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Dexter Fowler’s switch hitting could help the Cardinals

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Another reason to like the Fowler signing

MLB: Spring Training-New York Mets at St. Louis Cardinals Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Other than Brayan Pena’s fourteen plate appearances in 2016, the Cardinals went the entire season without having the built-in platoon advantage of a switch hitter. That will change this season with switch-hitting Dexter Fowler penciled in to the top of the lineup night in and night out, and while I’d hesitate to argue that this will be a significant difference-maker, it does at least seem noteworthy.

Fowler has good career numbers hitting from both sides of the plate. In 3,140 plate appearances from the left side, he’s slashed .255/.356/.413, good for a wRC+ of 105. From the right side (1,240 plate appearances), .302/.392/.442, and a 123 wRC+. His strength is definitely on the right side, but he’s been an above average hitter on the left side throughout his career, and, as shown here below, last season in obviously smaller samples the splits evened out a bit. Fowler in 2016:

  • From left side (407 PAs): .270/.392/.435; 126 wRC+
  • From right side (144 PAs): .293/.396/.480; 137 wRC+

No one would argue that the Cardinals struggled on offense last season - by most accounts they were second-best to the Cubs. Versus lefties though, they were a bit below average. Here’s a rundown of their splits against righties and lefties:

  • Facing RHP (4,550 PAs): .257/.328/.450; 107 wRC+
  • Facing LHP (1,673 PAs): .250/.318/.423; 98 wRC+

When facing righties, the Cardinals’ 107 wRC+ was the second highest in the National League behind the Dodgers. Versus lefties they slipped to a middle-of-the-pack seventh best (and interestingly enough, the Dodgers were dead last in all of baseball).

What’s more, the Cardinals’ 1,673 plate appearances versus lefties were the 11th most in all of baseball yet they only countered that with a right-handed hitter 1,154 times, which fell to 15th for plate appearances with the platoon advantage versus left-handed pitchers. Against righties, same thing. The Cardinals’ 4,550 plate appearances versus righties ranked 16th in baseball, and they had the platoon advantage in 1,748 of those plate appearances – only the 22nd most plate appearances with the platoon advantage when facing right-handed pitchers.

You can probably guess where this is going, and I covered this back in October soon after the season ended, but the Cardinals only had the platoon advantage in 47 percent of their overall plate appearances in 2016 – the 24th lowest rate in the league and 12th lowest in the NL. Even if the Cardinals are lucky, Fowler’s only going to account for just over 10 percent of their plate appearances in 2017, but using him as a springboard to bump up their platoon advantage a bit would be a good thing. Here’s a breakdown of the Cardinals’ platoon splits in 2016:

  • RHB vs. RHP (2,802 PAs): .263/.321/.444; 103 wRC+
  • RHB vs. LHP (1,748 PAs): .246/.339/.460; 111 wRC+
  • LHB vs. LHP (519 PAs): .245/.309/.394; 89 wRC+
  • LHB vs. RHP (1,154 PAs): .253/.323/.436; 102 wRC+

While only accounting for about eight percent of their total plate appearances in 2016, the Cardinals were bad at the plate when they didn’t have the platoon advantage against lefties. Of course, every team is typically bad in this situation. In fact, the Cardinals’ 89 wRC+ actually ranked in the top third in baseball. But so did their total lefty versus lefty plate appearances (the 519 PAs were ninth in baseball), so any effort to lower that number this season will be a welcome one.

Taking advantage of Fowler’s switch hitting is a nice start. They can look elsewhere, too. I’m an advocate of Kolten Wong being the regular second baseman. That said, less than 30 percent of pitchers in baseball are left-handed, and sitting Wong (career 71 wRC+ versus LHP) against the occasional lefty starter shouldn’t take too big of chunk off his playing time. This seems like an even more obvious play considering the Cardinals’ leading home run hitter from 2016, Jedd Gyorko, will be presumably on the bench and looking for at-bats. In fact, Derrick Goold wrote a good piece on that very thing this morning.

Platoon advantages aren’t the end-all, be-all. The Blue Jays did just fine last season even though they had the second lowest platoon advantage in baseball and that’s because good hitters will hit regardless and bad ones probably won’t. It still shouldn’t be ignored though and that’s another reason to like the Fowler signing. Trying to maximize other platoon advantages with this lineup might be worthwhile, too.