Phillies 2016 Key: First Base Platoon

Mar 4, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard (6) and first baseman Darin Ruf (18) talk before a spring training baseball game at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 4, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard (6) and first baseman Darin Ruf (18) talk before a spring training baseball game at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The Philadelphia Phillies are in transition during a rebuilding phase, and the first base position is one that is likely to be held down by a short-term platoon in 2016.

That is the theme today as we continue our “2016 Five Keys to Success” series focusing on how the Phils can possibly make some noise this season.  Last we checked in, I hopefully convinced you that Pete Mackanin is the right guy for this youth-filled team.

One of Mackanin’s most important decisions heading into the season is going to be whether or not to platoon his $25 million first baseman, one of the final two icons remaining from the glorious late 2000’s championship team. That first base position is my third key to 2016 success.


TBOH staffer Ryan Gerstel explained a week ago what we can likely expect from Ryan Howard in 2016. In summary, if, and it is a major if at this point, Mackanin comes to the conclusion that there has been no sudden improvement in Howard’s ability to hit lefties, we could be looking at our first real platoon on a Phillies team over the course of a full season in decades.

The last time we had a fairly straightforward, season-long platoon situation was all the way back in 1993, and that club did it with a number of positions. Manager Jim Fregosi platooned his ‘Macho Row’ group in left field with Pete Incaviglia and Milt Thompson, in right field with Jim Eisenreich and Wes Chamberlain, and at 2nd base with Mickey Morandini and Mariano Duncan.

The modern version would have Howard and Darin Ruf in a first base platoon. When looking at the facts, this could honestly make for solid offensive production from the first base position, if Mackanin decides to go this route.

In a piece a few weeks back here at TBOH, Matt Veasey wrote about Mackanin giving Howard a final opportunity to prove he can hit lefties. I think we all know how that is likely to turn out. However, Mackanin is a man of his word, and Howard will get that chance in spring training.

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How could such a platoon help the Phillies improve in 2016? First of all, both players are below average defenders, so all discussion of a platoon can involve throwing the defense out the window. We can expect sub-par defense either way, so we should simply be focusing on what their bats can provide.

I have personally never been a huge Ruf fan, but am able to put the dislike to the side and evaluate his ability to hit lefties. When he is kept in that role, he can be a huge boost to the Phillies’ offense.  In the same breath, it is difficult to admit Howard can no longer play every day, and that it is time to move on, but we all know that the time has been now for the last two years.

In order to understand what an offensive platoon at the position can mean for the Phillies, let’s look at the two players individually.

Ruf’s numbers against lefties are out of this stratosphere. The guy plain rakes left-handed pitching.  In the last three seasons, Ruf has had 227 at-bats against left-handed pitchers. In those ABs, his OPS (On-base+Slugging Percentage) is .919, which is almost a full .300 points higher than he performs against right-handers.

If we take only his 97 at-bats versus lefty pitching in 2015, Ruf’s OPS was an absurd 1.107 (to .483 against RHPs) and he launched 8 of his 12 home runs against southpaws.

Howard has declined against righties, but not nearly enough for a full benching. He is still capable of raking against big league right-handers.  Last season, ‘The Big Piece’ had 367 at-bats against righties. He was able to swat 20 homers on his way to doubling his OPS (.803-.418) versus left-handers.

While 22 walks when facing those righties is far from where he needs to be, it is far better than the five he worked against lefties. He produced a .256/.304/.409 slash line against righties, against a .130/.178/.240 line against lefties. These numbers are proof that he is able to see the ball much better when facing a right-handed pitcher.

Howard will face hard throwing right-handers frequently within the NL East Division, such as Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Jose Fernandez, and basically all of the defending division champion New York Mets’ arms. Combine those matchups with  his 98 K’s vs. righties last season and we are in a Freddy Krueger-themed nightmare where whiffs are concerned.

By the same measure, the soon to be 30-year old Ruf’s splits were even more exaggerated than Howard’s. Ruf hit for a .158/.208/.275 slash line against right-handers. He struck out 51 times in 183 plate appearances against righties. Meanwhile, he crushed lefties to a .371/.447/.660 slash, while striking out just 18 times in 114 plate appearances.

There has seldom been a clearer case of a necessary platoon at a Phillies lineup position. I think less pressure on Howard could be a game changer for him. I do think that if Mackanin decides to use a straight platoon, the combination could produce numbers in the area of .270/.350/.400 with somewhere around 30 homeruns and 90 RBIs.

To get better, the Phillies are going to need more consistent production in the middle of the order this season. The best option they have is to go with that straight platoon involving their former superstar Howard in order to squeeze out any last ounce of positive productivity that he might have left, while also best maximizing Ruf’s own results.

Next: Philography: Granny Hamner