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Inside the Cardinals’ Platoon Splits

The Cardinals have a deep and versatile roster. How can they make the most use of it?

San Francisco Giants v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

Let’s start by taking a little journey back in time, shall we?

It was the winter of 2021. The Cardinals were coming out of their COVID season with limited budgetary resources. (Argue for or against that all you want, it’s irrelevant to my point…) Mozeliak talked with the team’s beat writers and spread the word far and wide: “platoons”.

They didn’t have a lot of money to use to upgrade their offense. So, they planned to generate more runs by creating a versatile roster that could allow then-manager Mike Shildt to shift lineups based on platoon splits to maximize effectiveness.

It’s one way to squeeze a few extra pennies out of an orange. Or something like that… I forget the actual metaphor.

It never happened. It was a double set of failures that ruined that plan.

First, the front office never really acquired platoon-caliber pieces. The rumored expansion of the DH to the NL was killed by the Player’s Association and the Cardinals made the unfortunate decision to stick with existing depth – like Edmundo Sosa, Justin Williams, and Austin Dean – hoping these unproven players would flourish if used according to their skills.

Second, even when Shildt had some platoon options available to him – in limited quantities – he preferred a pretty set roster configuration. Injuries contributed, forcing Justin Williams into a starting role that he was simply not equipped for. Matt Carpenter floundered all season. When healthy, “starter”-designated players, like Tommy Edman, were in the lineup every day, even when splits suggested they shouldn’t be.

While it’s possible platoons were some small part of the “philosophical differences” that led to Shildt’s ousting, what we do know is that Oli Marmol entered with that as a perceived strength. The analytically-astute-former-bench-coach-turned-youngest-manager-in-the-league would be better equipped to handle the platoon options created by the front office and was willing to build that into the team’s culture.

The front office contributed their part of the equation by providing Marmol with MLB platoon depth in the infield and outfield. The DH came to the National League, further adding to the versatility of the roster.

The farm system also provided, graduating a wealth of talent from both the right and left sides of the plate.

The Cardinals have gone from having a handful of undesirable platoon options to a virtual splits smorgasbord. Marmol now has a wealth of hitting and fielding configurations to choose from.

Indeed, he has so many options available to him that it’s kind of hard to keep it all straight. And even harder to keep all those players fed with consistent playing time.

The purpose of this piece is just to dig into the platoon options available to Marmol. We’re going to look at splits by pitcher-handedness – I’ll list these basically in my order of interest. We’ll then consider how the club has allotted playing time in light of those splits and determine how Marmol could better use his roster resources.

Stats key: Split – PA, BA/OBP/SLUG, wOBA, wRC+

Juan Yepez

Vs. R – 114, .305/.351/.533, .380, 149
Vs. L – 30, .200/.300/.240, .253, 64

Does this surprise you? If you’ve read some of our preview pieces on Yepez, it shouldn’t. In his breakout 2021 season, Yepez was more productive against right-handed pitchers than lefties. He’s continuing the trend in the majors, but it’s more pronounced against mature pitchers. With just 30 PAs against lefties on the season, I think there’s more noise here than anything. He likely won’t hit this well against righties. He likely won’t hit this poorly against lefties. If he can get more consistent playing time, I think these numbers will even out a bit more.

Albert Pujols

Vs. L – 43, .342/.372/.579, .399, 161
Vs. R – 85, .127/.271/.225, .241, 56

Pujols is exactly what we expected him to be. He can still crush left-handed pitching. He still really struggles against righties. And I mean REALLY struggles. Someone on Twitter pointed out that one of Albert’s homers vs. a righty game against a position player. That counts. But it doesn’t. Remove it and his performance against righties tanks from bleak to horrific.

Yepez is getting a lot of PAs against righties, mostly to cover for OF injuries. But we still see Pujols in the lineup against righties far too often. (More on this below.)

Brendan Donovan

Vs. L – 28, .333/.429/.417, .379, 148
Vs. R – 146, .309/.418/.431, .378, 147

Donovan has impressed me in so many ways. Here’s another. There’s virtually no difference in his stats against righties and lefties. He has more power against righties and a bit better batting average against lefties, but really, in the sample size we’re dealing with, that’s insignificant. What he’s done so far against lefties is impressive. We need more PAs for him to prove it’s going to hold up. And Donovan should get those PAs because...

Nolan Gorman

Vs. L – 6, .400/.500/.600, .474, 212
Vs. R – 93, .238/.312/.417, .322, 110

We know that Gorman has struggled against lefties in the minors. So far, the club has done a good job of limiting his exposure against lefties. He has just 6 PAs so far against southpaws. And while he’s done well in those 6 trips to the plate, the sample size is meaningless. Against righties, he’s been about what we would expect. A low batting average, solid on-base skills, and when he gets into one, it goes really far. That’s Nolan Gorman.

Does he need to play more against lefties? I keep hearing that he does from fans. I don’t see why. At his age what’s most important is putting him in the best situation to succeed while learning MLB pitchers. Let him do that against righties. And when he settles in then add additional challenges and adjustments. Patience is key.

Edmundo Sosa

Vs. L – 33, .125/.152/.219, .370, 3
Vs. R – 57, .226/.281/.245, .244, 58

It’s not uncommon at all for right-handed hitters to have reverse splits. Righty hitters have faced righty pitchers since little leagues. They’re used to it. Yepez fits this role somewhat. Sosa takes it to an extreme. Right now he’s not hitting anyone well, but he is hitting righties a lot better than lefties. That was true last year as well. Marmol clearly understands that and he’s getting nearly twice as much playing time against righties as lefties. Mostly, he’s just not getting much playing time at all since his performance doesn’t warrant it. You have to wonder if his time on the roster is running out.

Tommy Edman

Vs. L – 65, .311/.354/.443, .349, 128
Vs. R – 231, .271/.357/.414, .343, 124

Tommy Edman’s performance splits are well documented. In his career, he’s hit much better as a righty batter against lefties than in the reverse. This year that’s not the case. He still has a slight advantage against lefties as a righty batter but his overall line is much more balanced. What do we make of this? Edman, in his third full season (spread over four seasons), is right at the point where he should be peaking. We’re seeing some of that. What we haven’t seen enough of is whether or not his peak will last or if’s a temporary upward blip that will fade back to early-career norms. For now, though, Edman is playing every day and he’s earning that privilege.

Harrison Bader

Vs. L – 48, .209/.292/.256, .254, 65
Vs. R – 196, .281/.316/.416, .320, 109

Bader’s career splits are relatively similar. He has a 114 wRC+ against lefties and a 94 against righties career. This year, he’s showing the reverse of that. His performance against lefties has dropped and he’s above average against righties. I prefer to chalk that up to “sample size noise”. Overall, though, it just doesn’t seem like there is much to be gained by putting Bader into a platoon situation, considering the loss of defense the team suffers when he’s out. I still think giving him a day off against righties with tough breaking balls would be a good idea. Otherwise, the club needs his glove out there and can expect average offense every day.

Dylan Carlson

Vs. R – 155, .232/.303/.355, .292, 90
Vs. L – 39, .324/.359/.568, .399, 162

Carlson’s season splits fit his career profile so far. That said, I think they’re a little misleading. Carlson started the year in a terrible slump. Considering how he’s fared since those first few weeks, it seems likely that his performance against righties as a lefty batter would be moving up significantly. After all, he has a 138 wRC+ in May and a 182 in June combined against all pitchers. His wRC+ in April overall was just 42. His playing time hasn’t changed, so since the first month of the season, Carlson has done plenty of damage while mostly facing righties. He has always done plenty of damage against lefties. I hopped over to Baseball Savant to confirm that. Since May 1 he has a .263/.344/.425 line against righties, which is good for a .340 wOBA. Carlson is an elite performer against lefties. His improved batting against righties is encouraging. I don’t see him as a platoon player, but days off against righties with tough changeups would be a fine idea.

Creating Platoons

Albert & Yepez – This one seems the most obvious to me. Pujols simply has too many plate apperances against righties. A lot of that probably connects back to Dickerson and O’Neill’s early-season injuries and/or poor play. Yepez wasn’t even on the roster early in the season when Albert was receiving some of those PAs. That’s all in the past. There’s now a clear path forward. Yepez should be the starting DH against all righties. Albert should start at DH against all lefties. That maximizes their skills. If Marmol wants Yepez to get days in the outfield or at 1b, that’s fine, too. But when that happens, Albert should not step in against righties. That’s where the club could plug Gorman, Donovan, Nootbaar, or (though I don’t know why) Sosa in the DH spot.

Gorman & Donovan – Two good things get to happen with this platoon. First, it allows Gorman to grow his way into the league in a favorable situation by facing almost exclusively right-handed starters. Donovan, meanwhile, will get plenty of time against lefty bats. If his current production holds up, then hot dog! Who cares that he’s a lefty against other lefties if the stats are there? Such a platoon would give Gorman about 65-70% of the starts at 2b and keep Donovan in the lineup at least 30-35% of the time as a starter at 2b.

Donovan & Everyone – Donovan’s play has earned him more than 30% of the starts. Good thing he can play everywhere. He should get starts against righties anytime there is an injury (like O’Neill now) or when players need a day off. A couple examples: I would have no problem starting Donovan over Carlson against a tough righty with a strong off-speed pitch. The same thing would apply to Bader against righties with tough breaking pitches. Edman is on pace for another 690 PA season; he could use some days off against righties. Donovan needs to learn to play SS. We haven’t even counted games where Goldy or Arenado are off or DH’ing. Add those opportunities to the 30-35% of games he should start at 2b and Donovan is starting 70% of the games, and more when there are injuries. There are always injuries.

Conclusions

Marmol is doing a pretty good job with the diverse and complex roster he has, especially considering the unknowns of injuries, young players, and bad performances he’s faced. Now that he has more of an idea how to use the young players and what they’re capable of doing at the MLB level, he just needs to follow the analytics and let things play out.

The biggest issue so far is the usage of Pujols. Simply put, Albert needs to stop getting plate appearances against righties. It feels like Marmol is trying to get Pujols one start in each series. Even the ones on the road. That seems like more of a PR effort than a decision based on any statistics.

I keep arguing this and it continues to prove true: winning is the best PR. I can already see the “Pujols malaise” setting in as Albert continues to look awful against righties. Strikeouts aren’t fun to watch. Even when it’s a legend at the plate.

The best use of Albert as a PR generator is to let him do what he can do well: mash lefties! Use him for that! Aggressively pinch hit for him. Start him against all lefties somewhere. As he performs in those situations, it will give the fans a reason to cheer for Albert! And buy those tickets. Meanwhile, Yepez’s production against righties will generate buzz for the future. That’s a win-win for this club. And it’s the right move from a roster perspective.


Addendum – Dickerson is getting rehab starts and the club is going to have to make a decision on him soon. I didn’t include him here because he’s been mostly terrible and I honestly don’t see how he fits into this equation. If he beats O’Neill back, then his return would probably move Nootbaar to the minors. That’s simple enough. But when O’Neill is back, then it’s Yepez on the block because he’s the “righty that’s redundant with Pujols”. The Cardinals are smarter than that… I think. But they also defer to salary and Dickerson has that trump card. We’ll see what happens.