The Man Right in Front of Josh Hamilton

Earlier Thursday, Dave Cameron made a simple observation regarding the Los Angeles Angels and their batch of position players:

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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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

36 Responses to “The Man Right in Front of Josh Hamilton”

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  1. Kiss my Go Nats says:

    I understand lefty/righty/lefty/righty lineups from a bullpen perspective, but it still makes little sense to me over all. If most players (pitchers and hitters) have platoon splits that are significant, and protection in a lineup matters, then righty lefty means that all your decent hitters are usually followed by less optimal hitters. Less protection.

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    • Bats and Balls says:

      Straw man argument there. It’s not that you purposely choose personnel to alternate handedness. It’s that you try to alternate handedness within a lineup to prevent the opposing manager from making obvious matchup advantages with his relievers later in the game. For example, bringing in a left to face a lefty late in the game becomes a really easy decision if there a two other lefties behind him.

      In other words, you choose your lineup based in part on platoon advantages and then order your lineup according to handedness. Doing so doesn’t negate the idea of protection since players might be more likely to receive good hitter’s pitches by hitting ahead of good hitters. It kinda balances out.

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      • Straw Man says:

        Don’t claim I’m present when I’m not present.

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      • Synovia says:

        “For example, bringing in a left to face a lefty late in the game becomes a really easy decision if there a two other lefties behind him.”

        Right, but how much difference does that make? We’re talking maybe one situation every couple of games, whereas stacking your best hitters could lead to substantially more runs early in games.

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        • Baltar says:

          Thank God! The voice of reason.
          Managers who alternate lefty/righty clearly are giving away the advantage of placing the best batters in the best positions for a situation that may well not occur, can be countered somewhat by pinch-hitting and is only about a 10% difference anyway (not the 100% that most managers seem to think it is).

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  2. Sogard's Optician says:

    I’d be curious to see the numbers for Votto-Phillips-Bruce.

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  3. Ctownboy says:

    In my opinion, Scioscia has constructed the wrong line up and that is HURTING the Angels’ offense

    Mike Trout is not only a power hitter but has tremendous speed. He should be leading off. Not only that but hasn’t it been shown that each spot lower in the batting order pretty much gets 50 or so fewer Plate Appearances per year? If that is the case then WHO would YOU rather have getting those 50 extra Plate Appearances, Trout or Peter Bourjos?

    Josh Hamilton should be hitting second. Here is why. If Trout gets on First, he is a threat to steal Second Base. Because of that, Pitchers are more likely to throw Fast Balls and NOT breaking or off speed pitches. What does Josh Hamilton hit well? Fast Balls. What does Josh Hamilton NOT hit well? Off speed and breaking pitches out of the zone. Also, with Trout on First, the defense is going to be holding him on which opens up the infield for ground balls to get through.

    If Hamilton gets Fast Balls to hit and hits them hard on the ground to the right side, how many of those do you think are going to find their way to the outfield? If that happens, how many times do you think Trout is going to go First to Third and thus have Pujols up?

    Also, with Hamilton batting second, Pitchers are NOT going to pitch around him to bring Albert Pujols to the plate with one or more runners on base.

    Finally, I would have Bourjos bat ninth in the order. That way, after the first time through the line up, you would have two lead off hitters (Bourjos and Trout) hitting in front of two power hitters (Hamilton and Pujols).

    That way you would have a right handed, right handed, left handed, right handed foursome in the order (makes the opposing Manager’s job harder as far as bringing in Relief Pitchers) and you would have two speed guys in front of two power hitters.

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    • DW says:

      Best hitters should bat 2,4,5. That has been studied. Trout having power doesn’t make him more suitable for leadoff either.

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    • Nathaniel Dawson says:

      The difference from one batting spot to the next is around 18 PA’s per year.

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    • JamesDaBear says:

      Have you bothered to look up what Peter Bourjos is doing this year? (SSS caveats apply). Bourjos has not shown any problems handling leadoff for the Angels in 2013. Taking him out of the leadoff spot would have made their lineup less productive, not more productive.

      What you’re doing is making a classic mistake, trying to maximize the low end of a lineup’s production, such as situational hitting, at the expense of the high end, such as just getting on base however a player does it. You’re trying to cost yourself ~140 PAs of a hitter with a .373 OBP for an increased chance of advancing an extra base here and there.

      Right now, Josh Hamilton has Bourjos, Trout (.333 OBP) and Pujols (.379 OBP) hitting in front of him and Trumbo and Kendrick (both former All-Stars) hitting behind him. If he can’t make that work, moving him up to 2nd at Bourjos’ expense isn’t the answer either.

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      • DeeEmm1 says:

        This is why I think flip-flopping Hamilton and Pujols is the way to go.

        This way, opponents can’t really pitch around Hamilton as a still-dangerous Pujols (I don’t even know how he’s doing this, the man’s legs are being held together by duct tape!) is waiting next. Moving Hambone to #3 would allow him to squat on all those breaking pitches, letting Bourjos and Trout steal bases and make life miserable for the other team. He’s got some speed as well, so getting him on base in front of Pujols and Trumbo is another added benefit.

        Gotta try something because it’s not really working. Having the best average is nice, but if you’re not cashing in runs, and not pitching well enough to prevent runs, it doesn’t mean a damn thing. This is the emptiest shell of an offense I’ve ever seen, and I watched last year’s model pre-Mike Trout.

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    • Bats and Balls says:

      Disagree entirely. Everybody is a fastball hitter. What makes Hamilton special is his ability to adjust to breaking pitches. Just because you throw him more fastballs doesn’t make a guy like Hamiltzon necessarily a better hitter. He swings and misses at pitches 2 feet off the plate equally, regardless of the type of pitch. Come inside with breaking ball and Hamilton will show you what made him so great.

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  4. Ctownboy says:

    I find it stupid when Managers break up their potentially two best hitters just because they bat Left Handed. I say this because most starting Pitchers are Right Handed. So, when you break two Left Handed batters up with a Right Handed batter, you are getting fewer At Bats from a hitter that will potentially have better stats against Right Handed pitching ALL because there MIGHT be a situation late in a game where the opposing Manager MIGHT bring in a Left Handed Relief Pitcher.

    What does it really MATTER the opposing Manager does late in the game if YOUR TEAM with the two Left Handed batters hitting back to back have CRUSHED the opposing teams Right Handed starting Pitcher and your team has scored five or more Runs because of it?

    Also, for the Managers who just HAVE to break up their two Left Handed hitters, I always wonder what they would have done if they had Ruth and Gehrig on their team…….

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  5. Josh Garoon says:

    “This doesn’t prove that pitchers are working around Pujols to get to Hamilton.”

    Neither does Pujols’ IBB/PA, of course, but it’s worth noting that it’s at 5.49% — which, if it held, would be the second highest of his career (though just marginally higher than his numbers in 2008 and 2010).

    Here’s where it gets interesting: three of Pujols’ 5 IBBs to date were delivered by the Rangers; the other two, by the Tigers. All five were in a total of two games (April 6 and April 21).

    Of course, it’s also worth noting that Pujols has started the season much hotter than he did last year, when he was very pitchable for a good while. Could be pitchers (and managers) are being more careful as a result.

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  6. Ruki Motomiya says:

    Considering how bad Hamilton is doing and how Pujols started the year good, it could be a case of Hamilton failing to properly protect. It is interesting to note that Hamilton/Pujols’ offensive production has been far enough that a failure of protection is reasonable.

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  7. mjmetro says:

    Hey Jeff,

    Thanks for reminding me that Placido Polanco is better at baseball than a normal person! This is something I often forget!

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  8. Well-Beered Englishman says:

    “It’s almost sabermetric conventional wisdom these days to just ignore the matter of protection”

    We’re all going dateless.

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  9. Ctownboy says:


    Tell that to Ricky Henderson…..

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  10. Ctownboy says:


    If Bourjos is leading off and Trout is batting second it might mean that Bourjos gets more Fast Balls to hit. In the grand scheme of things does that REALLY matter?

    If they are getting more At Bats per season, what combination would YOU rather have hitting lead off and second, Bourjos – Trout or Trout – Hamilton?

    Me, because of their power and their speed, I would rather have Trout – Hamilton with Pujols batting Third.

    With Trout’s combination of power and speed and with Hamilton and Pujols batting behind him, I can see him scoring 140+ Runs in a season like Henderson did with the 1985 Yankees.

    See, the thing is, I think, with those three at the top of the order, none of them really have to have career years for Trout to score that many Runs. All they have to do is stay healthy and put up career average years.

    So for Hamilton that would be a .280 – .300 Batting Average with 35 to 45 Home Runs and for Pujols a .320 to .330 Batting Average with 30 to 40 Home Runs. In that situation, all Trout would have to do is get on Second Base either by a Walk or Single and a Steal or a Double and wait for Hamilton or Pujols to drive him in.

    With his talent, I think Trout is more likely to do that on a consistant basis than Bourjos.

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  11. Phantom Stranger says:

    Teams have definitely been pitching around Pujols to face Hamilton, who has looked awful in long stretches of at-bats this season. If the scouts think they see exploitable holes in a guy’s swing at the current moment, pitchers will go after the currently struggling hitter.

    If Hamilton’s swing looked anything like it did before June of last year, they would not be pitching around Pujols. Hamilton really hasn’t looked like the same hitter since the middle of May last season. He is much more susceptible now to pitchers that can effectively change speeds and have multiple breaking pitches.

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    • kswissreject says:

      Actually with the whole Trout-Hamilton-Pujols lineup, I wonder how that would affect it. Teams would definitely NOT pitch around Trout to face Hamilton, since Trout, if put on, could easily steal second and/or third. I think it would be an interesting experiment.

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  12. Cam says:

    There are two types of zone and swing % numbers on the player pages, one called “Plate Discipline” and the other called “Pitch F/X Plate Discipline.” They have the same categories but different numbers, and although I assume they’re getting their data from different sources, I can’t find a detailed explanation.

    Giancarlo’s zone % took a big drop by both measures, from 44.2% to 36.2% and from 41.6% to 34.3%. Pujols only has a big drop on the Pitch F/X numbers, which is what Sullivan used. The other rating says his zone % only dropped from 43.1% to 41.3%.

    This could just be a fluky data thing.

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  13. bix says:

    When thinking about this issue in the past, I’ve noticed that looking at the percentage of runner’s on base batted in is interesting. A specific example is comparing Braun’s OBI% (other’s batted in percentage) for his seasons with Fielder protecting him and without and Miguel Cabrera’s pre and post-fielder numbers echo similarities. It’s more indirect evidence, but still seems to imply a correlation with more pitches in the zone.

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  14. Tobias Fünke says:

    I think Josh would be well served to read The Man Inside Me. It’s more important than the man right in front of him.

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  15. Mike says:

    “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.”

    Explain that to Ryan Braun or Miguel Cabrera who won back-to-back MVPs hitting in front of Prince Fielder. Yes Braun had a great year last year without Prince but also had 50 more plate appearances to do so. Cabreara had 40 fewer walks in 2012 than in 2011, meaning he got better pitches.

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    • RMD says:

      Don’t worry. Sullivan is just writing a piece with a conclusion beforehand.

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    • Baltar says:

      Wow, impressive. Two cases out of thousands, and measured by MVP voting. It’s a wonder that you’re not a writer for The Book.

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      • Mike says:

        Two cases in the past two seasons. You could argue that Braun’s success up to last season was due to seeing much better pitches than he would have if Fielder weren’t hitting behind him. If you want more examples…look at Utley, Chase when he hit in front of Howard, Ryan. Look at Manny hitting in front of Thome back in the Cleveland days. The fact that you’re too lazy to open your eyes and look at some stat Bal(ess)tar.

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  16. Synovia says:

    “He was not undeserving of the giant contract that he signed over the winter. ”

    Yes, he was.

    He’s a 3-4 win player who got paid like a superstar.

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  17. Bab says:

    Protection theory data may take more conclusive shape when correlated with competing a competing factor, i.e. immediate game situation.

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  18. ben says:

    Has anyone thought that is OK to be careful to Pujols and let him get on 1B via walk because he is so slow at this point that a double may not score him from 1st anyways? We are not talking about 1 to 1 relationships, but if you combine both Pujols lack of speed and the current willingness to chase pitches by both Hamilton and Pujols, you might get a better picture of what is going on.

    If you can mitigate the potential damage of a XBH by Hamilton due to the inability of Pujols to run, pitching both Hamilton and Pujols outside to induce weak contact or walk them still might be a net positive on run prevention. I would probably have to develop some models to check, but I would not be shocked to see a significant difference if you treat the combination of poor speed on the batter prior and willingness to chase as a interaction term and apply that to a run scored or runs created model.

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