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March 2, 2004

The problem with Kenny Lofton?
by Larry Mahnken

I was reading Baseball Prospectus' "Triple Play" feature yesterday, discussing the problem with playing Kenny Lofton in center field every day:
Typical scenario: a righty starts against the Yankees at the Stadium. Lofton is in center field. Williams is the DH. We go to the bottom of the seventh inning tied 1-1. There are two outs and a runner on second. Lofton is at bat. Damaso Marte comes into the game. Joe Torre calls for...well, there's really no one on the roster he can call. Ruben Sierra isn't much against lefties either. Tony Clark is decent against lefties, but who knows if he's going to make the roster? Mike Lamb is a righty batter, but his platoon splits are backwards. Here we have problem number one: in case of lefty, Joe Torre can call for his momma, he can call for his pipe, call for his bowl, and call for his fiddlers three, but he can't call for a good lefty-killer.

Let's say he calls on Travis Lee, who is a lefty but hangs in pretty well against his own kind. Lee pops out to Ozzie Guillen, who has activated himself so he can show Frank Thomas was a real percentage ballplayer looks like. Inning over. During the commercial break, Torre confers with new consigliere Willie Randolph. A defensive replacement is needed in center field. First choice is Bernie Williams, but he's the DH and the game is tied, so if we put Bernie in the field and go to extra innings, the pitcher's spot could come up five times and kill us. Besides, he's really involved in a National Geographic special on the clubhouse HDTV. He stays put. Clearly, Hideki Matsui must slide over to center. Okay, that's easy. Now who plays left? We could keep Lee in the game and stick him in left field. That's pretty scary. Sierra? Still scary. It's a 1-1 game, man. Left field in this park is the size of Kenya. You want a gapper to a misplaced first baseman to lose us the game?

Then who? Whaddya mean we're already out of outfielders? Didn't we remember to put a defensive outfielder on this cockeyed ball club?

...Nope. They didn't. They haven't for years. This year it's going to lead to lots of Lofton vs. LOOGYs, IE freebie outs for the opposition.
Well, first of all, Mike Lamb is a lefty, explaining his platoon split.

The point about Kenny Lofton's platoon splits is valid: Kenny Lofton has a .280 career GPA vs. righties, and a .261 GPA vs. lefties, and a more pronounced .270/.222 split in the past three seasons. Lofton is basically useless against lefties, so if he's up in a tight spot against a lefty, the Yankees will do well to pinch-hit for him.

Of the choices given, here are their 3-year GPA's vs. lefties:
Ruben Sierra - .246
Tony Clark - .259
Mike Lamb - .239
Travis Lee - .257

The choice not given is Miguel Cairo, whose career GPA vs. lefties is .261. Cairo's played a whopping 47 games in left field in his career, but he has played out there--and even if he didn't, he's still a pinch-hitting option in this situation. Since the AL had a .255 GPA vs. lefties last year, the Yankees have three or four league-average hitting options to replace Lofton in this situation.

So, who goes into left, since moving Matsui over is a no-brainer? Sierra, Lamb, Cairo and Clark are not very good options, but I think BP blows off the option of putting Travis Lee in left far too easily. Lee has spent most of his career as a first baseman, but in 2000, he played 54 games in right for the Diamondbacks, and ten games in left. Prospectus rates Lee as 4 RAA overall in the outfield that season, and UZR rates him as 7 runs above average. But that's not all. In the past, Prospectus' comments on Lee in their annual publication include comments about him in the outfield:
1998: I've watched Lee play, and I think he's wasted at first base. He's very good with the glove, so good that I think he could probably play a corner outfield spot very well.

2000: The organization plans to move him to right field, which will give them a dandy player once Lee figures out whatever is troubling him; he's always been too good defensively to be stuck at first base, anyway.

2002: Lee really belongs in left field.
So, when did Lee go from being a misplaced left fielder at first to a misplaced first baseman in left? I don't know, maybe when he joined the Yankees.

Lee's a viable option in left, but much more importantly, how often is this situation going to come up? Not this specific situation, but a situation in which Kenny Lofton comes up against a left-handed pitcher late in a tight game, where his at-bat is so important that the Yankees have to pinch-hit for him. I'm quite sure that it will happen a lot less often than a ball being hit into the outfield gaps that Lofton will catch and Bernie will not. The Yankees are better off playing Lofton every day and having to make a tough decision every now and then than living with Bernie Williams in center every day, and having to make extra outs. It's a trade-off, and the Yankees aren't as poorly situated to deal with it as BP makes it seem.