Giancarlo Stanton is struggling and Giancarlo Stanton’s teammates are terrible. These two things are true. These two might be related. It would make sense that these things are related, because the drop-off from Giancarlo Stanton to the guys hitting behind him is absurdly large.
Stanton has played in 16 games this season, and has hit third in all 16 of those games. The cleanup spot behind him has been a rotation of Greg Dobbs (8 games), Placido Polanco (5 games), and Joe Mahoney (3 games). If you go by the rest-of-season ZIPS projections, Mahoney is the best hitter of the bunch, forecast for a .677 OPS, with Dobbs and Polanco both coming in at .650. Weighted for the number of games played, then, you could say that Stanton has been “protected” by three players with an aggregate OPS projection of .665, a 269 point drop off from his own .934 rest-of-season ZIPS forecast.
To put that in context, the drop-off between a #8 hitter in the NL (.661 OPS) and the pitcher’s spot in the line-up (.485 OPS) is only 176 points of OPS. There is a larger relative difference in expected performance between Stanton and his protectors than there is between a position player and a pitcher. And we know that #8 hitters get pitched differently than other hitters in the line-up because the pitcher is hitting behind them, which is why they receive more intentional walks than any other line-up position. And I think it’s generally accepted that even when they aren’t getting walked intentionally, they’re still pitched to in a different way because the pitcher is behind them, and they’re offered the least protection of anyone in baseball.
The numbers certainly support the extreme uptick in intentional walks, but what do the numbers show if we take out the IBBs? Here are the 2012 NL walk rates by batting order position, both with IBBs included and then removed.
Or, if you prefer a graph, here’s the UIBB% by batting order position.
Whether the lack of walks from the #1 and #2 spots in the order are evidence of protection or poor line-up construction is a topic for another day, so for now, let’s just focus on the UIBB rates from the 3rd-8th spots. Essentially, NL teams begin stacking their hitters from best to worst at that point, and NL pitchers respond by issuing non-intentional walks in a linearly decreasing fashion after they get through the fifth spot in the line-up. It’s not a perfectly straight line, but it’s close.
But, walk rate isn’t necessarily what we’re looking for if we’re looking for line-up protection, right? The idea is more that batters without protection will see fewer pitches to hit, because the walk is less harmful if the guys behind the guy who walks aren’t likely to drive him in. So, instead of just looking at walk rate, we should look at Zone% by batting order position, to see whether we see a big change among #8 hitters in the NL. Thanks to Jeff Zimmerman, we’ve lined up the data from PITCHF/x for the last five years by a player’s spot in the batting order. Here’s the data for both leagues.
This is a pretty fascinating result. #8 hitters in the NL see almost as many pitches in the strike zone as #9 hitters, the spot predominantly occupied by pitchers. No batting order spot occupied by a position player sees more pitches in the zone than the guys hitting directly in front of the pitchers. The guys with the least protection see the most strikes.
This data seems to suggest that the quality of the batter at the plate is the primary factor behind how many strikes he’ll be thrown, not the quality of the batter on deck. #8 hitters in the NL are bad hitters, which is why they’re hitting eighth, and it seems that pitchers aren’t afraid to attack them because of their own weakness, even though they have the pitcher’s spot due up next.
In the one spot where we know that IBBs offer real evidence of “protection”, we do not find much evidence of that protection carrying over to situations where the pitcher chooses to pitch to the batter.
But, what if we get back to Stanton and the Marlins? After all, he is seeing the third lowest rate of pitches in the strike zone of any hitter in baseball this year, and his walk rate has jumped from 9% last year to 14% this year. Just on its face, this seems like a pretty clear indication that the lack of protection behind him is the driving force for his big drop in pitches in the strike zone.
Here’s the only problem: Stanton had no protection last year either. During the 117 starts he made in 2012, here is who was hitting behind him:
The weighted average of his protectors OPS last year was .680, not dramatically better than the guys hitting cleanup behind him this year. And yet, pitchers threw him strikes, and he hit home runs, and no one really talked about Stanton’s lack of protection. He only drew nine intentional walks all year. It sure didn’t seem like pitchers were going out of their way to pitch around Stanton to get his weaker hitting teammates.
So, yes, Giancarlo Stanton’s Zone% is down this year, and yes, Giancarlo Stanton has really lousy teammates. But, it doesn’t seem like he’s really that much worse protected than he was a year ago, and the Zone% data for batting order positions doesn’t really suggest that protection is the driving force behind how many strikes a batter is thrown. Stanton’s going to see a lot of pitches out of the strike zone because he’s a scary hitter, and pitchers don’t throw strikes to scary hitters. He might see fewer pitches in the zone this year, but I wouldn’t rush to that judgment just yet.
As Jeff noted yesterday, Albert Pujols has seen a similar drop in percentage of pitches in the strike zone, and the Angels just spent $125 million to protect him with the scary left-handed bat of Josh Hamilton. If we’re going to explain Stanton’s drop in Zone% as being a factor of his teammates lack of intimidation, that theory would also have to hold up in situations where intimidating teammates are added to the mix. The Pujols/Hamilton dynamic, and the way pitcher’s attack #8 hitters in the NL, suggests that it’s just not that simple.
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