Yankees stuck in an unusual outfield platoon conundrum

Mike Stobe

"Can't anyone here hit righthanded pitching?"

It seems like few hitters play the game quite like Alfonso Soriano. Last year, the slugging righty demonstrated how much he could carry a team while on a hot streak, as he hit .256/.325/.525 with 17 homers and a 130 wRC+ in just 58 games. The trade-off to those streaks though is that when he gets cold, he looks dreadful. After Monday night's disaster against the Mariners, the 38-year-old Soriano has now played in 52 games in 2014, just about a week's worth of games shy of his total in pinstripes last year. Contrasting his incredible run then, Soriano currently sports a mere .235/.262/.408 triple slash with only six homers and a 77 wRC+. Since reaching a season-high .826 OPS on April 24th against the Red Sox, he's stumbled to a .188/.198/.317 triple slash in 31 games. Woof.

While Soriano has been bad this year, it wouldn't make much sense to cut him just yet, as some fans have already suggested. The most obvious reason is that no one in the minors is banging down the doors for a spot in the outfield, but another point in Soriano's favor is the havoc he causes on lefthanded pitching. Much like fellow veteran Derek Jeter, Soriano still appears to have some gas left in the tank when southpaws are on the mound. Even throughout his struggles in 2014, he is batting a potent .300/.328/.517 with a 127 wRC+ in 64 plate appearances against lefties. Soriano has long made a habit of mashing lefties, and given the Yankees' desperate search for offense right now, it wouldn't make sense to cut that from the lefty lineup.

The downside of course is that Soriano has been terrible against righthanded pitching. After an 0-for-4 against Felix Hernandez last night, Soriano is now hitting .195/.221/.341 with a 48 wRC+ on the season when righties are on the mound. The obvious answer to this problem is to get Soriano's bat out of the lineup when righties are pitching, as he wasn't even hitting them that well last year when he was hot anyway (.236/.278/.456 with a 97 wRC+). Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be an answer in sight on the Yankees' roster.

What makes this situation weird is that the Yankees do have a lefty outfielder, an asset that would traditionally be the perfect complement to Soriano. The problem is that the lefty is Ichiro Suzuki, who is not like most lefties. Throughout most of his Hall of Fame career, Ichiro was equally as dangerous against lefties as he was against righties, but since the beginning of 2013, he has strangely stopped hitting righthanded pitching, a bizarre reverse platoon split.

Last year, Ichiro hit .235/.282/.307 against righties with a 57 wRC+ compared to a far-superior .321/.331/.421 triple slash with a 104 wRC+ against lefties. Although in a small sample size, that trend has continued in 2014 with a .288/.351/.333 mark in 74 plate appearances against righties compared to a .375/.423/.417 triple slash in an 26 plate appearances against lefties thus far. While his numbers against righties are better than both his splits from last year and Soriano's statistics, they also were likely affected by Ichiro's more restricted role prior to Carlos Beltran's injury. The extra rest might have kept him fresh with better numbers then, but in his consistent two weeks of starting since then, he's hit .229/.333/.229. Thus, it doesn't really seem like Ichiro is the ideal platoon partner for Soriano.

The Yankees do have one other bench outfielder on their roster right now, and that's switch-hitting Zoilo Almonte. When Almonte was in the minors, he was a better hitter against righties than lefties, batting .303/.377/.451 in 66 games against righties in 2013, and .323/.363/.583 in 32 games against righties in 2014. While that's encouraging, his numbers at the big league level cannot be dismissed. Almonte made a great first impression when he was called up last year, but since then, his MLB production has come crashing down to a .224/.258/.304 career triple slash with a 50 wRC+ in 132 plate appearances. He has continued to hit better against righties than lefties (.231/.271/.341 vs. .206/.222/.206 [ew]), but that's hardly inspiring either. The sad thing is that Zoilo is probably the best outfield option from the minors right now, as none of the current Triple-A outfielders (Adonis Garcia, Antoan Richardson, and Russ Canzler [lol]) hit nearly as well as Zoilo did in the minors against righties. The point is probably moot anyway, as Almonte will likely be sent down soon provided that Beltran does indeed return from the disabled list later this week, as rumored.

I wish there was a better solution about how to get the best offensive production out of the right field, but the best option is probably just to use Soriano against lefties and Ichiro against righties. Beltran will likely need most of the DH time when he returns, so one of Ichiro or Soriano is simply going to have to produce. Although Ichiro is unlikely to sustain his improved splits against righties this year, especially with regular playing time at age 40, there doesn't seem to be a better option out there right now. With Soriano looking completely lost against righties recently, they might as well just use Ichiro against righties and restrict Soriano to lefties while hoping that he can catch fire once again.

This article on the sad state of right field depressed me, so to cheer up, let's enjoy a video clip of Paul O'Neill's three-homer game:

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