Earlier Thursday, Dave Cameron made a simple observation regarding the Los Angeles Angels and their batch of position players:
— David Cameron (@DCameronFG) April 25, 2013
All right, neat. Now keep that in mind as we go forward.
We don’t talk a whole lot about lineup protection, because the effects are really hard to measure, and based on our evidence the effects are also really small in significance. It’s almost sabermetric conventional wisdom these days to just ignore the matter of protection, to scoff at those who think it’s truly important. It’s one of a baseball game’s million factors, and it isn’t among the critical ones, so it doesn’t get granted much in the way of mental energy. It just isn’t worth it.
Well, apparently I’ve decided it’s worth a little of my time on a Thursday. The general idea is this: if you’re hitting in front of a dangerous hitter, you should see more fastballs and you should see more strikes. If you’re good, but you’re hitting in front of a weaker hitter, you could and should get pitched around. Pitchers will take their chances with the next guy, even if that means putting you on base with unintentional intentional walks. They’re not scared of the consequences of putting you on, basically.
In reality, things aren’t nearly that simple and clean, which is why this can be so tricky a subject to tackle. Early in the season I identified a potential protection case study in Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton, when healthy, is amazing. Stanton has been protected in the lineup by the likes of Greg Dobbs and Placido Polanco, who are also amazing, but only when compared to a much bigger population. Neither Dobbs nor Polanco is a particularly threatening hitter, so from the looks of things, pitchers have every reason to pitch around Stanton. Even if that means Stanton walks way more, who’s going to be a real threat to drive him home? Why face these dreadful Marlins and allow Giancarlo Stanton to beat you?
Stanton, to date, owns baseball’s lowest rate of pitches seen within the PITCHf/x strike zone. More significantly, compared to 2012, Stanton is tied for the biggest drop in Zone%, at -8.0%. What that proves is not very much. What that suggests is that Stanton is indeed getting worked around. And why wouldn’t he be? The other hitters are not him. The other hitters are not good.
But note that I said “tied”. There’s one other player whose Zone% has dropped by eight percentage points between 2012 and 2013. That player’s name is Albert Pujols, and so far in 2013 he’s been hitting in front of Josh Hamilton.
New, expensive, shiny, blockbuster free-agent signing Josh Hamilton. Hamilton is a household name, and he’s built a hell of a performance track record. He was not undeserving of the giant contract that he signed over the winter. Hamilton brought the promise of protecting Pujols and adding another superstar to a lineup that already had Pujols and Mike Trout in it. The Angels have not yet gotten going, and as is true for the team, it’s true for Hamilton, who’s searching for a groove.
Pujols has gone from seeing 47% pitches in the zone to 39% pitches in the zone. He was also at 47% in 2011, and the 39% is the lowest we have for him on record. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pujols’ walks are way up, but Hamilton hasn’t done a good job of making pitchers pay. And it’s interesting that the two biggest Zone% drops are observed in somewhat opposite situations — in one case, a superstar is protected by nobodies, and in the other case, a superstar is protected by a superstar.
This doesn’t prove that pitchers are working around Pujols to get to Hamilton, but we can still try to figure out why that might be the case. And the immediate assumption would be that Hamilton has obvious, exploitable holes, being an aggressive hitter who misses a lot and who swings at a lot of balls low and away. Despite Hamilton’s tremendous natural talent, pitchers might now feel more comfortable facing him, because they’ve identified ways in which he can be beat. There can’t be anyone in baseball anymore who’s unaware of Hamilton’s tendencies, and it can be hard for a hitter to change his habits on the fly. Pujols has proven he’s still dangerous. Hamilton has proven he can be dangerous, but he’s also conspicuously flawed.
There are some necessary caveats. For one, this could, of course, be noise. It could be nothing at all. For two, it could have nothing at all to do with Hamilton being on deck. Additionally, Pujols has demonstrated that he’ll chase balls from time to time, so pitchers might be trying to expand his zone. There’s a handedness consideration, where Pujols bats righty and Hamilton bats lefty, and maybe that explains this in part or in whole. And this isn’t even an effect you’d necessarily notice during a game. Let’s say it’s entirely real — that Pujols’ Zone% is dropping from 47% to 39%. Pujols sees, what, 17-20 pitches per game? You’d be talking about a difference of one or two pitches, spread over a few plate appearances. Basically imperceptible when you’re watching closely and wrapping yourself up in every detail. A lot of these things are subtle, and this wouldn’t completely change the feel of an Albert Pujols at bat.
But a trend is a trend. Let’s put it this way: it’s interesting that Stanton and Pujols are tied for the biggest Zone% drop to date. Stanton’s makes perfect sense. Pujols’ makes less sense, but maybe there’s clarity in the fact that Hamilton is over-aggressive and struggling. This could be caused by any number of factors, or any combination of them, but it’s possible Pujols is being pitched around a little more, even with Hamilton due up next. It’s possible teams want Hamilton to prove he can beat them, because Pujols has already proven himself. Take a step back and it seems kind of silly, but so do Hamilton’s plate-discipline numbers.
We can at least say this much: the presence of Josh Hamilton hasn’t forced opposing pitchers to come right after Albert Pujols. As for the opposite? Well, there’s some evidence, and I think that’s incredible.
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