With about 18 days until Opening Day, Royals manager Mike Matheny has some interesting decisions to make with the Royals lineup in preparation for Opening Day. One of the biggest decisions Matheny will make before March 26th (the Royals’ away opener; their home opener is on April 2nd against the Mariners) has to center on what he will do with the Royals first-base position in 2020. If the Royals want to improve upon their 59-103 record a season ago, they will have to get more production from the first-base position, a premium spot for production.
Case in point: in 2019, the Royals ranked last in all of baseball in WAR at the first base position (2.9 runs below average) as well as wRC+, (68), according to Fangraphs. That cannot happen again if the Royals want to show improvement in Matheny’s first year as manager.
As of now though, if the Royals want to win more games, it will have to come from within the organization, specifically Ryan O’Hearn and Ryan McBroom. Thankfully for the Royals and Matheny, both hitters have gotten off to strong Springs in Surprise. Currently, O’Hearn is posting a .310/.375/.690 slash with a 1.095 OPS and three home runs over 32 plate appearances, while McBroom is putting up a .345/.406/.759 slash with a 1.165 OPS and three home runs over 32 plate appearances as well.
Hence, neither first baseman has really separated themselves from one another this Spring, which led to this interesting nugget being suggested by Royals MLB.com insider Jeff Flanagan:
In the article, Matheny seemed open to the idea, understanding that utilizing both of their bats in the lineup throughout the year would only work to the Royals’ benefit. Here is what he said about the idea of a “soft” platoon at first base for 2020:
“I’m not ruling that (soft platoon) out at all,” Matheny said. “I’ve explained it, certainly to O’Hearn, to ‘be prepared all the time, and that we’re not afraid having you face a lefty. But understand that if we can create a way to set you up better, we’re open to whatever we have to do.’”Jeff Flanagan, “Notes: Possible 1B platoon; Rosenthal dealing”, MLB.com/Royals.
However, would a platoon make sense for this Royals lineup, and how successful have platoons been at the Major League level, anyways? Let’s take a deeper look at the benefits and drawbacks of a possible platoon at first base in Kansas City.
Why a platoon makes sense at first base for the Royals
In all honesty, neither O’Hearn nor McBroom is a sure thing, even though they have showed spurts of potential over their Major League careers. O’Hearn had a great stint in 2018, where he posted a .262/.353/.597 slash with a .950 OPS to go along with 12 home runs and 30 RBI over 44 games and 170 plate appearances. However, O’Hearn still swung and missed a lot in 2018 (26.5 percent to be specific), and in 2019, he got more exposed over the course of a full season. Over 105 games and 370 plate appearances, O’Hearn posted a .195/.281/.369 slash with a .650 OPS and only 14 home runs and 38 RBI produced.
Safe to say, O’Hearn didn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence in Royals fans that he could be an adequate heir-apparent to former fan-favorite Eric Hosmer. And thus, it is not surprising that Dayton Moore acquired Ryan McBroom, who had toiled in the Yankees farm system, in late August to add some depth at the position.
McBroom was far from impressive in 2019 with the Royals. While he did post a .293 average and .361 OBP, his slugging was meager for a first baseman at .360, and he didn’t hit a home run over 83 plate appearances. Furthermore, while O’Hearn gained grief for his strikeout issues, McBroom was arguably worse in 2019 than O’Hearn, as McBroom posted a higher strikeout rate (30.4 to O’Hearn’s 26.8 percent) and worse BB/K ratio (0.28 to 0.39). So, while McBroom had potential to hit for higher average than O’Hearn, his high strikeout rate, and lesser power made him questionable as a pure replacement for O’Hearn in 2020.
However, as a platoon pairing the “Ryan’s” would make a lot of sense, especially when their splits are examined further.
Over his career against right-handed pitchers, O’Hearn posted a .233/.320/.483 slash and .803 OPS with a wRC+ of 110, according to Fangraphs. Against right-handed hitters though? That slash is a meager .144/.235/.256 with an OPS of .491 and wRC+ of 31. And remember: these are his splits over his career, not just last year.
As for McBroom, his metrics are not as pronounced, but he does showcase what is expected for a right-handed hitter: his OPS is 50 points better against lefties than righties, and his wRC+ is 10 points higher as well. Thus, even though the splits are not as dramatic in McBroom’s case in comparison to O’Hearn, it is obvious that McBroom would be an upgrade over O’Hearn when the Royals face left-handed pitchers.
If one averages their splits together as one hitter, their wOBA would be approximately .334, which would rank around the middle of the pack in terms of wOBA production from the first-base position around the league.
Why would a platoon be a challenge in Kansas City?
So far, it seems like O’Hearn has done nothing to merit losing the first base position, and all early reports indicate that Matheny prefers O’Hearn at the first base position. However, considering O’Hearn’s rough splits against left-handed pitchers, it would make analytical sense that against right-handed hitters, O’Hearn would get at-bats, and against lefties, McBroom would get the opportunity at the plate and in the field.
Unfortunately, it is not always that simple, as the platoon system has rarely taken hold in Kansas City (or a lot of other Major League clubs in general) in seasons past.
While Casey Stengel popularized the “platoon system” from his days managing the Yankees, it is still a debatable strategy among managers at the Major League level. The Athletics, Cubs, and Indians have all incorporated platoon systems of sorts over the past decade or so, but even then, they didn’t use it purely and more out of necessity. Furthermore, even managers who are pretty “pro” platoon, such as Joe Maddon, got out of the habit a bit in recent years. For example, even though outfielder Kyle Schwarber platooned often in Maddon’s early years as manager, Schwarber became the full-time outfielder in 2019, getting at-bats against both lefties and righties, even though platoon splits suggest that he should sit it out against lefties (though injuries to Ben Zobrist probably contributed to that last year).
One of the big reasons Major League managers are against a “platoon system” in the field is that it doesn’t exactly give players the sense that their manager has absolute confidence in them. Even in this data-driven age of baseball, hitters like to get at-bats everyday. It shows that their manager believes in them, and it also allows them to get a rhythm over the course of the season. Platooning can interrupt that and could actually impede performance, which is exactly the opposite of what a manager would want from his hitters.
Former Royals manager Ned Yost did not really employ a whole lot of right-left platoons during his ten-year tenure with the Royals. He stuck it out with guys like Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, even though they had their obvious struggles at times against left-handed pitchers. That being said, it is not surprising that Yost avoided implementing a “platoon system” in Kansas City. After all, he was known as a “players manager”, and he would have rather dealt with the consequences of a player’s platoon struggles rather than disrupting a hitters confidence or the clubhouse in general.
Matheny on the other hand is a different kind of manager, or at least he was when he was in St. Louis. Matheny is a bit more old-school, and though he wasn’t known for utilizing the “platoon system” to the lengths of a Bob Melvin of Oakland or Maddon in Tampa Bay and Chicago, he had years where he utilized it somewhat (mostly when Matt Adams and Allen Craig split time at the first base position). Unlike Yost, it seems Matheny is at least “open” to the idea and it would not be surprising to see Matheny utilize it by Opening Day, even though he is keeping mum on it now, not wanting to mess up the positive strides or mojo both hitters have been exhibiting this Spring.
Will the Royals utilize the platoon at first in 2020?
At this point, it would benefit the Royals lineup to utilize a “platoon system” at first base…at least for the first couple of months, anyways. McBroom has some position versatility, as he can play the outfield, and he is not blocking anyone in the minors or on the 40-man who would be more worthy of a spot. Sure, the Royals could benefit from a utility infielder, especially with Adalberto Mondesi’s health in question for Opening Day. However, Matt Reynolds has not showed enough to warrant a spot on the 40-man roster, let alone the 26-man one, and Erick Mejia, who has had a strong spring, may not be ready either for a full-time utility position at the Major League level.
Additionally, the benefits of batting McBroom against lefties are just too obvious: McBroom is a serious upgrade statistically over O’Hearn when it comes to production against left-handed pitchers. As individuals, McBroom and O’Hearn probably are slightly-below average first basemen when it comes to production (Depth Charts projects .302 wOBA for McBroom and a .313 wOBA for O’Hearn). But together? With McBroom hitting only against lefties? Well…that can at least be an average first-baseman hitting-wise in the American League.
And with all the current hitting production they have (Whit, Soler, Dozier, Salvy, Mondi, and even Gordo), average first-base production may be good enough to help this club reach the 70-plus win mark in 2020.