Is there such a thing as protection in the lineup?

Jeff Gross

Many of baseballs best minds say no, but could it be that the evidence for protection in the lineup merely lies deeper within the stats?

This might be a battle between baseball traditionalists and the saber-metric communities similar to last year's AL battle between Mike Trout and eventual MVP and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera. Even USA Today used the outcome of that vote as proof that "the statistical revolution that's permeating the baseball world hasn't won widespread acceptance just yet."

Many people (and writers) believed that Miguel Cabrera had an historic season and represented the best idea of a hitter to be feared. Other people (and writers) argued that Trout's overall value to his team, measured by almost every advanced stat we have, clearly outweighed Cabrera who next to Trout seemed more like a one-trick-pony.

These two kinds of thinking are now at the center of a debate around an issue that I believe could be an integral part of the Rockies season, or at least of Carlos Gonzales'. Is there such a thing as protection in the lineup? Again we find Cabrera at the center of the debate in a piece written on Fangraphs shortly after the World Series ended. In the article, Jeff Sullivan brings up a myriad of statistics (many of which we will get into later but I recommend the quick read) that ultimately suggest that there is no statistical evidence that Miguel Cabrera is helped by having Prince Fielder hit behind him.

I have heard Keith Law echo these sentiments on his podcast, as well as most in the sabre-metric community. This has always seemed counter-intuitive to me but I am open to the argument. I decided to look into the numbers, especially for our Rockies, to see where (if anywhere) the effects of "protection in the lineup" lie.

Note: Each player's following statistics are according to Fangraphs.com unless otherwise noted.

The Rockies tandem of Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki serve as an interesting case study for this exercise considering Tulo played in 143 games in 2011 and only 47 in 2012. It certainly isn't a definitive sample size but we have stats from seasons in both of their primes when Cargo played with and without the alleged protection.

Sullivan notes that Miguel Cabrera's wOBA and wRC+ were lower during his Prince Fielder/MVP/Triple Crown season than they were in the two seasons prior. He goes on to show the same basic principle in zone rate, intentional walks, fast ball rate and first pitch fast balls. Each time he demonstrates little to no major statistical variance. Interestingly enough Carlos Gonzlez shows mostly the same thing.

Carlos Gonzalez

Stat

2010

2011

2012

PA’s

636

542

579

OPS

.974

.889

.881

wOBA

.413

.380

.374

wRC+

144

128

122

iBB

8

8

11

OBP

.376

.363

.371

Zone %

45%

41.8%

39.1%

Fast Ball %

39%

37.1%

31.9%

First Pitch Strike%

59.1%

55.4%

55.8%

Clearly, Cargo's number took a dive after the 2010 season where he finished third in MVP voting, but he still had Troy Tulowitzki in 2011, in fact he had even more of him, but the only significant regressions shown come in 2012 when Tulowitzki was not in the lineup.

Perhaps the single biggest variant in this table is the single biggest argument in favor of Troy Tulowitzki serving as protection for Carlos Gonazlez. The drop in Fast Ball % from 2011 to 2012 speaks directly to the baseball traditionalist mindset that without Tulo to protect him, Cargo saw fewer pitches to drive which is why many stats remained the same but his power numbers worsened.

Carlos Gonzalez Swing Rate has steadily declined with his production which suggests that he is a better hitter when he is being aggressive. He swung at 52.2% of the pitches he saw in 2010 (his best season) compared 48.9% in 2011 47.3% in 2012 sans Tulo. His contact percentage went from 77.6% to 76.1% to 73%.

The Zone % and Fast Ball % numbers suggest he has been getting fewer pitches (either Fast Balls or strikes in general) to be aggressive on, or to make solid contact with. This could be correlation and not causation, but it could also be confirmation of the eye test that Carlos Gonzalez got fewer pitches to drive without Troy Tulowitzki in the lineup.

Troy Tulowitzki

Stat

2010

2011

2012

PA’s

529

606

203

OPS

.949

.916

.846

wOBA

.364

.389

.406

wRC+

140

134

116

iBB

4

12

1

OBP

.381

.372

.360

Zone%

47.1%

47%

49.1%

Fast Ball %

39.1%

35.6%

32.8%

First Pitch Strike%

57.8%

59.6%

58.6%

However, most of these stats also show that in general both guys are seeing fewer strikes and fewer fastballs, so maybe it's just an effect of pitchers being more careful with Cargo on the whole as he further develops a reputation around the league. Also, the first pitch strike numbers remain mostly the same, but the Fastball rates suggest he is seeing first pitch breaking or off-speed pitches.

Are pitchers being more careful with Carlos Gonzalez? If so, is it because they have developed a strategy of throwing off-speed early and fewer fastballs in general? Does it have anything to do with pitchers believing that walking or giving up an opposite field single on squirrely pitches away to Cargo matters less with guys less likely to knock him around and in?

I love all the new(ish) statistics that seem to be driving baseball these days, but it's important to understand the limits of what they tell us. Much of baseball is situational, and very few of these statistics take into account the situation. A walk to Carlos Gonzales in a 1-0 game with two outs late, oftentimes to get to a struggling Michael Cuddyer or even Ramon Hernandez, is basically a free out of an inning for the opposition. Doing so with Tulowitzki in the lineup means you are now in a more likely scenario where one swing could give the Rockies the lead.

It also seems likely that "protection" is a more noticeable factor in weaker lineups and in National League lineups where a pitcher always takes a spot. Is it possible that the effects of protection are measured in more subtle ways like pitch count? I intend to look forward into these numbers for a future piece, and would love to hear any suggestions in the comments sections below. (Look for part 2 in the near future.)

Every sport seems to have some version of the idea that you don't let one guy beat you. Whether it's Tom Brady or Lebron James, the guys around the superstar become pivotal when the opposition overplays the star. Many very smart baseball people disagree, but the baseball equivalent of the double/triple team, or clever pass rushing, is working around the guy(s) in the lineup who can deal the most damage. I know it's not real, but in MLB 2K12 I walked Carlos Gonzales to get to Ramon Hernandez every time.

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