 wOBA, versus lefties to be .310. That includes a lots of regression, though, as I regress his 300 career plate appearances versus lefties against 1000 of league average.
Laird has 764 plate appearances versus lefties, but righties are regressed against 2200 of league average. Oliver sees Laird’s true talent as .289 wOBA, so my estimate for his wOBA versus righties is .282, and versus lefties .304. Wait another minute. Avila’s projected wOBA versus soutpaws is better than Lairds? Does that mean Leyland made a mistake in platooning these guys?
Short answer: no. First of all, there are the usual qualifications about the uncertainty of projections in general. The Tigers might have different projections for the players. Perhaps there is scouting information the Tigers have or proprietary data that suggests an even a bigger split.
Those are the generic answers that would work in a vacuum, but this isn’t a vacuum. It’s a specific situation wherein Avila needed days off anyway (and he struggled with leg problems off and on all year), so why not try and maximize production (as much as the schedule allowed) by trying to get Laird in mostly against left-handed batters? The typical right-handed hitter sees lefties about 30 percent of the time, Laird saw more than half of his plate appearances against them.
If one thinks about maximizing Avila’s (estimated) production versus righties, it doesn’t look like they would have gained anything. But if, instead, one thinks of maximizing Laird’s production versus lefties, it makes more sense. Laird was going to have to play after all, so why not get him in against lefties as much as possible. Well, okay, they probably did not gain much over just giving him a regular distribution of plate appearances — probably just a couple of runs. However, these sorts of things add up. Like batting order decisions , it probably isn’t a huge deal by itself, but over the course of the season, it matters just about as much as anything else that we, as fans, might complain.
Of course, it remains unusual for teams to still use a backup catcher in the playoffs, as Jim Leyland has throughout the postseason. Given the platoon split projections above, and that, particularly once one considers pitch framing, Laird may not present a defensive advantage, either, it is fair to at least wonder if Leyland is making the right move in sticking with a platoon situation in the playoffs. I will admit that, at least statistically, it’s a questionable move. However, it’s not outlandishly awful. In fact, it’s pretty close, and Avila’s leg problems may mean he needs rest even at this point in the year.
Whatever else the Tigers could have done better this season, they made a smart move in using a platoon at catcher.