Jeff Baker: The Best Argument Yet for the Chicago Cubs and Platoons

Posted on April 9, 2011

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Somewhere near the end of the four-hit, four-RBI performance with which Jeff Baker led the Chicago Cubs to a 7-4 win over the Milwaukee Brewers Friday, I got a text from my father. He’s a bit of a cynic sometimes but he loves the team and on those (relatively rare) occasions when he gets to watch the games he relishes every big hit. His text, tongue-in-cheek though it was, gave me pause.

“Jeff Baker is Pete Rose?”

At first, I laughed. I thought about responding, “If Pete Rose is Chuck Knoblauch, sure.” But then I stopped a moment, and a few things hit me all at once:

  1. As it turns out, Chuck Knoblauch really isn’t that bad a comp for Pete Rose. His .783 career OPS matches up pretty well with Rose’s .784 mark, though Rose accomplished his in a different era, and for what it’s owrth, Rose’s top comparable player through age 24 on Baseball-Reference is Knoblauch.
  2. Jeff Baker could actually be Pete Rose, if he only ever had to face left-handed pitching.
  3. The Cubs really ought to make sure Jeff Baker faces left-handed pitching as often as possible.

They’re already doing pretty well in that regard: Baker leads off against most southpaw pitchers. But the team has hardly embraced platoons efficiently over the decade-plus during which I have cheered for them. Mark DeRosa and Kosuke Fukudome would have been perfect platoon partners in 2008; ditto Eric Karros and Randall Simon in 2003. Neither platoon ever materialized, though, and now in 2011, one potential platoon has come together even as another has failed to do so.

Baker and Blake DeWitt are fine. Darwin Barney has gotten far too many plate appearances already this season, but in general, the platoon is in place and should work well. Unfortunately, the wisdom that led manager Mike Quade to institute that platoon has not carried from second base out to left and center fields. In those places, left-handed Tyler Colvin is getting next-to-no playing time while Marlon Byrd and Alfonso Soriano start every day. On the other hand, Colvin is getting some starts in right field–over Fukudome, a fellow lefty.

The Cubs need to change that, starting now. Byrd, in particular, is a poor hitter against right-handed pitching. Fukudome is a solid player and belongs in the lineup against all right-handed hurlers and even some lefties. Soriano should get some days off against right-handers anyway, to keep his legs fresh. Colvin needs to get many more starts in center and left and many fewer in right.

By the numbers, a well-made platoon can net a team an extra win and a half per season. Two of them makes three wins. That seems likely to be the difference in the NL Central this year, so Quade needs to optimize his lineup each and every day, starting right now.

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