What Would Lineup Protection Look Like?

Bully for the 2012 Detroit Tigers. While the Tigers fell a little shy of winning the World Series, they did manage to accomplish more than 28 other teams, and they got as far as they did in large part by riding their superstars. Justin Verlander, obviously, was the star of the pitching staff, and Max Scherzer and Doug Fister did more to get noticed as well. In the middle of the lineup were Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, and in Year 1 of that arrangement, there’s no room for complaints. It was the fault of neither Cabrera nor Fielder that the Tigers finished four games short.

From the beginning, Cabrera and Fielder were regarded as the toughest back-to-back hitters in baseball. On 161 occasions, Miguel Cabrera batted third, and on all 162 occasions, Prince Fielder batted fourth. Cabrera finished tied for tops in baseball in wRC+. Fielder finished sixth, between Andrew McCutchen and Edwin Encarnacion. The 2012 Tigers had two of the top six hitters in baseball. The Brewers had a good tandem, and the Blue Jays had a good tandem until Jose Bautista got hurt, but the Tigers’ tandem was incredible.

All year long, we heard one of the keys for Cabrera was the protection that Fielder offered behind him. The idea would’ve been that, by having Fielder standing on deck, pitchers would’ve thrown Cabrera more hittable pitches. Last year, Cabrera’s protection was the successful but inferior Victor Martinez. The year before that, it was a lot of Brennan Boesch and Carlos Guillen. Ultimately, in 2012, Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown, which is one of those things you might expect from a well-protected hitter.

Now, when people have examined lineup protection in the past, to my knowledge they haven’t uncovered an effect. There’s a reason we don’t really talk about lineup protection at FanGraphs. With that said, if there were going to be a protection effect, you’d figure you might see it if that protection were in the person of Prince Fielder. It doesn’t get much more intimidating than Prince Fielder. I’m not going to say that Fielder didn’t have some effect on the way pitchers pitched to Cabrera. What I’m curious about, though, is what that effect might have been. If we grant that Fielder provided protection, where do we see it?

I think the biggest argument in favor of protection is that Cabrera won the Triple Crown. He led the league in homers, runs, and runs batted in, and those are lofty achievements. Yet, interestingly, Cabrera’s wOBA and wRC+ were lower than they were in both 2010 and 2011. Not by a lot, but Cabrera didn’t actually improve, relative to the league. He stayed the same, with a few more dingers and a few fewer walks.

Fewer walks might be a key. Fewer walks means more strikes, which could mean more fear of the next guy in the lineup. Indeed, Cabrera’s zone rate shot up from just over 44 percent to just under 47 percent. But Cabrera’s zone rate was over 47 percent in 2008 and 2009. It shot up between 2010 and 2011 even though his protection improved. Fielder’s zone rate shot up between 2011 and 2012 from 43 percent to 45.5 percent, and his protection was the dreadful, absolutely dreadful Delmon Young. Nothing here is conclusive.

There was the idea that, with Fielder behind him, Cabrera wouldn’t get intentionally walked. Cabrera got intentionally walked 17 times, second only to Fielder getting intentionally walked 18 times. That’s fewer intentional walks than Cabrera was granted in 2010 and 2011, but more than he was granted in 2008 and 2009. Clearly, intentional walks were still a reality.

Cabrera didn’t see more or fewer fastballs. Last year’s 66.5-percent fastball rate turned into this year’s 65.4-percent fastball rate. The Tigers’ team rate of fastballs seen dropped by an equivalent amount.

Cabrera didn’t see more or fewer first-pitch fastballs. Last year’s 66.2-percent first-pitch fastball rate turned into this year’s 65.8-percent first-pitch fastball rate. Cabrera actually saw fewer first-pitch strikes overall in 2012 than he did in 2011, by just a little bit.

If there was a protection effect, I don’t know where to find it. Cabrera’s contact rate did get very slightly better, but not to a statistically-significant degree. He was better at making contact on strikes, and worse at making contact on balls, and he saw a few more strikes. One does note Cabrera’s “Pace” of 23.3 seconds. Last year it was 21.7 seconds, and the year before that, it was 20.9 seconds. Maybe that’s nothing, or maybe pitchers were taking a little extra time to think. It could be something, or nothing.

I’m open to the idea of Prince Fielder having an effect on the approach against Miguel Cabrera. Enough old-timey baseball people have talked about protection that I won’t simply dismiss it outright. I just want to know where such an effect might be observed, because I haven’t found too much of anything. Seems to me, if there was any effect, it would’ve been quite small. And it didn’t make Cabrera more productive, relative to himself the last couple seasons.

You know who might have really benefited are the Tigers’ number-two hitters, in front of both Cabrera and Fielder. But Jim Leyland mixed and matched in that slot, and the Tigers finished with a .710 OPS from that position, right about on the American League average. Quintin Berry wasn’t markedly better batting second than batting first. Andy Dirks had an .801 OPS batting second, and an .857 OPS overall. Boesch had a .659 OPS batting second, and a .659 OPS overall. So.

Gun to my head, I don’t think Prince Fielder actually had an effect on the way pitchers pitched to Miguel Cabrera. I think pitchers generally pitch to one guy without thinking about pitching to the next guy. The effect Prince Fielder had was that, if Miguel Cabrera reached base, there was Prince Fielder to try to drive him in. Interestingly, Cabrera actually scored fewer runs than he did the two seasons previous. But he had a hell of a hitter after him, instead of just a good hitter or just an okay hitter. Forget about any effect Fielder might’ve had on the number-three slot. The Tigers paid Fielder for his effect on the number-four slot, and for at least the first year, he’s delivered.

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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.

40 Responses to “What Would Lineup Protection Look Like?”

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  1. Doug B says:

    If you want a larger sample size then just consider Braun-Fielder 2007-2011 as well. It’s almost the same damn thing.

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    • Matthew malek says:

      Ryan Braun is all you need to look at. Steriods or not. Any tigers fan that doesn’t think this team is better is crazy. With Nick C at 3rd our stud young SS, Kinsler, and Cabby at 1st…..who is a damn good 1basemen…we are average to above average defensively on the infield with the best starting pitching in all of the MLB. If they add an impact bat in LF then this team will be truly awesome. We will be better defensively…and we will be better offensively in clutch situations…cause prince was HORRIBLE in the clutch the same way Cabby was money. Also…this means AJAX will have a better offensive year and be more consistent. WOW. Bring the pain Detroit. Make it Rain. Finally win the big one.

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  2. Krog says:

    Nice article Jeff. I think the guys batting ahead of you help more than the guys batting behind you. With runners on base it becomes easier to get on-base yourself.

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  3. RMD says:

    The ultimate irony is that while he probably did see more strikes solely because of Fielder and thus he was able to be the first Triple Crown winner since 1966 (only 20 teams then)… it actually hurt is overall productivity. He traded a more balanced approach of productivity to a more free swinging approach that ensured gaudy AVG-HR-RBI numbers.

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  4. Caveman Jones says:

    How about controlling for starting pitchers only? In late-game high leverage situations Prince is probably going to face a LOOGY anyway. If a guy facing Cabrera knows he’s not going to face Prince and can pitch around him, then the the idea of protection doesn’t apply.

    I wonder if switch-hitters provide better “protection” also because they can’t be neutralized by a specialist so easily.

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  5. Mr Punch says:

    What’s particularly significant here is that protection (if it exists) isn’t something that just happens, it’s something the the opposing pitcher is supposed to do. If it can’t be found, that’s a behavioral issue, not a statistical one – and if the pitchers don’t exhibit the behavior, then the old-timey baseball guys are flat wrong.

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    • Fred says:

      You might be onto something here. The measure of protection is not how much better a given hitter does; it’s how a pitcher’s strategy changes. Don’t measure the results and don’t measure the hitter; measure what the pitcher changes about pitch selection, location and speed against the guy being protected, vs. what they would do otherwise.

      Which is why this is so hard to measure, because it’s hard to get a sufficient sample of the exact pitcher, inning, ballpark, count, runners on/not, etc., and then get that exact sample again but with a different hitter ‘protecting’ who the pitcher is pitching to.

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  6. Jamie says:

    “He stayed the same, with a few more dingers and a few fewer walks.”

    I just want to confirm this, you consider an increase of 14 HR’s (i.e. 46%) to be a few? And you consider a decrease of 42 walks (i.e. 39%) to be a few?

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    • ralph says:

      Jeff offered this as evidence that Fielder probably didn’t cause Cabrera to be pitched such a relatively high zone rate (i.e. Cabrera’s been pitched to like this before with much worse “protection” so why should the same pitching a couple years down the road be indicative of Fielder providing protection rather than just random variance?):

      “Fewer walks might be a key. Fewer walks means more strikes, which could mean more fear of the next guy in the lineup. Indeed, Cabrera’s zone rate shot up from just over 44 percent to just under 47 percent. But Cabrera’s zone rate was over 47 percent in 2008 and 2009. ”

      I wish Jeff would have also note Cabrera’s walk rates in those years, which were 8.2% and 9.9% for 2008 and 2009. So it’s really not surprising that in 2012, when Cabrera once again saw a 47% zone rate, his walk rate dropped back to 9.5%.

      The question is whether Fielder caused any part of that high zone/lower walk behavior. Or, more precisely, if his presence caused the pitchers to cause that result. The problem is that this type of cause/effect is impossible to determine for sure.

      The most logical narrative I see is that as Cabrera developed into a recognized consistent super-elite hitter in 2010 and 2011, pitchers became more willing to walk him, and adding Fielder completely reversed that trend. But we all know the pitfalls of constructed narratives.

      Heck, for all we know, pitchers tried to pitch Cabrera the same as they had in 2011, but Cabrera bought into the idea of “protection” and proceeded to confirmation bias himself into swinging more.

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    • Not comparing only to 2011.

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      • YanksFanInBeantown says:

        Still, his lowest BB% in 4 years, since his first year in the AL, and career highs in hits and home runs are not insignificant.

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      • ralph says:

        Thanks for the response, Jeff. It might be just me, but when reading the piece, it seemed like you were saying — between the lines — that Cabera’s BB% in 2008-2009 was quite high despite the 47% zone number.

        So while I agree that this is far from proof of a protection effect, I think a sudden change from 2 years of low zone%/high BB% to somewhat higher zone%/somewhat lower BB% is pretty much exactly what protection would look like.

        And I’ll finish by once again agreeing with you that just because it looks like protection, that doesn’t mean it is protection.

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  7. David says:

    When I hear people say protection doesn’t exist I think they must have a different idea than me of what protection really means. When I hear that I immediately think it means the person batting behind you effects the way you are pitched to.

    However if that was the case I don’t think anyone would really be questioning whether it existed or not. I mean Rod Barajas received 5 IBB this season and the only explanation as to why was his “protection” or lack there of in the form of the pitcher’s spot.

    So I think just by the way Rod Barajas and 8th hitters in the NL in general are pitched is proof that the person batting behind you (aka protection) does exist. Is there a flaw in that argument or whenpeople speak of “protection” are they not speaking about the person batting behind a player and instead about something all together different.

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    • Baltar says:

      One example doesn’t prove anything.

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    • ABW says:

      OK, but this is the exact opposite of what is usually meant by protection. You are arguing(and I think there would be little disagreement) that having an extremely weak hitter behind you makes you *more* likely to be intentionally walked. The question of protection is whether having an extremely strong hitter behind you makes you less likely to be intentionally walked(or at least “pitched around”).

      I would emphatically say that I do not believe that evidence for the first proposition is evidence for the second proposition.

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  8. Brad Johnson says:

    A little spoiler from the THT Annual article on the playoffs – Prince Fielder had a fairly substantial role in the Tigers’ World Series collapse.

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  9. Has anyone ever done a historical study of relative batting orders?

    One of the reasons we often hear that pitchers could pitch so many more innings back in the day was that the floor of major league talent was much lower. In this context, when pitchers are just grooving it to bad hitters to save their strength for the good hitters, I would expect bad hitters to hit worse when hitting in front of good hitters, since it would be more worth the pitcher’s effort to avoid putting them on. Essentially the opposite of protection theory, but the same mechanism.

    Likewise, it seems more likely in that context that good hitters batting in front of bad hitters would be pitched around. I doubt they would hit worse in this situation (what protection theory predicts), but they might walk more.

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  10. E C says:

    Finally, someone addresses the so-called “protection” effect. Here are my long time thoughts on this matter:

    Protection for Miguel Cabrera doesn’t mean that his advanced stats will improve, as Jeff nicely pointed out. Because, there is no hitter currently on this planet for which being walked is a worse result than allowing them to hit. I think you’d have to be a babe ruth or barry bonds in their best seasons, to actually benefit statistics wise from being walked rather than just seeing pitches and swinging. This would be an interesting study, but just as a preliminary matter, a walk is a 1.000 OBP.

    That said, protection does allow a hitter to have greater RBI and home run numbers, because those stats rely on a hitter making contact, which they will do more if they see more strikes. The “old school” effects. That’s why old timers, who valued those statistics, instinctively think that having protection makes a great hitter even greater.

    But in fact, as I pointed out, and as the data on Miguel Cabrera’s season suggests, wOBA will decrease once he gets pitched to more.

    So, protection actually decreases a player’s offensive value as measured by advanced statistics, I believe is the conclusion.

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  11. Paul Clarke says:

    I thought the conclusion in The Book was that protection existed, in that it changed the pitchers’ approach, but didn’t make any difference to run production – see this excerpt. The protected hitter gets more hits but the drop in walks cancels out the advantage.

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  12. jim says:

    i half expected to see a picture of a lineup card covered in a condom

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  13. Kiss my Go Nats says:

    My lineup cards prefer to lie about being sterile so we do not have to use any protection.

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  14. George says:

    One thing that always seems to elude analysis of “protection” is the context in which the “protected” player comes to the plate. A preponderence of 2-out 0 runners on situation leads to being pitched differently than bases loaded situation which is different than 2nd and 3rd situations. We can assume a normal distribution but that would just be an assumption. In which scenarios ss Cabrera getting ptched around if any? Walk rates and zone rates are great tools but they only offer a glimpse. ITalkBaseball.com

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    • David says:

      This is where I can talk myself into to their being some truth to protection, particularly if we take into account confirmation bias.

      I could see significantly different strategies, or intential walks, coinciding with big moments happening due to managers (you could call it overmanaging i guess, don’t really care). The fact it happens once or twice in a key moment makes the phenomenon seem more common, more prevelant than it really is.

      Then again, I watched people pitch to Mccutcheon all year in situations where he could do damage, even when his team couldn’t hit at all. Maybe that means its not worth the effort 90% of the time, maybe its just one of those things we like to say, a platitude.

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  15. GWilson says:

    Here’s another way to think about it. Prince is actually 2 different hitters with a .353 wOBA against LHP and a .425 wOBA against RHP. Cabrera was walked in 17.9% of his PAs against LHP in 2012 but in only 6.2% of his PAs versus right-handers. And 40 of his 44 HRs were against right-handed pitching.

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  16. Kevin says:

    Any chance Cabrera’s decreased walk totals and increased RBI totals could be linked to Austin Jackson’s breakout performance? It seems to me that having a runner on base would have more of an effect on both the pitcher’s and Cabrera’s approaches than would Prince Fielder standing in the on-deck circle. Can anybody compare Cabrera’s career walk/swing rates with guys on base compared to when bases are empty?

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  17. Ryabn says:


    1. JACKSON
    3. CABRERA
    4. FIELDER
    5. VMART

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    • byron says:

      Gosh I hope not. If you want to spend, go shorter on Swisher, who might actually play 80% of the games. I’d rather pay Melky for a year and do some bargain shopping for relievers and a number 4 starter.

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    • shthar says:

      How do you get 4 DHs in the same lineup?

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  18. byron says:

    I don’t think runs are a component of the triple crown. In fact, I’m positive, because they’re yet another thing Mike Trout had more of than Cabrera.

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  19. Matt says:

    I was thinking about this idea for how it relates to Torii Hunter and Albert Pujols. Hunter was struggling this year until they tried him right in front of Pujols in the #2 slot of the lineup. He then went on to earn the highest batting average of his career at age 36. In the second half, after Sciosa committed to batting him second, his batting average shot up 80 points (.270 first half, .350 second half). I believe his season numbers would have been even better had hit second all year. Now he’s a free agent and I think he’s overvalued due to this Pujols effect. I actually found this article because I was trying to find out if Pujols had a similar effect on his previous #2 hitters.

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  20. shthar says:

    Good God.

    It’s like Bill James never existed.

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  21. CamraMaan says:

    I’ve always assumed that protection in a lineup is more of a psychological matter, somewhat subconscious, rather than a conscious choice that you see.

    In terms of the batter, I think its simply a morale and confidence boost to have a slugger behind you rather than not. If the game is on the line, and you’re down a run, I would feel much more confident in my chances (both as a player and as a team) if I’m being followed by, say, Prince Fielder. And I truly believe that confidence is paramount to success in any sport.

    Now on the other side, with the pitcher, I think you’ll have a greater effect when looking at experienced ace-caliber starters or relievers, versus inexperienced rookies and pitchers who are in a rut. Again this goes down to confidence, where an experienced ace knows he can get the job done, and likely welcomes the challenge of facing a slugger when the game i on the line. However an inexperienced pitcher, especially one who has been struggling for some time, will exhibit a lack of concentration, and most likely a lack of control and location with his pitches. Its a fact that some guys have “ice in their veins”, which comes from experience, and the opposite of that is an alleviated heart rate and blood pressure… and this kind of thing happens across various sports platforms when the pressure to win is on the line, and on your shoulders, and you fear or “know” you are outmatched.

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