Skip to main content
Original Issue

Platoon, for-r-r-d harch!

Sparky Anderson has the Tigers moving to a brisk left-right-left-right cadence

Sparky Anderson, full-time Detroit baseball manager and sometime television personality, was giving an Emmy-winning performance in the visiting dugout last Thursday night before a game in Kansas City. "I truly don't believe that a manager wins games. Personnel does," said Sparky modestly, spewing tobacco juice to the floor for emphasis. "There's no philosophy to managing. You get a feeling [eyes downward], take a chance [shoulders shrug]. Sometimes you get an idea. That's all there is [hands puncture the air]."

Well said, Sparky. Here's to you and all your feelings, chances and ideas, too. But even if a manager can't win games, he can prevent losses. Proof of this is Anderson's own Tigers. Because of the victories earned by the personnel and the losses prevented by the manager, the Tigers have been performing like a well-drilled platoon in the American League East. Utilizing 61 different lineups and shuffling players at as many as six positions, Detroit moved from the division's cellar on June 19 to second place at the All-Star break. At week's end the Tigers had briefly broken step and were back in fifth, 10½ games out, perhaps the better to test Sparky anew.

Anderson is trying to accomplish with quantity in Detroit what he did with quality in Cincinnati. And he's even making it sound as if he prefers it this way. "I've always believed that everybody should have a chance to play; it makes each man feel like he's a part of something," says Anderson. "Of course, that's hard to do when you're trailing somebody. Then you've got to put your best eight players on the field at all times."

Unfortunately, Anderson has found that he doesn't have a best eight. His team is one of the youngest in the league—averaging 24.3 years per man—which is one reason Detroit has trailed somebody all year. On a team of near equals, everyone plays in Detroit's platoon system, with nearly equal results. The Tigers have a .533 percentage against righthanded pitching and a .529 against lefties. They are 24-21 with a .280 batting average against righthanders and 18-16 with a .266 average against southpaws.

The latter record is a vast improvement over a 3-9 mark early in the season, when Anderson realized that dual lineups were necessary to combat the inordinate number of lefthanded pitchers the Tigers were facing. At the time, Detroit regularly used as many as six lefty hitters in the starting lineup, making the Tigers easy prey for opponents. According to designated hitter Champ Summers, a man with a nice feeling for hyperbole, "teams would bring all their lefties up from the minors to face us, then send them back down when we left town." During one stretch of 36 games, the Tigers faced 26 lefty starters and defeated only 12 of them.

Anderson's initial attempts to platoon failed because the few righthanded batters he had didn't produce. Among those who did, Shortstop Alan Trammell and Catcher Lance Parrish were playing every day, and John Wockenfuss was shuttling among five positions so he could stay in the lineup.

The situation improved on May 27 when the team acquired righthanded Al Cowens from the Angels for Jason Thompson. Besides steadying an uncertain situation in rightfield, Cowens freed Anderson to make other moves that have also helped Detroit's resurrection. Left-handed-hitting Richie Hebner has moved from third base to first, a position he occasionally shares with Wockenfuss. At third is Tom Brookens, another right-handed batter, who is hitting .287.

The Tigers also acquired righthanded-hitting Second Baseman Stan Papi from the Phillies organization. Papi is batting .271 as a Tiger and gives Anderson an alternative to lefty Lou Whitaker, who has slumped of late and is down to .220. After a hand injury put rookie Kirk Gibson on the disabled list on June 18, when he was batting .263, centerfield has been shared by Ricky Peters, Dave Stegman and Jim Lentine. Even though he is a switch hitter, Peters isn't immune from platooning either, mainly because he's hitting .214 from the right side of the plate and .309 from the left.

Detroit has been 24-13 since the arrival of Cowens, so the players, including those who questioned the idea at first, have either been won over to platooning or have learned to live with it.

"Sparky never tried to convince us; he just wrote out the lineup card," says Summers. "If someone didn't like it, tough." Along with his counterpart from the right side, the ubiquitous Wockenfuss, Summers exemplifies platooning at its best. He is batting .343 this year, almost exclusively against righthanders, and Wockenfuss is at .287, mainly against lefties. Combined, they have 15 homers and 64 runs batted in.

"Players want to play every day, and John and I are no exceptions, but I've realized that's not the way Detroit works," says Summers. "Sparky has said that he's going to play the percentages. John and I talk about our value and we feel we're the equal to anyone around the league who's platooning."

Anderson will make an exception to his platooning strategy when he wants to play a hunch. On June 23, against Cleveland, Sparky "shocked" Summers by letting him face side-winding southpaw Sid Monge with the game on the line. "I couldn't believe it," Summers says. "I'd faced him twice before, and he struck me out twice on six pitches. But Sparky told me I was going to go up and drive in the winning run." Buoyed by Anderson's confidence, Summers knocked in the winner in a 5-4 victory.

Another exception to the rule is Hebner, who in 60 games has batted .299 with 61 RBIs. He's also exceptional because he's hitting .354 against lefties and .267 against righties. "When they were platooning me early in the year I didn't think they wanted me," he says. "I couldn't understand why they had traded for me if they were going to do that. In that kind of situation, where you play and sit out, I'm amazed I did so well. It's very easy to lose your stroke after sitting a few games. It can be a whole new world. I'm glad I get to see some lefties. In fact, if I didn't, my stats so far would be pretty mediocre."

Because as many as 13 Tigers play with some sort of regularity, Anderson rarely has to substitute a "cold" player. As a result, Tiger pinch hitters are batting .297, and the designated hitters .289. The lineup card after a Detroit game is likely to be filled with pencil scratches here and matching insertions there, a sure sign that Sparky has "gone into my bag and made some moves." In three games he used five pinch hitters, and in another three players at first base.

Sparky's now-you-see-him, now-you-don't approach doesn't always work, but it does keep the Tigers in the game. In fact, quite a few of them.


Summers and Wockenfuss make a dynamic duo.