Needless to say, finding an outfielder who can put up that kind of production is rare in the recent low-offense environment, and it’s something that would probably cost a team tens of millions of dollars to acquire on the free-agent market.
Luckily for the Red Sox, they might have one of the most productive and inexpensive left fielders right in their back pocket; only it comes in the form of a two-man platoon.
Jonny Gomes, who Boston signed this winter to a two-year, $10 million dollar contract, has a lifetime .385 wOBA and .894 OPS against left-handed pitching. In 2012, as a member of the Oakland Athletics, he mashed southpaws to the tune of a .418 wOBA in 196 plate appearances.
Meanwhile, Daniel Nava is coming off what seems like a fairly average season for the Red Sox, posting a .330 wOBA in 317 plate appearances. Against right-handers, though, Nava’s wOBA was .354, good for a .797 OPS in 222 plate appearances.
If you put Gomes’ numbers against lefties and Nava’s numbers against righties in 2012 together, you get 418 plate appearances of an .880 OPS, good for third among AL outfielders. If the Red Sox were to get that kind of production out of left field this year, they’d be thrilled.
Now, this is not to say that Gomes and Nava would combine for these kinds of numbers over the course of a full season, or roughly 700 plate appearances. And the ability for any manager to completely utilize correct platoon splits all the time isn’t realistic, even if he tries. If Jacoby Ellsbury gets hurt, for instance, Gomes and Nava could be manning left and right field simultaneously, while Shane Victorino takes Ellsbury’s place in center.
Theoretically, a platoon is Boston’s best option for left field in 2013, and it pretty much all comes back to Gomes.
A detriment against right-handed pitchers, Gomes has posted just a 93 RC+ for his career against righties, which of course is below league average. It’s the reason why he’s only had more than 500 plate appearances in a season once (in 2010 for the Reds) in his 10-year career.
But Gomes’ massive success against lefties is also the reason why he keeps getting jobs in the big leagues, and it’s why he’s occasionally one of the most dangerous hitters in the game. Gomes will be a tough out whenever the Red Sox have to face any one of the quality southpaws in the AL East, including CC Sabathia, David Price, Matt Moore, Ricky Romero, Mark Buehrle and Wei-Yin Chen.
In fact, if every big league pitcher were left-handed, it’s safe to say Gomes would be a perennial All-Star. Of course, most are right-handed, and that’s where Nava comes in.
Though he’s the otherwise uninspiring half of this potential left field platoon, Nava has shown signs of being able to hit quality big league pitching, especially against right-handed pitching. His .383 on-base percentage against righties was fourth among AL outfielders with at least 100 plate appearances.
Nava probably hasn’t had enough playing time yet to truly judge his talent level, but his patience at the plate cannot be denied. He’s walked 56 times in 505 big league plate appearances, and though he doesn’t hit for much power, he did smack 21 doubles in 2012.
Nava won’t be the most exciting player on the roster this year, but his presence in left field on days that opposing right-handers start will allow Gomes to pinch-hit in high-leverage spots, late in the game, against opponents’ tough left-handed relievers. Those are the kinds of spots most teams struggle with, but the Red Sox will be able to come up with a secret weapon off the bench more times than not.
It’s tough to say at this point how John Farrell will utilize his outfield. Most managers don’t even like to use platoons, in fear that limiting a player’s overall time makes him a worse hitter, even in spots he normally excels in.
But the Red Sox will need any help they can get if they want to make the postseason in 2013. Often times, it’s the little things that add up to vaulting mediocre teams into contention. Utilizing a Gomes-Nava platoon in left field could be one of the crucial elements to Boston’s success.