Earlier Thursday, Dave Cameron made a simple observation regarding the Los Angeles Angels and their batch of position players:
Every Angel with 40+ PAs has been an above average hitter this year, except for Josh Hamilton. fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pâ€¦
â€” David Cameron (@DCameronFG) April 25, 2013
All right, neat. Now keep that in mind as we go forward.
We donâ€™t talk a whole lot about lineup protection, because the effects are really hard to measure, and based on our evidence the effects are also really small in significance. Itâ€™s almost sabermetric conventional wisdom these days to just ignore the matter of protection, to scoff at those who think itâ€™s truly important. Itâ€™s one of a baseball gameâ€™s million factors, and it isnâ€™t among the critical ones, so it doesnâ€™t get granted much in the way of mental energy. It just isnâ€™t worth it.
Well, apparently Iâ€™ve decided itâ€™s worth a little of my time on a Thursday. The general idea is this: if youâ€™re hitting in front of a dangerous hitter, you should see more fastballs and you should see more strikes. If youâ€™re good, but youâ€™re hitting in front of a weaker hitter, you could and should get pitched around. Pitchers will take their chances with the next guy, even if that means putting you on base with unintentional intentional walks. Theyâ€™re not scared of the consequences of putting you on, basically.
In reality, things arenâ€™t nearly that simple and clean, which is why this can be so tricky a subject to tackle. Early in the season I identified a potential protection case study in Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton, when healthy, is amazing. Stanton has been protected in the lineup by the likes of Greg Dobbs and Placido Polanco, who are also amazing, but only when compared to a much bigger population. Neither Dobbs nor Polanco is a particularly threatening hitter, so from the looks of things, pitchers have every reason to pitch around Stanton. Even if that means Stanton walks way more, whoâ€™s going to be a real threat to drive him home? Why face these dreadful Marlins and allow Giancarlo Stanton to beat you?
Stanton, to date, owns baseballâ€™s lowest rate of pitches seen within the PITCHf/x strike zone. More significantly, compared to 2012, Stanton is tied for the biggest drop in Zone%, at -8.0%. What that proves is not very much. What that suggests is that Stanton is indeed getting worked around. And why wouldnâ€™t he be? The other hitters are not him. The other hitters are not good.
But note that I said â€śtiedâ€ť. Thereâ€™s one other player whose Zone% has dropped by eight percentage points between 2012 and 2013. That playerâ€™s name is Albert Pujols, and so far in 2013 heâ€™s been hitting in front of Josh Hamilton.
New, expensive, shiny, blockbuster free-agent signing Josh Hamilton. Hamilton is a household name, and heâ€™s built a hell of a performance track record. He was not undeserving of the giant contract that he signed over the winter. Hamilton brought the promise of protecting Pujols and adding another superstar to a lineup that already had Pujols and Mike Trout in it. The Angels have not yet gotten going, and as is true for the team, itâ€™s true for Hamilton, whoâ€™s searching for a groove.
Pujols has gone from seeing 47% pitches in the zone to 39% pitches in the zone. He was also at 47% in 2011, and the 39% is the lowest we have for him on record. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pujolsâ€™ walks are way up, but Hamilton hasnâ€™t done a good job of making pitchers pay. And itâ€™s interesting that the two biggest Zone% drops are observed in somewhat opposite situations â€” in one case, a superstar is protected by nobodies, and in the other case, a superstar is protected by a superstar.
This doesnâ€™t prove that pitchers are working around Pujols to get to Hamilton, but we can still try to figure out why that might be the case. And the immediate assumption would be that Hamilton has obvious, exploitable holes, being an aggressive hitter who misses a lot and who swings at a lot of balls low and away. Despite Hamiltonâ€™s tremendous natural talent, pitchers might now feel more comfortable facing him, because theyâ€™ve identified ways in which he can be beat. There canâ€™t be anyone in baseball anymore whoâ€™s unaware of Hamiltonâ€™s tendencies, and it can be hard for a hitter to change his habits on the fly. Pujols has proven heâ€™s still dangerous. Hamilton has proven he can be dangerous, but heâ€™s also conspicuously flawed.
There are some necessary caveats. For one, this could, of course, be noise. It could be nothing at all. For two, it could have nothing at all to do with Hamilton being on deck. Additionally, Pujols has demonstrated that heâ€™ll chase balls from time to time, so pitchers might be trying to expand his zone. Thereâ€™s a handedness consideration, where Pujols bats righty and Hamilton bats lefty, and maybe that explains this in part or in whole. And this isnâ€™t even an effect youâ€™d necessarily notice during a game. Letâ€™s say itâ€™s entirely real â€” that Pujolsâ€™ Zone% is dropping from 47% to 39%. Pujols sees, what, 17-20 pitches per game? Youâ€™d be talking about a difference of one or two pitches, spread over a few plate appearances. Basically imperceptible when youâ€™re watching closely and wrapping yourself up in every detail. A lot of these things are subtle, and this wouldnâ€™t completely change the feel of an Albert Pujols at bat.
But a trend is a trend. Letâ€™s put it this way: itâ€™s interesting that Stanton and Pujols are tied for the biggest Zone% drop to date. Stantonâ€™s makes perfect sense. Pujolsâ€™ makes less sense, but maybe thereâ€™s clarity in the fact that Hamilton is over-aggressive and struggling. This could be caused by any number of factors, or any combination of them, but itâ€™s possible Pujols is being pitched around a little more, even with Hamilton due up next. Itâ€™s possible teams want Hamilton to prove he can beat them, because Pujols has already proven himself. Take a step back and it seems kind of silly, but so do Hamiltonâ€™s plate-discipline numbers.
We can at least say this much: the presence of Josh Hamilton hasnâ€™t forced opposing pitchers to come right after Albert Pujols. As for the opposite? Well, thereâ€™s some evidence, and I think thatâ€™s incredible.