Baseball Notes: Lineup Protection

baseball notesPart of the perceived strength of last year’s Detroit Tigers offense came from the arrangement of the middle of the batting order: Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and Victor Martinez; two huge bats following the biggest one in the game. The idea was that Fielder, batting fourth, “protected” Cabrera in the three hole because he was there to make pitchers pay if they wanted to simply intentionally walk Cabrera to mitigate his potent power, the same way pitchers treated Barry Bonds a decade a go. With Fielder there to “protect” Cabrera, the theory went, Cabrera’s offensive numbers should improve because pitchers would have to be more aggressive with him.

The lineup protection concept makes intuitive sense, but it has been a popular target for the sabermetric folks, who insist that “protected” hitters show no measurable improvement as a result of lineup protection. In light of Prince’s departure from Detroit, ESPN’s Jayson Stark, who surely knows much more about baseball than me, is the latest to take up the advanced statistical ax against the lineup protection effect:

As my esteemed colleague, ESPN.com’s Dave Schoenfield, wrote recently, there “just isn’t evidence,” in almost any of the really significant numbers in Cabrera’s stats column, “that Prince Fielder made Miguel Cabrera a better hitter.”

Wait. There isn’t any evidence? Really?

That’s a statement that seems impossible on the surface, even to the Tigers themselves. After all …

  • In the two seasons in which Fielder hit behind Cabrera, their man Miggy won back-to-back MVPs and back-to-back batting titles.
  • Cabrera’s on-base percentage also went up 14 points (from .403 to .417) in those two seasons, compared to his previous years with the Tigers.
  • Meanwhile, his slugging percentage zoomed upward nearly 50 points (from .571 to .620).
  • His home runs per season (from 35 to 44) and RBIs per season (115 to 138) also were way up.
  • And his intentional walks (54 over the two seasons before Prince, 36 in the two seasons with Prince) were down.


Even players who are at least remotely skeptical of the concept of lineup protection still think there’s something to it. But if you look past the circumstantial evidence in Cabrera’s trophy case, there are really persuasive facts that say otherwise.

You’d think, for instance, that with a feared presence like Fielder behind him, Cabrera would have seen a lot more strikes over the past two years. Right?

Wrong. FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron ran those numbers for us and found this:

  • Pitches in the strike zone to Cabrera from 2007-11: 46 percent.
  • Pitches in the strike zone to Cabrera in 2012-13: 46 percent.
  • You would also think, we’re guessing, that Cabrera saw many more fastballs with Fielder hulking it up behind him. Nope. Not really, according to FanGraphs.
  • Fastballs thrown to Cabrera over his career: 59 percent.
  • Fastballs thrown to Cabrera in 2012-13: 59 percent.

OK, how about first-pitch strikes? They must have gone up in The Prince Years, correct? Sorry. Here’s more from FanGraphs:

  • Cabrera’s career first-pitch strike percentage: 58.6 percent.
  • Cabrera’s first-pitch strike percentage in 2012-13: 58.9 percent.

So where’s the evidence? It sure is difficult to find.

Huh?

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Stark’s article bothers me. He concedes that, with Prince, Cabrera’s OBP, SLG, HR, and RBI all were significantly higher, and IBB were significantly lower.

He then ropes in Dave Cameron’s work to argue that lineup protection is a myth because Cabrera didn’t see more fastballs or first-pitch strikes with Prince backing him up.

Why would you ever throw fastballs or first-pitch strikes to Cabrera? Those seem like bad ideas under any circumstances– even if Cabrera’s eight teammates were eight Don Kelly clones.

The lineup protection concept says that you have to throw to Cabrera when guys like Prince and Martinez follow him in the lineup, not that you have to lob him tennis balls. The significant improvements in OBP, SLG, HR, RBI, and IBB indicate to me that the protection concept is, to some extent, a behavioral reality.

That’s not to say there isn’t a meaningful role for advanced statistics here. For example, it would be helpful to parse out the extent to which Cabrera’s improved PA results were due to pitchers taking notice of Prince in the on-deck circle and the degree to which they were due to Cabrera’s own continued improvement as a hitter. To waive your hands over those “traditional” metrics while chanting “Fangraphs” and “PITCHf/x” is nothing more than Sabrwashing in this instance, however.

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Previously
Baseball Notes: The Crux of the Statistical Biscuit
Baseball Notes: Looking Out for Number One
Baseball Notes: Preview

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One thought on “Baseball Notes: Lineup Protection

  1. Pingback: Baseball Notes: The In-Game Half Lives of Professional Pitchers | ALDLAND

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