There’s never too much to glean from Opening Day. With the Braves, despite all the offseason changes, many things were familiar on Monday in Miami. Julio Teheran pitched really well. Andrelton Simmons displayed defensive wizardry. A pretty good bullpen escaped some jams. A good player here had a bad day, a bad player there had a good one. Baseball things happened.
Aside from Christian Bethancourt, cleanup hitter, a topic we’ll save for another day, the most interesting thing was that Chris Johnson and Jonny Gomes weren’t penciled into the opening day lineup, signaling a move to a platooning approach at both positions for 2015.
When Kelly Johnson made the team, I certainly didn’t expect him to get a start in game #1. The same goes for both Alberto Callaspo and Jace Peterson. It seems Fredi G is going platooning in LF – Jonny Gomes (vs. lefties) and Kelly Johnson (vs. righties) – and at 3B – Chris Johnson (vs. lefties) and Alberto Callaspo (vs. righties). Platoons can work to a team’s advantage if deployed correctly. The question here – are these potentially useful platoons?
It helps that none of these players are so good that they demand full time starting attention. Here are ZiPs projections for each:
Chris Johnson: .270/.306/.395, 95 wRC+
Alberto Callaspo: .252/.327/.345, 91 wRC+
Jonny Gomes: .234/.335/.392, 106 wRC+
Kelly Johnson: .223/.307/.374, 93 wRC+
Only Gomes is expected to be above average, and he has developed a reputation in recent years as a player that needs a platoon partner. Needless to say, there’s no clear cut starter at either position.
But might the platoons work? Let’s start at 3rd.
Johnson was a below average hitter against lefties prior to his arrival in Atlanta, but he has mashed southpaws both years with the Braves, posting wRC+’s of 162 and 177. He was pretty unhelpful last year against righties (58 wRC+), but has a history of producing there, topping 114 the previous two years and posting a career wRC+ of 97. Johnson should be in the lineup against lefties as long as recent trends continue, but there’s not an obvious need for a platoon partner with righties on the mound.
Not only does Johnson not demand a platoon partner, but Callaspo is an odd partner to choose. Alberto hasn’t topped a 92 wRC+ against righties since 2011, and he has a career mark of 90, or 10% worse than league average. The switch-hitting Callaspo stunk against lefties in 2014, but that was after three consecutive above average seasons and a career wRC+ against lefties of 101. He’s a similar player, not a complementary one. I suppose one could argue keeping players fresh deeper into the season could be an advantage of the platoon. But with Chris Johnson already seemingly unhappy with his playing time, one has to wonder if freshness is the most important thing here. This isn’t a platoon that is likely to move the needle when it comes to scoring runs, despite offense being the presumptive reason for the pairing.
In LF, one thing is certain: the more times Jonny Gomes can face a lefty, the better off all Braves fans will be. Gomes has been 33% better than league average against lefties over his career, and he has remained productive against them in recent years even while his overall production declined. Gomes is considerably less reliable against righties, but that doesn’t mean he’s worthless. He actually had above average seasons against righties in 2012 and 2013 bookended by some unhelpful ones in 2011 and 2014. That’s how it goes with Gomes, mostly because the samples against righties are kept on the small size. The fluctuations aren’t surprising. It’s best to find him a platoon partner.
Is Kelly Johnson the right one? With a career wRC+ of 101 and recent trends pointing downward (90, 103, 84 over the last 3 seasons), it doesn’t appear so. Johnson might even be a better hitter against lefties than he is against righties. It’s a puzzling pairing.
Of course, we know why Johnson and Callaspo were the chosen partners for Gomes and Johnson, respectively: they stand on the opposite side of the plate when batting. As I said earlier, keeping players fresh is good, and these platoons give the Braves a way to do that without too much dropoff. However, the antiquated means of selecting partners means you shouldn’t expect the platoons to result in more total offense, just more variety in who provides it.