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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.