We are all familiar with conspiracy theories that fail to hold up to scrutiny. Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, aliens, the Mayans predicting the end of the world, and a few political ones that have polluted the landscape in recent years. If you have not done so already, you should add lineup protection to that list of bunk. At least, in the way it is often thought about.
As the story goes, groupthink believes that putting a feared hitter behind another one benefits the first hitter. Subscribers to the theory believe that with a strong hitter coming up next in the lineup, teams would be more hesitant in pitching around or even intentionally walking the current hitter at any time. The most immediate example people often cite is Miguel Cabrera, who is the reigning AL MVP and the first Triple Crown winner of our generation.
The funny thing is, Cabrera's 2012 season with Prince Fielder "protecting" him was not even as good as his 2011 season. Sure, Cabrera had a career-high 44 home runs last season and drove in 139 runners, but his weighted on base average was 20 points below what he did in 2011. Yes, his walk rate fell from 16 percent in 2011 to 10 percent last season, which matched his walk rate from 2009. In 2009, Cabrera was most frequently "protected" by the likes of Carlos Guillen who had a .757 OPS that season and Marcus Thames who bested Guillen with a .777 OPS. Both hitters were essentially league average hitters that season.
In looking at the pitch location data from 2011 and 2012 from ESPN Stats & Info, it does not appear Cabrera was pitched differently in terms of location.
In terms of raw numbers, 41 percent of the pitches Cabrera saw in 2011 were in the zone while that number bumped up to 45 percent last season. That 45 percent figure trails the 46 percent he saw in 2009 and the 47 percent he saw in 2008 when an aging Gary Sheffield, Carlos Guillen, and what was left of Jacque Jones took turns hitting behind him.
I bring all of this up because people are all in a tizzy about Giancarlo Stanton for 2013. The Marlins' projected lineup outside of him looks like a flashback to the scabs that took the field during spring training when baseball last went on strike. Last season, Stanton slugged .606 and hit 37 home runs while who hit behind him? Oh yea, stiffs.
Logan Morrison, Greg Dobbs, Gaby Sanchez, and Carlos Lee "protected" Stanton in the lineup in 85 of the 123 games Stanton hit in last year. That quartet of fail combined to hit .245/.306/.360 last season offering little protection yet Stanton went on to have a fine season when he was not hurt. This despite the fact Ozzie Guillen hit Stanton in the fifth or sixth spot in the lineup 52 times last season. 52 times! The cherry on top of the crazy sundae was Guillen twice putting Austin Kearns in the clean-up spot while Stanton hit fifth or sixth. I don't know about you, but I would rather have Stanton hitting clean-up blindfolded than have Kearns hit anywhere ahead of him.
After all, we have the research out there that shows how foolish it is to subscribe to lineup protection theory. James Click, while at Baseball Prospectus before joining the Tampa Bay Rays front office, crunched a large volume of numbers on the subject. His conclusion:
Protection is overrated. There's no evidence that having a superior batter behind another batter provides the initial batter with better pitches to hit; if it does, those batters see no improvement in performance as a result. Additionally, it is very rare a situation arises in which run expectation drops after the pitching team walks the batter at the place. Therefore, it is almost always a mistake as it opens up the door to a big inning.
Tom Tango, who now consults for the Cubs organization, came to a similar conclusion in 2006. He found:
If a pitcher is trying to avoid pitching to a hitter, the hitter is significantly more likely to draw a walk and moderately more likely to strike outů..However, if the ball is hit into play, the pitcher's approach (pitch to him vs pitch around him) has no significant effect on the hitter's statistics.
When we talk about pitching around a hitter, we're talking about the pitcher avoiding the strike zone as much as possible and working the blacks of the plate trying to entice the hitter to swing. The theory is, most hitters are not going to be able to get the sweet spot of the bat on those pitches so if they do hit the ball, it is much more likely to stay in the park. If those hitters are pull hitters and you work them on the outer edge of the plate, it forces them to adjust their swing and the hitter can't square up the ball as he likes to. Then again, Giancarlo Stanton is not most hitters. He has tremendous plate coverage as he shows here turning a Cole Hamels pitch on the outer edge of the plate into a frozen rope.
If there is any such thing as lineup protection, it may be better for hitter BEHIND Stanton in the lineup, as shown here in this post from BlueBirdBanter.com. After all, in 2012, pitchers limited hitters to a .249/.308/.400 slash line with a .291 BABIP when pitching with nobody on base but that line jumped up to .263/.332/.422 with a .297 BABIP when anyone was on base.
In short, do not let the fear of the unknown stop you from using a first-round pick on Stanton. The known facts are lineup protection is as real as the Boogey Man and if your leaguemates are going to let Stanton slide in your draft or his current owner is fearful of what may happen, pounce.