One of the hot topics of conversation leading up to the 2014 Tiger season has been how they will go about replacing Andy Dirks, who is out for about two months following back surgery, in left field.
Dave Dombrowski thought he had solved any issues in the outfield last winter when he signed speedster Rajai Davis as a free agent to platoon with Dirks in left field. On paper, it looked like a perfect solution. The left handed hitting Dirks would bat against right handed pitchers, while Davis would hit against lefties- being used also as a pinch runner in critical late inning situations.
The standard left vs right splits seemed to fully justify the platoon, based on career splits:
Davis vs LH pitchers: .294 .354 .425 .779 OPS
Davis vs RH pitchers .255 .297 .353 .650 OPS
Dirks vs RH pitchers .278 .333 .418 .751 OPS
Dirks vs LH pitchers .265 .328 .392 .721 OPS
As we can see from the numbers above, Dirks is better against right handed pitchers, and Davis is much, much better against lefties. A typical team sees right handed pitchers about 70% of the time. So having them divide their plate appearances accordingly seemed like a brilliant plan.
There was another reason to be optimistic about this alignment. The first and second half splits from 2013 show that Andy Dirks had a very strong second half of the season, batting .278 .354 .395 .749 OPS after the break. He was one of the players that the Tigers had reason to expect an increase in production from to offset the loss of Prince Fielder and Jhonny Peralta.
The injury to Dirks threw the plan into turmoil as the Tigers scrambled to find a replacement for him in those 70% of plate appearances from what is typically a potent offensive position. On the roster, they had Davis and his poor performance against right handers. They had Steve Lombardozzi, a switch hitter who was more of a utility infielder but has played some outfield, but without much power to speak of. They have Don Kelly, jack of all trades and master of none.
The standard left/ right splits didn't provide any encouraging news for the Tigers.
Kelly vs Right handed pitchers: .235 .295 .362 .657 OPS
Lombardozzi vs RH pitchers: .269 .305 .351 .655 OPS
So, versatility notwithstanding, the Tigers didn't really have any solutions on the roster in left field against right handed pitching. So, they added Tyler Collins, a prospect who plays the outfield, bats left, and has hit .272 .350 .449 .799 OPS in three seasons in the minor leagues. Collins hit well enough against major league pitching in spring training that the team traded Lombardozzi for a veteran shortstop in Alex Gonzalez, and Collins was added to the roster.
What stands out about Collins is his ability to hit for power. At double- A Erie in 2013, Collins hit just .240 .323 .438 .760 OPS, but he also clubbed 21 home runs with 29 doubles in 129 games.
What is missing with Collins- as pointed out in this preview by Jordan Gorosh, who rated Collins as the No 22 prospect in the Tiger system, is that he doesn't exactly fit the profile of the ideal platoon partner for Davis that the Tigers are looking for. Here are his 2013 splits:
Collins 2013 v RHP .219/.309/.367/676 OPS
Collins 2013 v LHP .289/.354/.599/.953 OPS
Jordan pointed out that his splits were more normalized over his two previous seasons, but just be cautious if you're expecting that the left handed hitter will just fit right in 70% of the time.
So, we're not done yet. The fact that we don't have a hitter who does well against right handed pitchers to play left field dictates looking further.
More splits: Don Kelly kills ground ball pitchers, to the tune of .293 .347 .445 .792 OPS, which of course makes him even worse against non ground ball pitchers. Kelly has hit .175 .251 .286 .538 OPS vs fly ball pitchers. At this point, we'll do anything to get a hitter with a decent on base percentage in the lineup.
For opening day, the Kansas City Royals will be sending right handed ACE James Shields to the mound. He has some splits, too. He is not a ground ball pitcher, with a GB ratio of 41.8%. So Kelly is out.
Shields career v RH Batters .264 .311 .422 .733 OPS
Shields career v LH Batters .249 .300 .404 .704 OPS
What we see here it that Shields has some reverse splits. That is, he fares better against left handed hitters, even though he is a right handed pitcher. So maybe Davis should be considered against this particular pitcher.
When the starting lineups were announced, sure enough, Manager Brad Ausmus had Davis in the lineup, batting ninth. Now, maybe some of this is just Davis being the veteran player, making his debut as a Tiger, so he gets the respect of being given the opening day assignment. Tyler Collins can hardly complain even when he does come down off cloud nine, from having made the major league roster.
When all is said and done, suffice it to say that Ausmus will have plenty of information available to help him make decisions when he's filling out his lineup card. Davis is going to play, maybe more than the other left fielders. Kelly will be in the lineup and so will Collins.
These are not exactly decisions that will make or break the Tiger season. The team is going to have to get through the first two months mixing and matching left fielders to find the right match ups. Brad Ausmus is going to have to be both logical and creative with what he's got. That is, he'll have to deploy a combination of left brain and right brain analysis to fill out the lineup card.