Giancarlo Stanton and lineup protection again

Elsa

The Miami Marlins have provided Giancarlo Stanton lineup protection for the first time since 2012. What does that mean for the Fish?

The Miami Marlins have been concerned about lineup protection for star slugger Giancarlo Stanton for some time. The Fish have wanted to surround Stanton with hitting talent so that those pesky pitchers could not avoid his bat in the lineup. Given his role as premium masher, there is some incentive to giving Stanton more chances to swing the bat, and last season, pitchers were not affording him that opportunity. In 2013, only 41 percent of pitches thrown Stanton's way were in the traditional strike zone.

This represents a problem for Miami because the team wants Stanton swinging, but they have taken steps against that this season. With the addition of free agents Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Casey McGehee, Garrett Jones, and Rafael Furcal, the team believes it has significantly improved the lineup, and now it needs a resurgence from Stanton to succeed in 2014.

"We just want him to relax," Redmond said. "Last year, I think he probably felt like he needed to do it all offensively.

"As a former player, whenever you feel like you have to do that, it usually doesn't end up good. I think for him to be successful, we just want him to go out there and just have fun and play his game. He's so talented. He means so much to our lineup and to our organization. We just want him to go out there and just do his part with no pressure."

The Marlins are saying that they want Stanton relaxed, but any success in 2014 will depend on his bat. The team feels that having better bats around Stanton should alleviate the issues the offense had last year, when Stanton was the lone power threat on the roster.

Due to the abundance of rookies and inexperienced players in '13, it was a trying season for the entire organization. Because of injuries, Redmond had the tough task of trying to piece together a lineup that could produce much of anything.

For instance, even on Opening Day of last season, Redmond slotted players in places they were not best suited. Placido Polanco, initially projected to bat second, found himself in the cleanup position, behind Stanton. Polanco hit one home run all season.

Stanton was pretty much the lone home run threat for most of the year.

The additions of Saltalamacchia and Jones certainly add some pop to the lineup (though those additions are less beneficial versus left-handed pitching), but do they make a significant difference in Stanton's production? Remember, we are not talking about RBIs and runs scored for him, but rather his offensive value provided. Recall that, last season, we discussed the likely effect of protection on lineups.

For a long time, lineup protection was deemed a "myth" by sabermetrics, but a couple of years ago, Tom Tango explained what he discussed in The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball regarding lineup protection.

There are two issues to consider:

  1. Do players (pitchers and/or batters) behave differently based on who is on deck?
  2. Is the overall impact better or worse?

In The Book, we looked at this topic. Luckily for you, it was excerpted a few years back at The Hardball Times (please read that). The first takeaway is that yes, definitely the players respond differently. And really, when you are talking about human beings in different situations, the expectation is that they should respond differently. After all, they are not automatons, are they? And they respond on the surface as you'd expect: the pitcher is avoiding the unprotected batter, which results in more walks (and more strikeouts).

So, score a big one for conventional wisdom.

But, even though there is a different response pattern by the players involved, that does not by itself mean that it favors one side or the other. Indeed, the result of our study shows that when it comes to putting the ball in play, there was no significant impact.

So, score a wake-up call for conventional wisdom.

Essentially, conventional wisdom is correct in stating that a hitter is approached differently without good hitters behind him. Fans have been right about that for years, and we ourselves see it in Stanton's treatment this season; he is seeing fewer strikes because pitchers do not have to throw to him. Last year, there was a similar calamity regarding Stanton's lack of protection in the lineup, and I pointed out a similar problem.

What this means is that Stanton is expected to provide the same value to the offense regardless of whether the team has better hitters around him. The difference is that, without protection, the value is provided by getting on base at the expense of more strikeouts, while with better hitters around Stanton, he would provide more value via hits.

The important factor is that he should provide the same ratio of hits, with or without protection. Last season, we saw his power dip to below rookie season levels, and it was a jarring change from the monster swinging Stanton we have grown to know. A natural assumption is that the power had fallen because of the increase in outside pitches, but Mike Podehorzer of Rotographs points out something interesting.

Stanton’s power declined this year, as both his ISO and HR/FB rates fell to career lows. But his 304 foot distance that ranked 12th highest in baseball was actually higher than his 2012 mark and similar to his 2010 output. So it doesn’t appear that he really lost any power, but sustaining a mid-to-high 20% HR/FB rate is just really hard. I would figure a rebound toward his career average in the 24% to 25% range next season.

That implies that Stanton ran into a below average season, like many players might do in their careers. As Podehorzer says, maintaining a league-best home run per fly ball (HR/FB) rate is difficult, and even Stanton may be prone to a down year. Given that his career rate is 25 percent, that seems like a safe projection, even if it is lower than the monstrous 28 percent he posted in his breakout 2012 year.

In 2012, Stanton saw only 45 percent of pitches thrown his way traverse the strike zone. Had he qualified for the batting ttle, that mark would have ranked 13th in baseball, right alongside Robinson Cano and Carlos Pena. This year, he saw even fewer pitches and appeared to have adapted, having decreased his out-of-zone swing rate to 28 percent. He swung at fewer strikes, but the balls he put into play seemed to have traveled the same distance and his 18 percent line drive rate from last year almost exactly matches his career rate. It appears Stanton may have run into a rut of bad luck in terms of putting his hard-hit balls in the right places, as it seems he is making the same quality of contact as before. This matches what we would expect from a player who was being pitched around more often.

If Stanton bounces back this season, and there is a good statistical chance that he will, there will be claims that it was based on his newfound protection. It is understandable that Stanton may feel more secure to swing at pitches now that he has help behind him in driving home runners. But that security is unlikely to be of more value than simple regression to the mean; Stanton's peripheral numbers outside of power came out as expected, and all accounts seem to say that he was hitting the ball as hard as before. It is much more likely that his return to prime level (Steamer projects a .272.371/.564 line and a .398 wOBA) is a combination of natural statistical move to the middle and even a slight improvement heading into his age 24 season.

But the Marlins' offense and their production is a different story. At least two of these additions are major improvements over their incumbents, so Miami will probably produce more runs. Therein lies the benefit of these signings; it is not about the effect on Stanton, but simply the effect of having better players. The Marlins should be happy about that, regardless of Stanton's performance. While the shape of his production is a product of the players around him, the team should expect him to bounce back regardless of the talent surrounding him.

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