For the third year in a row, the Pittsburgh Pirates are projected to enter the season with a platoon at one of their positions. Right now we’re assuming that will be Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez at first base. This could change if Jones is traded over the off-season.
In 2011 the Pirates went with a platoon of Jones and Matt Diaz in right field. On paper it looked like it would work. Diaz had a history of success against left-handers, and Jones was successful against right-handers. Jones did his part in the platoon, hitting for an .808 OPS against right handers, and struggling with a .460 OPS against left handers. The problem was that Diaz saw some major struggles against left handers.
In 2012 Jones moved to first base and platooned with Casey McGehee. McGehee was a similar situation as Diaz, although McGehee was coming off a down year against lefties. After a .947 OPS in 2010 against lefties, McGehee hit for a .413 OPS in 2011 in 124 at-bats. In 2012 both players did their parts. McGehee hit for an .807 OPS against left-handers, while Jones hit for an .888 OPS against right-handers. The problem this time was that Jose Tabata and Alex Presley both struggled in the outfield. That moved Jones to right-field and gave McGehee everyday playing time and 200 plate appearances against right-handers, with a .616 OPS.
In his career, Jones had a .279/.348/.504 line against right-handers and a .198/.237/.353 line against left-handers. Sanchez has a .291/.385/.484 line in his career against left-handers and a .248/.314/.398 line in his career against right-handers. If you combine those career ratios, and give Jones 425 plate appearances and Sanchez 125, you get a .282/.356/.500 line.
On paper, the combo looks good. By comparison, current free agent Adam LaRoche had a .271/.343/.510 line last year with Washington. LaRoche had more slightly power, but the Jones/Sanchez line above had the slightly better OPS due to the on-base percentage. Mike Napoli had a .227/.343/.469 line last year, and a .259/.356/.507 in his career. The Jones/Sanchez combo is better than the 2012 Napoli. The career Napoli has slightly better power, and the same OBP, edging Jones and Sanchez out by seven OPS points. He also comes with injury concerns.
The key here is that this is on paper. As we’ve seen the last two years, the on paper predictions don’t always play out. With all of the outfield options the Pirates have (Starling Marte, Travis Snider, Jose Tabata, Alex Presley, and now Jerry Sands), I don’t think they will run into last year’s problem with Jones having to move to right-field and Sanchez playing first base every day. If they did, the Pirates could bring up Clint Robinson. That might not be a favorable situation, but if Jones is needed in the outfield then Clint Robinson’s inexperience will be the least of the worries for the Pirates.
It’s more likely that the Pirates could run into a 2011 situation. In that year Diaz failed to live up to his platoon splits. The right-hander in a platoon gets significantly less playing time, which can lead to small sample size variations. Diaz struggled in 2010 against lefties, so there were signs that he might have been on the decline. Sanchez didn’t have his career numbers in 2012. He had a .729 OPS in 96 at-bats. I don’t think that’s a sign of a decline, but it is a sign that a small sample of at-bats can bring a variation of numbers. I’ll also point out that Sanchez improved across the board after coming to Pittsburgh. That included his splits, which went up to a .799 OPS against lefties in an even smaller sample of 42 at-bats.
Another big thing to consider is that platoons don’t work out perfectly. Jones isn’t going to get all of his plate appearances against right-handers. Sanchez isn’t going to get all of his plate appearances against left-handers. To factor that in, I gave each player 100 plate appearances against their platoon opposite. Adding those (very poor) results to the combined numbers above gets a .269/.339/.472 line. That’s if each player stays healthy, plays around their career averages, and gets around that playing time (425/75 R/L for Jones, 75/125 R/L for Sanchez). Getting a combined .811 OPS isn’t bad. Last year the MLB average at first base was .766, and the NL average was .761.
The more I look at Jones, and the more I look at the makeup of the team, the more I think the Pirates should just keep Jones. That’s a bigger topic, and probably something I’ll look at over the weekend.
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Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.