The Trouble With Lefties

 

Part of the reason why the Washington Nationals acquired Scott Hairston was because they couldn't hit left handed pitching. A lot of that has to do with the fact that earlier in the season the Nationals couldn't hit any handed pitching, but gone is a line-up that for a month featured Danny Espinosa, Steve Lombardozzi, Roger Bernadina, and a struggling Kurt Suzuki. The healthy and improved Nationals line-up hasn't had enough time together to really know what they are capable of, but there are still holes against left handed pitching.  

For the season in all of baseball right handed batters have a .048 point difference in OPS against same handed pitching whereas left handers have an .080 point difference. It is always said it is better to have a left handed heavy line-up because they hit so much better vs. right handed pitching and most pitching in the majors is right handed, but look at the negatives. Against right handed pitching right handed batters have a .700 OPS and left handed batters .732, a .032 difference in OPS. Against left handed pitching right handed batters have a .748 OPS and left handed batters .652. 0.96 point difference. Not is the right handed split better vs. left handed pitching than the left handed split vs. right handed pitching the drop off isn't nearly as bad vs. same handed pitch. Much of this has to do with the fact that there are more right handed pitchers and right handed batters have been dealing with them their entire lives. The scarcity of left handers in the world makes it much harder for left handed batters to get much practice outside of professional ball against same handed pitching. 

The point is that the old baseball truism that more left handed batting is better than more right handed batting is false. If anything having a line-up exclusively of right handers would be better, and the same could be true for the Washington Nationals. Of the Nationals current line-up with greater than 50 PA vs. left handed pitching the three worst splits vs. left handers are Denard Span (.398 OPS), Adam LaRoche (.595 OPS), and Bryce Harper (.676 OPS) the three key left handed hitters in the Nationals line-up, and their lead-off hitter, number three batter, and power hitting first baseman.   

Adam LaRoche's splits should come as no surprise, Bryce Harper was good against left handed pitching in his rookie of the year campaign in 2012, and Denard Span has always been known as a reverse split performer. He has for his career been better vs. left handed pitching than right handed. Span though has had the most plate appearances against left handed pitching of the Nationals lefties and with the acquisition of Scott Hairston that can end. It is hard to take out any more than one left handed batter at a time from the Nationals line-up and it doesn't matter what Harper's splits are there is never a situation where he isn't a better option than Steve Lombardozzi, and with Harper being only 20 years old it is unknown as of now how his platoon splits will look for his career. What is known is that Span isn't having a good season vs. left handed pitching, and Adam LaRoche has always struggled vs. left handers. With Scott Hairston now in the fold the Nationals can remove Span from the line-up and stack the righties. 

It should be noted that even though Harper struggles compared to himself he has shown an ability to adapt quickly, and the less Harper is messed with the better. Of the three lefties in the line-up he is the one that gets to remain in the same place in the line-up. Every other one is either moved out of the line-up or down with right handed bats being stacked around Harper. Werth and his .802 OPS vs. left handed pitching should lead-off followed by Desmond and his oddly equal .802 OPS. Then after Harper it is Zimmerman and his .942 OPS vs. left handed pitching, followed by Rendon, .774 OPS, Hairston bats next with his career .818 OPS vs. left handers, followed by whoever is catching and then LaRoche batting eighth. LaRoche may take offense at batting eight but the Nats are trying to win ball games and sticking a near automatic out against left handed pitching in the middle of what should be an otherwise tough line-up will give an opposing pitcher too much breathing room, and that has been the Nationals issue all season. 

Davey Johnson and his left, right, left line-up works well in late innings, but against left handed starting pitchers it gives them too many free spots early in the game. It is an easy way to get the team in a hole and make them have to fight back in the late innings. Even if a mostly right handed line-up makes the opposing manager’s choice of relievers easier none of that will matter if the Nationals can take the lead and have their bullpen do the job. That should be the goal of these games against left handed pitching, get ahead and defend. Waiting around to the late innings to win it or have to fight back to even tie it isn't a good strategy in any baseball team, but works even worse when purposefully placing gaps in the line-up vs. the starter in anticipation of a close game in the late innings.  

So far in 2013 the Nationals have struggled against left handed pitching and much of it has been because of their own doing. Scott Hairston should help, but he can't do it all on his own. The Nationals line-up needs to be as tough as possible to navigate for the opposing starter, and trying to go left, right, left makes it too easy on left handed pitching. With Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee now on the horizon it will be seen quickly if the Nationals can make the proper adjustments and give these two pitchers the toughest possible line-up to work their way through.  

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