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:

Trumbo HIll

*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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9 Responses to Let’s talk about lineup protection

  1. Kevin says:

    If the D’Backs win 90 games this year and their offense has anything to do with it, I really do believe it will be more because of 150+ games of Aaron Hill’s production than 150+ games of Mark Trumbo’s. Hill can absolutely rake. That being said, starting pitching and bullpen efficiency will likely make or break this team.

  2. Kevin says:

    Regarding the idea of line-up protection, I wonder if the effects would be any different if you battled Goldschmidt BEHIND Trumbo. I’m not at all suggesting it should be done, and indeed the very idea of Goldschmidt ending the game in the on-deck circle as Trumbo strikes out in the three hole is already making me cringe, but it’s hard to imagine pitchers not at least challenging Trumbo with more strikes in such a situation. That being said, Trumbo would still actually need to hit their challenge pitches, and with the gaping holes in his swing I’m not entirely sure he would at any increased rate high enough to be statistically relevant.

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      Statistically relevant, that’s the key.

      For each spot you move down the lineup, you lose about 30 PA’s. So the real issue isn’t “how do I protect Hitter A?” The real question is “how do I maximize the PA’s of my best hitters and minimize the PA’s of my worst?”

      In terms of “protection” as it’s so often thrown around, the discrepancy between two batters has to be really big to make it worth the pitcher’s while to pitch around the first hitter to get to the second. When a number eight hitter is followed by the pitcher, that’s obvious because the pitcher is probably a poor batter and there’s a large discrepancy. Within the vast majority of the lineup, however, the discrepancy isn’t large enough that teams should plan ways around it.

      Batting Goldy behind Trumbo could possibly create an effect, but in this case, Trumbo swings and misses enough in the zone that I’m not sure if pitchers would need to throw him any more strikes than they currently do. He’s already being thrown strikes, he just doesn’t hit them at a high clip. It’s a good idea, I’m just not sure it’s worth sacrificing Paul’s plate appearances for, which is why you said it probably shouldn’t be done, and you’re right about that.

  3. Paulnh says:

    I am a believer in lineup protection. I just can’t see how the other hitters in a lineup wouldn’t effect how a pitcher would approach a given hitter. If I’m a pitcher going against Paul Goldschmidt, I would not pitch to him under most circumstances unless there was an even better hitter behind him. I have just never read a sufficient amount of evidence to get me to change my mind. Having said that, I completely agree with you that we need to have the guy who is best suited to hit fourth, not the guy who can hit the ball the farthest, hitting in the four hole. If Trumbo isn’t getting the job done consistently, he needs to be replaced by someone who will. It may be Aaron Hill, it may be Montero, but I see Mark Trumbo getting the first chance to hit fourth.

    P.S. Mr Wiser, I like how you casually mentioned that this was not an article about Mark Trumbo, but one about lineup protection. I tried to go the hole comment without talking about how good Trumbo will be, but I can’t so…Trumbo will hit fourth all year with 40+ homers.

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      Ha! I tried to sneak that one by you, Paul! Guess I didn’t make it :)

      To the topic at hand, if lineup protection is as you state, then who in the world could ever protect Miguel Cabrera? If you have to have a subsequently better hitter with every spot in the lineup, then we’d hit the pitcher first, Didi second, all the way to the point where we’d hit Goldy last. That would be the worst possible lineup in baseball and while lineup construction isn’t all that meaningful game to game, something of that magnitude would be a disaster over the course of 162 games.

      The part that’s missing is that any above-average hitter is threatening enough to protect a good hitter. You need a massive drop off in abilities to warrant pitching around a guy. This is why the eighth hitter gets pitched around with two outs, because the pitcher is so poor. It requires a drop off of that magnitude to make the free pass worthwhile. A great place for you to dig a little deeper here would be Tom Tango’s run expectancy tables. They’re considered gospel by just about everybody, so they’re a safe recommendation. You should check out or buy “The Book” by Tango. You can get an idea of what we’re talking about here. Tango goes into great detail of when it’s worth it to walk a batter or not, and the answer is, it’s almost never worth it. Therefore, protection is almost always irrelevant.

      Just because you’re not convinced doesn’t mean lineup protection exists. Perhaps you can think of a way to prove it. To that endeavor, I’d say good luck because not only is not able to be proven, but advocates of lineup protection have been/are arguing for something that isn’t shown to exist. I tend to be a firmer believer in what can be observed, since that’s what can be planned for on the diamond.

      As always, thanks for the comment Paul, and let’s hope it’s 40+ homers for Trumbo, as that’s a damn good thing for Arizona!

      • Paulnh says:

        I’m not sure that I can personally create an argument that can change your idea on lineup protection. There is not any statistic that can prove or disprove the theory. The only possible way that I can think is to take a poll of major league pitchers. They are the people who are trying to get the hitters out. I honestly believe that if a poll was able to be taken, the majority of pitchers would say that they would attack hitters differently if a good hitter was on deck. I would really love to see the results if something like that could happen. But, I really have no backup for the lineup protection theory that you haven’t already heard.

  4. Mr. Adel says:

    I think Hitter protection is a huge myth, I think your numbers are pretty solid right there, Id rather have a guy hit more singles and doubles or even walk more then the occasional bomb like you say. I also think walking or singles and having more men on base makes pitchers more nervous/anxious, making more mistakes.

    I think the issue that’s not talked about is how much more opportunity the players before Goldy and Trumbo will get.

    “Strike Ball Opportunity” if you will. I feel like Hill and Pollock will get more balls in the strike zone because of Goldy and Trumbo. You don’t want to ever pitch around batters 1 and 2 because then you have the Goldy coming up. I think that’s the real issue.

  5. […] Wiser at insidethezona has a post about regarding lineup protection as it relates to Paul Goldschmidt. While most people assume it is […]

  6. Colin says:

    ehhh nothing we speculate or talk about will even matter because we all know their will be a different guy protecting Goldy every freakin night because Gibson cannot put a consistent lineup out night after night, even one that is working.

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