In a hot-button post last week, I mentioned the myth of lineup protection. We’ve heard the D-backs leadership discuss the acquisition of Mark Trumbo as a way to protect The People’s MVP, Paul Goldschmidt. The concept of lineup protection is debatable at best and isn’t even something that all managers believe in. In reading through recent comments here at Inside the ‘Zona, I think it’s worth exploring whether or not Trumbo can truly provide this lineup protection or not for Goldy. (*Note: rather than make this a post about Mark Trumbo, I’d rather make it one that focuses on the merits of lineup protection and just how beneficial it is to have Trumbo hitting behind Goldy (and/or Montero) as opposed to someone else)
Let’s start with a brief discussion of what lineup protection supposedly is. Aside from being a common enemy of progressive baseball analysts, lineup protection is essentially the principle that a pitcher will throw more favorable pitches to Hitter A because Hitter B is a good hitter (thus “protecting” Hitter A) and the pitcher doesn’t want to face Hitter B with Hitter A on base, raising the likelihood of runs scored. Because of this supposed threat in the on-deck circle, Hitter A should benefit and receive better pitches to hit while being walked less often. If this old adage sounds familiar, that’s because it’s one of the oldest mantras around (despite the fact that a simple Google search of “what is lineup protection” yields seven articles (out of ten) on the front page questioning this theory). Although it’s been debunked to various degrees over the last decade, the concept still persists.
Now, let’s apply it to the Diamondbacks and the Paul Goldschmidt-followed-by-Mark Trumbo scenario specifically. Lineup protection states that Paul Goldschmidt should benefit from the threat of the pitcher having to face Mark Trumbo immediately afterward. The pitcher will “give in” to Goldy and give him good pitches to hit because he doesn’t want to put Paul on base, then have to face the power-hitting Trumbo. But here’s the assumption: the pitcher fears Mark Trumbo more than some other hitter who could be batting behind Goldschmidt in the order. Why would Trumbo cause this heightened fear? Presumably, because he can hit home runs like this one (give me a call when that ball comes down from orbit). The assumed fear mentioned above is irrational, however. Why? Because the results of Mark Trumbo’s plate appearances don’t warrant any more fear than the results of some of the Diamondbacks’ other options.
The Diamondbacks want to use Trumbo’s bat to scare pitchers from “pitching around” Paul and giving him very little to hit or even intentionally walking him. Unfortunately, Mark Trumbo doesn’t advance runners with an enhanced, fear-imposing frequency when compared to others. Let’s assume that Goldschmidt leads off an inning and was walked, then followed by Trumbo. Here are the rates of particular events that would result from Trumbo’s at bat if he performs in 2014 in the exact same way as he did in 2013 (which surely won’t happen, but just go with the exercise for now):
- Hit a single: 12.74%
- Hit a double: 4.84%
- Hit a triple: 0.32%
- Hit a home run: 3.87%
- Strikeout: 29.67%
- Walk: 8.71%
- Ground into a double play: 2.90%
- Get hit by a pitch: > 1%
- Produce a ball in-play out: ~ *40%
- *rough calculations, not granular, meant to be taken as close approximations
Trumbo can be counted on to advance the runner approximately 32% of the time. Sometimes it’s a walk, sometimes it’s a bomb, and every now and then, he’ll chug out a triple. But is the threat of a 32% runner advancement rate something that a pitcher should be extra concerned with? To answer that, let’s look at another batter who could hit behind Goldy. In this case, let’s choose Aaron Hill, again using his 2013 rates as proxies for the upcoming 2014 season.
- Hit a singe: 18.95%
- Hit a double: 6.42%
- Hit a triple: 0.31%
- Hit a home run: 3.36%
- Strikeout: 14.67%
- Walk: 8.87%
- Get hit by a pitch: 1%
- Ground into a double play: 1.83%
- Produce a ball in-play out: ~ *48%
- *rough calculations, not granular, meant to be taken as close approximations
Hill can be counted on to advance the runner nearly 39% of the time judging by the information above. That’s roughly 7% more frequently than when Trumbo dug in. Yes, Trumbo hits more jacks, but a number of Hill’s singles will get Goldy to third and he’ll score on a good portion of Hill’s doubles. I’d essentially call those a wash or maybe even give Hill the slight nod, especially considering that Hill’s home run rate isn’t all that much lower than Trumbo’s. While Mark hits the memorable moonshots, Hill can still get it out of the park and once it leaves the yard, it doesn’t really matter if the ball ends up in the first row or the stratosphere.
For a better comparison of the two options, here are their 2013 stats normalized to 650 plate appearances, the amount one could expect from a number four hitter over 150 games. One could play this out with things like run expectancy tables, but let’s keep it simple:
*Click to enlarge*
There really isn’t a ton separating these two. The home runs are one thing and while some would like to believe that Trumbo will hit 1,000 a year at Chase Field, park factors are overstated more of than not. I wouldn’t predict the gap to be as close as the table above, but it shouldn’t be incredibly far apart either; Aaron Hill can hit home runs, too. The gap between Trumbo and Hill in terms of singles and doubles is meaningful, if not memorable. Those are cases where the runners advance, the inning stays alive and more pressure is applied to the pitcher and his defense. In essence, the threat of scoring runs goes up in these instances and the threat of crooked numbers looms. Of course it’s nice to hit the ball out of the park, but it’s also nice to keep the train moving. Often far too much emphasis is placed on the former and not enough on the latter.
So what’s the takeaway here? I suppose it’s the fact that as long as Kirk Gibson chooses somewhat carefully, it really doesn’t matter who he puts behind Paul Goldschmidt because the difference between hitters threatening the opposing pitcher from the on-deck circle just isn’t big enough to be concerned about. Didi Gregorius, AJ Pollock and Gerardo Parra are perhaps less good (purposely not “poor”) choices, as would be any pitcher, but Hill, Montero (if he’s right), Trumbo, Ross and Chavez should all be acceptable options. In fact, the real consideration shouldn’t be a player’s home run total, but rather who’s hot at the moment and exploiting matchups that give the hitter the advantage.
In the table above, there were some serious assumptions made, most notably health and continued effectiveness, but the point remains: lineup protection as a reason to hit Mark Trumbo behind Paul Goldschmidt just isn’t something we should be talking about. In fact, lineup protection as a reason to acquire a player, unless he’s unmistakably magical, isn’t a valid excuse. It’s also a little disingenuous to credit the player on deck for Paul Goldschmidt’s production. After all, he’s the one doing the work of putting the bat on the ball.
Let’s hope that Gibson is astute enough to acknowledge this and disregard the old misnomer that you have to back up your slugger with another slugger. Instead, let’s hope that he puts the hitter who gives the team the best tangible chance to score runs behind Goldy. If that’s Trumbo, great. If not, someone else will do just as good of a job or better. The name’s not important, but the overall execution is. The sooner we start treating the lineup this way, the better.
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