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Andrew McCutchen and Protection

The Pittsburgh Pirates are threatening all-time records for offensive ineptitude. They are scoring just 2.86 runs per game and posting a .266 on base percentage that is tied with the 1908 Brooklyn Superbas for the lowest mark any team has posted since 1900. And yet, surrounded by teammates who are performing at historically inept levels, star center fielder Andrew McCutchen has been brilliant.

Through his first 41 games, McCutchen is hitting .338/.391/.543, racking up 20 percent of the team’s home runs and runs scored totals by himself. Already a budding star, McCutchen is posting a career high in batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage, and he’s doing it with the worst surrounding cast anybody has had in quite some time.

The Pirates rotation of cleanup hitters – which have included Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, and Casey McGehee – have combined to hit .199/.258/.280 when batting behind McCutchen. With this kind of protection, you might think McCutchen would be setting a career high in walks and rarely seeing a pitch anywhere near the strike zone.

You would be wrong. McCutchen is actually seeing more pitches in the strike zone this year than he has in any other season of his career.

PITCH F/x Zone%, by season:

2009: 53.9%
2010: 53.0%
2011: 51.4%
2012: 55.1%

As a response to the increased number of strikes he’s seeing, McCutchen is also swinging at more pitches than ever, and the combination of more strikes and more swings has led to the the lowest walk rate of his career. After drawing 89 free passes last year, he has just 13 in the first quarter of the 2012 season, and two of those were intentional.

It’s hard to explain these results under the umbrella of the “protection theory”, which holds that batters get better pitches to hit if there is a quality hitter on deck, as pitchers don’t want to issue a walk that would put a baserunner on for that quality hitter. It’s hard to imagine the Pirates cleanup hitters are intimidating anyone right now, however, so how do we explain why McCutchen is being thrown so many strikes in a line-up that is one of the most futile in the game’s history?

Small sample size would be one explanation, as one example doesn’t prove anything conclusively. But, we can look around the league and see other scenarios where the protection theory would suggest a significant difference from what is actually taking place. In Milwaukee, Ryan Braun’s protector shifted from Prince Fielder to Aramis Ramirez, and the lack of Fielder’s presence was supposed to lead to a significant uptick in walks for Braun as pitchers chose to go after the much weaker hitting right-hander instead.

However, Braun’s percentage of pitches in the strike zone has also gone up from what it was a year ago, like McCutchen, he’s also walking less than he did when he was better protected. In fact, even with Fielder now in Detroit, Braun has yet to draw an intentional walk this season, and his .323/.393/.621 line is the best mark he’s ever posted. The idea that Fielder’s presence was getting Braun better pitches to hit is harder to swallow when Braun gets more strikes and hits even better after Fielder switches leagues.

Or, for another example, simply look to another team within the NL Central, where Joey Votto is mashing the baseball for the Reds but regularly getting stranded by an anemic collection of cleanup hitters behind him. The combination of Brandon Phillips and Scott Rolen (along with a couple of appearances from Jay Bruce and Ryan Ludwick) have combined to post a .648 OPS in the #4 spot in the batting order, 50 points lower than what the Reds #8 hitters have combined for. Votto is perhaps the game’s best left-handed hitter, but despite being protected by a second baseman whose primary value comes from his defense, he’s seen no change in the rate of strikes he’s been thrown. In fact, over the last four years, Votto’s Zone% has hardly moved at all, coming in between 44.4 and 44.9 percent in each season since 2009.

If the protection theory was true, we’d have expected Braun’s walk rate to spike, McCutchen to be leading the league in free passes, and Votto’s performance to fall off once the Reds had to move a middle infielder into the cleanup spot. We haven’t seen any of those things, and it’s worth noting that Miguel Cabrera – the guy now benefiting from the intimidating on-deck presence of Prince Fielder – is having his worst offensive season since 2008.

The protection theory sounds true enough, but it begins to break down once you look at the evidence and think through the conclusions it forces you to draw. After all, the basic premise of the theory is that pitchers are going to change their approach in such a way that it benefits the hitter at the plate who is being protected, making it more likely that they reach base. However, that is the result that the pitcher is supposedly trying to prevent, so the protection theory forces us to believe that pitchers intentionally choose to throw pitches that make it more likely that they have to face the scary on-deck hitter with a man on.

If the protection theory held true in real life, it would be in prominent display in Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati right now. The evidence suggests that pitchers simply aren’t pitching McCutchen, Braun, and Votto any differently now than they were when they were better protected, and all three are carrying their teams despite a lack of firepower behind them.