The Miami Marlins acquired a number of power-hitting players to surround Giancarlo Stanton in the lineup this season. The prevailing thought in Miami was that, by providing Stanton "protection," he would receive more pitches to hit and have an improved campaign after an injury-marred 2013 season.
As we mentioned in our lineup protection article last week, the conventional wisdom is absolutely right that, in a lineup with better hitters behind a good player, that player will receive more pitches in the zone to hit. But unlike the assertion by conventional wisdom, the increase in pitches out of the zone without protection does not make a hitter's performance worse. Tom Tango made mention of that in The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, excerpted here at The Hardball Times.
Batting Stats For Good Hitters, In Likely IBB Situations (Scaled To 600 PA)
Status wOBA 1B 2B 3B HR NIBB HBP RBOE SO Other Out Unprotected .380 83 32 3 16 91 10 6 108 251 Protected .376 83 31 3 18 83 10 6 104 262 Leading .382 92 31 3 21 72 7 7 97 270
The Book Says: If a pitcher is trying to avoid pitching to a hitter, the hitter is significantly more likely to draw a walk, and moderately more likely to strike out. Specifically, a good, unprotected hitter in a good intentional walk situation is about 25% more likely to walk than the same hitter in a bad intentional walk situation, as well as about 10% more likely to strike out. Even an average hitter, with an average hitter on deck, is 20% more likely to draw the walk if the situation is a common one for intentional walks, and about 5% more likely to strike out. However, if the ball is hit into play, the pitcher's approach (pitching to him, versus pitching around him) has no significant effect on the hitter's statistics.
This may come as a surprise to many readers, but the numbers bear out that way. In terms of batted balls, there is almost no difference in the performance of players who are "protected" by decent hitters behind them and those who are not. Take a look at the "protected" and "unprotected" rows. The wOBA represented by those groups of players are almost identical. In particular, the singles, doubles, triples, and homers hit by those players are 100 percent equal on a per 600 plate appearance basis.
The research is there overall, but let's look at the specific example of Giancarlo Stanton. In 2013, he saw just 41.1 percent of pitches coming to him in the strike zone, among the lowest numbers in baseball. In 2012, he saw that number sit at 44.8 percent. But in the second half of 2012, his protection was extremely limited during the regular season. After Logan Morrison had suffered his season-ending injury and Miami had traded Hanley Ramirez, Stanton returned to the lineup with a weakened cast around him. In front of him was often Jose Reyes, but behind him was a cavalcade of mediocre players.
|Player||# behind Stanton||2012 wOBA|
The weighted average of all those wOBAs was at .315, but there was no way any pitcher believed Justin Ruggiano was as good as advertised, so that may be skewed towards a higher number. Compare that to who he had behind him last season.
|Player||# behind Stanton||2012 wOBA|
This group featured a collective wOBA of .303. The difference between the two groups of players from the tail half of 2012 and the entirety of 2013 was roughly the difference between Russell Martin last season (.226/.327/.377) and Andrelton Simmons (.248/.296/.396). In other words, while it is present, the difference is still small.
And how did Stanton perform based on those different lineups?
|2012, 2nd Half||44.3||.299||.356||.701||.432|
What gives? The three percent fewer strikes that he was seeing caused that much of a difference in performance? I understand that the mental aspect could play a role, but Stanton is not terrible at baseball with no one around him. It is much more likely that a combination of increased pressure, injuries, and poor random performance helped to cause these differences. Solving just one of them, and likely the smallest contributor, will not turn Stanton's season around, certainly not more than simple regression to the mean.
If you are looking for a time when Stanton saw just as few strikes as he did last season, look no further than in 2011. In that year, Stanton batted fifth and sixth for much of the season before being promoted to the top of the lineup thanks in large part due to the injury to Hanley Ramirez. The Marlins hit Gaby Sanchez or Logan Morrison, the team's other two best hitters, after Stanton just 28 times in total that year. Greg Dobbs and John Buck, on the other hand, hit 37 times each behind Stanton.
The results were as expected.
Stanton was largely pitched around and put up his second-highest career walk rate, and that surprised no one given the fact that he received no protection behind him in the lineup. That did not stop him from putting up a strong sophomore season and hitting 34 home runs in 600 plate appearances. Stanton was undeterred despite the lack of protection, so how did he have such issues with it this year?
It is undeniable that Stanton had a bad season in 2013. It can be denied that Stanton had a bad year because his teammates were bad. He had bad teammates surrounding him in 2011 and had a good year at the plate. He had bad teammates following him in the second half of 2012 and still hit a monster line after returning from injury. The more likely problem was that it was a multi-factorial issue, including his mental adjustments to not having protection. It does not mean that protection was the problem or that setting up the lineup with better hitters was going to make him better. If he improves this season, it will be because Giancarlo Stanton is a great hitter who had a bad year last season, not for any other particular reason.