Will David Price’s Handedness Scare Away the Dodgers?

Now that the Los Angeles Dodgers have hired a manager, they can turn their full attention to bolstering their starting rotation. With 2015’s Cy Young runner-up, Zack Greinke, testing the free agent waters after opting out of his contract, the Dodgers currently have four experienced starters they are expecting to be healthy come spring training: Clayton Kershaw, Brett Anderson, Alex Wood, and Hyun-jin Ryu.

Interesting thing about those four pitchers: like their new manager, Dave Roberts, they are all left-handed.

Interesting thing about the market for free agent pitchers: the best name on the list is David Price, who happens to also be left-handed.

I’ve heard it said that the Dodgers should pursue Jordan Zimmermann or Jeff Samardzija instead of Price to avoid having a rotation of five lefties. Considering that Samardzija and Zimmermann would both cost the Dodgers a draft pick by virtue of having received qualifying offers from their previous teams, Price — who was ineligible for a qualifying offer because he was traded midseason — might make more sense, even though he will presumably be more expensive.

No team has had five different lefties start at least 15 games since the 1989 Philadelphia Phillies (Don Carman, Dennis Cook, Larry McWilliams, Terry Mulholland, and Bruce Ruffin), and no team has ever had five left-handers start 20 games each. In fact, the only pitcher to start more than 23 games for those 1989 Phillies was right-hander Ken Howell, who started 32 games.

It is interesting that the Dodgers are at the center of a discussion about too many lefties, as they own the record for most consecutive games started by right-handed pitchers. After Bob Ojeda‘s start against the Cincinnati Reds on September 24, 1992, the Dodgers didn’t start another lefty until rookie Dennys Reyes (then called Dennis) on July 13, 1997. In between those two games, the Dodgers sent a right-handed starter to the mound in 681 straight games.

So, is there something to the idea that a rotation of five lefties is a bad idea? Let’s discuss.

First of all, let’s look at the platoon splits of the five pitchers in question. (Note that Ryu’s stats will be from 2014 because he did not pitch in 2015.)

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Summary: Kershaw is ridiculous against everyone; Anderson gives up more extra-base hits to righties but is otherwise about the same; Ryu is slightly more effective against righties but strikes out more lefties; Wood has pretty severe platoon splits, although they were worse in 2015 than in his career as a whole; and Price has a bit of a reverse split, giving up better numbers to lefties even though he strikes them out more often.

Other than Wood, there are no severe platoon splits at play here. Looking at the actual pitching styles, that is not a surprise. Platoon splits are more common among relievers than starters. This is because they are strongly related to a pitcher’s arm slot, and most pitchers with funky arm slots end up in the bullpen (because they often have severe platoon splits). It sounds like circular logic, but it’s true.

So there’s not much to see here as far as platoon splits go, especially as it pertains to Price (the lefty who is not currently under contract).

Second: Other teams in the National League West are not going to construct their roster based on the composition of the Dodgers’ rotation. Paul Goldschmidt hits lefties better than he hits righties, but he hits everyone well. Carlos Gonzalez is great against righties and terrible against lefties, but the Colorado Rockies are not likely to trade him based on too many lefties in Los Angeles. Teams will build the best team they can, often with a focus on getting some sort of lefty/righty balance in their lineup. The makeup of one team’s rotation will not alter those plans.

Third: There is no evidence that the handedness of the yesterday’s pitcher has any impact on today’s starter’s effectiveness. There are theories that, if you have a knuckleball pitcher and two pitchers who throw 95, it might be a good idea to put the slow guy between the power pitchers to keep the opponents off balance. There is no such theory about platoon splits. In general, teams line up their pitchers in order of how good they are regardless of throwing arm, in order to get as many starts for their best pitchers as possible. Kershaw will be Kershaw whether he pitches after Wood or right-hander Mike Bolsinger. The same for Price and any other pitcher.

Ultimately, there are dozens of factors for the Dodgers’ front office to consider when deciding which starting pitcher(s) to pursue. Cost is certainly one, and that includes the cost of giving up a draft pick if they sign a qualifying-offer pitcher. Age is a factor. A statistical analysis of how a pitcher’s style will play in Dodger Stadium and other NL West stadiums is certainly important. A pitcher’s mental makeup would be smart to consider. Heck, even a player’s ethnic background could be a factor for a team with a fanbase as racially diverse as Los Angeles.

But a pitcher’s throwing arm should receive very little thought. Price is a great pitcher against both righties and lefties. He is probably a step above Zimmermann and a couple steps above Samardzija.

So if Greinke doesn’t come back — and that’s a discussion for another day, but the only way he doesn’t come back is if the Dodgers don’t like the number of years he’s looking for — the Dodgers will sign the pitcher who makes the most sense for them, and throwing arm will not be an issue.

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