Now that Lance Berkman is in the fold as the Cardinals’ putative third outfielder, among the several questions that the acquisition has prompted is this: “Will he play left field or right field?” As far as we see it, it’s the second false choice in as many weeks; Big Puma can and should play both.
Not at once, of course. Berkman, who by all accounts is an inferior fielder to Matt Holliday, should play in right or left conditionally. That is, if the conditions of the game dictate that more athleticism is required in right, Berkman should play left. If left requires more running, he should man right.
The precedent comes from not less than the best player in the game’s history, Babe Ruth. Ruth, who earned the majority of his career 172 Wins Above Replacement as a corner outfielder, played most of his career alternating between left and right fields on a per-series basis, based on the ballpark. As renowned researcher Craig Wright recently revealed, Ruth switched sides of the field according to which side had the sun in the outfielder’s eyes (hat tip: Rob Neyer). As Wright wrote in his recent newsletter:
Ruth was a pretty good defensive outfielder, but he struggled to track a fly ball in the sun, and that was a problem in an era of all day games. Manager Miller Huggins initially wanted to take advantage of Ruth’s strong and accurate throwing arm by playing him in right field. But because right field in the Polo Grounds was the sun field, in 1921 Huggins made Ruth his left fielder. Then on July 17, 1922, Huggins began experimenting with a plan he wanted to employ when the team moved into Yankee Stadium the next season. In the new ballpark the sun field would be in left field, and so he wanted Ruth to start learning to play right field again, but he also wanted to see if Ruth and right fielder Bob Meusel could handle switching sides off and on so that he could keep Babe out of the sun field in road games, which in most cities meant playing left field.
Wright goes on to note that “Ruth loved it,” and it obviously didn’t hurt his production.
Though Berkman’s defensive shortcomings are manifested differently from the Babe’s, the Cardinals could certainly take the same approach with Berkman, who resembles the stout sultan in more ways than power hitting, of course. Though he has reportedly trimmed down from last year, his knees and age conspire to render him in all likelihood a minus defender in the outfield. The Cardinals can minimize his shortcomings on defense, however, by applying the park-factor approach.
And they can take it one step further. In this day of spray charts and double-splits — not to mention less variance in ballpark dimensions, not least in Berkman’s new home — the Cardinals can find the more desirable configuration not only by series but by game, inning and batter. After all, though traditionally right fielders are known as better fielders, it is primarily because of their arms; Holliday’s main advantage over Berkman isn’t his arm but his legs. And in that, left isn’t too distinguishable from right, generally speaking: The Cardinal pitching staff allowed an equal percentage of balls in play to the left (20%) as to the right side (21%) last year. The more precise the split, though, it’s possible to gain a better sense of probable hit locations. For example, lefthanded batters pulled the ball 13% more than they went opposite field last year off Cardinal pitchers (28%-15%); righties pulled 8% more (24%-16%). For a simple platoon approach, that would mean roughly 10% fewer of the approximately 625 plays each corner outfielder makes in a season. For any particular batter-pitcher matchup, the team can play the odds even more wisely. And that’s to say nothing of game situation (score, runners on base, inning).
Is it unreasonable to think that the Cardinals might try it? Though he has become more conservative lately, Tony La Russa has been an innovator, an iconoclast not unlike his predeccessor Whitey Herzog. His latest bucking of convention has been his inconsistent practice of hitting the pitcher eighth, which demonstrates that he still may have an independent streak. He has already commented that he is aware of Berkman’s physical needs, so it behooves him to optimize the opportunities to get Big Puma’s bat into the lineup. Rather than giving him as many full offdays, why not essentially give him more rest on the days when he actually does play?
As for the players involved, Matt Holliday is on-record multiple times as being willing to move to right. No stranger to switch-hitting, Berkman, if he is half the team player he is reported to be, would surely be interested in switching, if it could help the club. Ironically for one of the game’s most accomplished switch hitters, the switching he can do to help the team most may be in the field and not at the dish, where his right-side skills have diminished.
Playing Berkman conditionally isn’t going to completely hide his defensive weakness, of course. But if it allows him to be in the lineup more often than one of the team’s AAAA outfielders, the team is much stronger. Even if the Cardinals take a simple platoon approach, playing Berkman in the opposite-field corner by batter, he’ll get around 60 fewer plays in a full season. It’s not much on a per-game basis, but as fans know, baseball is a long season and has an accrual effect. Better to let the outfield action accrue on Berkman’s knees less, and, in so doing, let his plate appearances accrue more.