The Athletics have used some sort of platooning system for several years with great success. Platooning allows a manager to build the daily lineup in a way where the highest statistical advantages, no matter how slight that advantage may be, are stacked against the opposing team.
In order for a team to platoon successfully, they must have a number of players that can float between positions as the A’s do with guys like Steven Vogt, a catcher who is an adequate outfielder and Alberto Callaspo who can, seemingly, play any infield spot but some problems may arise from this musical-chairs style of position playing.
The A’s, as of June 19, are fourth in the MLB in errors. That is not a good stat to rank so highly on and the three teams ranked higher are all .500 or below. Why so many errors? Could it be that irregular field play is affecting the rhythm and instinct of players? While swapping Eric Sogard for Nick Punto may provide a slight advantage at the plate (or a huge advantage considering Sogard’s average this year), it puts Punto in the position of playing a spot he may not have played in a few days.
These men are professionals and should be able to handle a few days away from a certain position, sure, but part of fielding is instinct and instincts in sports are trained, not inherent. There are certain plays at third base that Donaldson knows he needs to throw at first instead of second instantly but if there is a platoon at first, say Blanks, will his instinct to receive that throw be as sharp or will he be anticipating a throw to second?
It’s all speculation, of course, but let’s look at the numbers. Josh Donaldson leads the team with 15 errors, accounting for 27% of the entire team’s errors on the year, and Jed Lowrie is in second place with 8 errors. Both of these players are, more or less, every day guys at their position so the increased field time may inflate the numbers a hair but of the remaining players in the top 10, five are regular platooning players and account for 18 errors.
Further, Donaldson claimed three errors in a recent game but a closer look at one of those errors may give room for second thought. If third base throws the ball to first base and said ball ends up in the second deck, E5 every time. When keeping score we must look at what a player “should” be able to catch within reason. If first base bobbles the throw and drops it, it’s an E3 but if the throw whizzes right past him, the error is on the thrower. What is never considered is the throwers habits. If Donaldson always throws certain plays to the right of first base when every other player in that position throws to the left, he’ll be on the hook for an error when the ball is “overthrown” on the right even though it’s first base that isn’t set up right.
With everyday fielders, not platooning, an instinct for receiving Donaldson’s throw may develop. If Moss plays every day and knows that Donaldson tends to throw this play a little to the right, he can set himself up to the right to grab the catch but if you have a platooning player on first and his instinct is that “most third basemen” will throw to the left, he’s going to be handing Donaldson, not himself, an error.
All of that is to say, some of the Donaldson and Lowrie errors may have been avoided if more of the infielders were working together every single day and are used to the beats, rhythms and quirks of each other’s play.
Let’s say you drive cars for a living. Every day you spend 8 hours driving a car but today you’re driving a 1969 Mustang stick, tomorrow you’re driving a Smart Car automatic, and the next day you’re driving a F-350 with sensitive brakes. They’re all cars and your job is to drive them but there will be an adjustment period for each one. The first time you hit the brakes on that pick-up, after driving the smartie, you may brake a little hard or maybe you’ll floor it on the smart car because you got used to punching the gas on the Mustang the day before. These are all errors in driving that you make by not having an instinct with the car. It’s not a reflection on your driving ability. Is it worth considering that at least some of the 23 errors committed by Donaldson and Lowrie could be the result of platooning uncertainty? Is it worth considering that a handful of those errors are actually the result of missing instincts in the field?
With the team playing so well this year and a post-season very likely, the A’s coaches need to find a way to curtail these errors. They need to find the root of the problem and remedy from the bottom up. If they determine that platooning infielders leads to a few more errors, then they need to change their practice regiment. If they determine that the increased errors are only when a particular player is on second base, they need to stop using him there.
If the errors can be attributed, in part, to the platooning system, the A’s really need to weigh the statistical advantage at the plate against the scoring opportunities being handed to the opponent. If platooning increases our batting average from .250 to .265 but opponents OBP jumps from .250 to .275 with all of the errors, it may be worth it, statistically, to ease up on the platooning in favor of a more balanced statistic.
I’m sure the comments of this post will be filled with people who know more than I do and this is a hypothesis more than an analysis but over the next couple of weeks I encourage you to take a closer look at the fielding and ask yourself, when Punto drops a ball, how many times you’ve seen Sogard make that exact same play.