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March 28, 2013
What it Would Mean for the Marlins if Placido Polanco Bats Fourth
Earlier this week, Marlins manager Mike Redmond told a group of Miami beat writers that third baseman Placido Polanco might bat cleanup behind Giancarlo Stanton this season. Yes, you’re allowed to laugh. Here are the relevant quotes:
As evidence that Redmond is actually considering this, and not just pulling a prank on desperate writers in search of fresh spring storylines, I present this bit of box score from Miami’s Monday game against the Tigers (Austin Kearns replaced Stanton in the seventh):
You have to feel for Redmond here. When he signed his three-year contract with the Marlins, Jose Reyes, who is a real hitter, was still on the team, as were Emilio Bonifacio and John Buck. Neither Bonifacio nor Buck is what you’d call a good hitter, but even they must be looking pretty good to Redmond right now, compared to the players at his disposal. So yes, Redmond may have set some sort of record for clichés per paragraph while trying to lay out the case for why Placido Polanco, cleanup hitter, makes sense, but realistically, what was he supposed to say? The Marlins’ major-league cupboard is bare.
The logical reaction, when you hear that a manager is planning to bat Placido Polanco—a prototypical no. 2 hitter in a prime he’s now way past—cleanup is to conclude that that manager must be incompetent, crazy, or deeply in debt to Arnold Rothstein. Maybe this is how they make lineups in the Midwest League and the Florida State League, the only ones in which Redmond has managed, but Polanco has never started a big-league game in the cleanup spot.
But maybe Redmond’s move makes a strange sort of sense. This is going to be difficult to believe, even if you think you know how bad at baseball the remaining Marlins could be after the franchise’s latest firesale, but Placido Polanco—37-year-old Placido Polanco, who hit .257/.302/.327 for the Phillies last year when he wasn’t on the DL with lower back inflammation—is actually one of the better hitters on Redmond’s roster. Here’s a complete list of expected Marlins Opening Day starters, other than Stanton, whom PECOTA projects to hit better than Placido Polanco:
So that’s pretty sad. Ruggiano is a 30-year-old center fielder who before last year had never played as many as 50 major-league games in a season. He had the second-highest BABIP (.401) in baseball behind Joey Votto last season, minimum 300 plate appearances, and while he has been a high-BABIP guy in the minors, no one is that high a high-BABIP guy in the big leagues. He’s projected to hit .259/.318/.419, which translates to a .268 TAv and would be comfortably above average in center. Then there’s Kotchman, who’s projected to hit .257/.320/.366 (.257 TAv), which would be a) almost exactly career-average production for Kotchman, b) absolutely awful for a first baseman, and c) still better than Polanco’s projected .269/.313/.334 (.245 TAv).
There’s also Logan Morrison, who’s projected to be the Marlins’ second-best hitter (.253/.341/.427, .281 TAv), or, by the standards of the rest of the league, roughly a league-average offensive first baseman. But Morrison is rehabbing from knee surgery and won’t be available until around May 1st. He hit .230/.308/.399 last season, and this is his second surgery on the same knee, so he’s hardly the typical team’s idea of what a cleanup hitter looks like. And when he returns, he’ll replace Kotchman, so there will still be the same number of Marlins hitters who are better than Placido Polanco. (If you want to be technical about it, you could count Chris Coghlan, who’s projected for a .260 TAv, but he’s not slated to start.)
Here’s what The Book says about batting order:
So if we were really trying to “optimize”—a word that sort of sounds like overkill in this context—the Marlins’ lineup so that they’d score, I don’t know, 585 runs instead of 583, we’d want Stanton batting fourth, and our fourth-best hitter, Polanco, batting third. Yes, Stanton “protecting” Polanco, as strange as that sounds.* But if Redmond is determined to bat Stanton third (which would be wrong, judging by The Book), then batting Polanco cleanup would be right. Just when you think you have a handle on how little talent the Marlins have left, they force you to confront the fact that batting Placido Polanco fourth in their lineup—where he’s made only eight career plate appearances, without reaching base—might actually be the best possible move they could make.
*To determine which batters should be better, the authors of The Book examined the average run value of each event by batting order. So, for example, the run value of a home run for a leadoff batter is low, since there tend not to be runners on base when he’s at the plate. But the value of a walk for a leadoff hitter is high, since he comes up in the most no-out, bases-empty situations, when the walk can get a rally started. As it turns out, the run values of each event favor both the no. 2 and the no. 4 hitter over the no. 3 hitter, which means that the no. 3 hitter “should be worse” than both. Same goes for the no. 5 hitter vs. the no. 3 hitter: the former should be better, because the latter makes many more plate appearances with two outs, “so he has less chance to do more damage, unless that damage is done with the HR.”
There’s still a good chance that the Polanco scenario won’t come to pass. But let’s say it does, and that he makes more starts at cleanup than any other Marlin. Where would he rank among the worst cleanup hitters in recent history?
I restricted the search to 1974-2012, the seasons for which we have full play-by-play data from Retrosheet. I also removed strike seasons, since teams in those years might have found some way to avoid Polanco-like cleanup production had they had a full schedule to work with. I looked at both seasonal batting lines and batting lines out of the fourth spot, specifically, but I focused on the former, since what a player does when he’s hitting elsewhere in the order is relevant you’re deciding whether to keep having him hit cleanup.
One aspect of baseball that can be either comforting or frustrating, depending on your mood, is that since there have been so many seasons, and so many players appearing in so many games, few events are actually as extreme as they seem. It’s widely believed that when you watch a game, you’ll always see something new. But no matter how much baseball you’ve watched, you’ve taken in only a tiny fraction of all the professional baseball that’s ever been played, so most of the things that are new to you have actually happened hundreds of times before. Case in point: A hitter as unproductive as Placido Polanco, batting cleanup! That can’t have happened before! Actually, it’s happened 23 times since 1974. (And this is probably just the latest in a long line of articles about how cleanup hitters can sometimes be bad, because most baseball writing isn’t really original, either. There’s your depressing thought of the day.)
Here are the hitters since 1974 who made more starts at cleanup than anyone else on their teams and finished with overall TAvs as bad as or worse than Polanco’s projected .245:
Some facts about the teams these players played for: collectively, they went 1632-2087, a .439 winning percentage. They averaged 651 runs scored, and a .251 TAv, which would have put them between last year’s low-scoring Marlins and Mariners. In other words, they weren’t very good. Call it the Placido Polanco Corollary: if your cleanup hitter hits like Placido Polanco, the rest of your lineup is probably pretty bad, too.
There are two exceptions to the PPC: the 1983 Red Sox (Tony Armas) and 1986 A’s (Dave Kingman), both of whom finished with team TAVs slightly above league average. The 1983 Sox had three Hall of Famers in their lineup, as well as Dwight Evans, and Armas was a good hitter for the few years before and after ’83. The 1986 A’s had six above-average hitters in their regularly lineup, and Kingman, aside from his utter inability to get on base, at least looked like a cleanup hitter and had been one before. (Kingman’s 35 homers that year are the most ever hit by a player in his final season.) Only one of the teams on the list, the 1988 Padres, managed (barely) to win more games than it lost. That team had the NL’s fourth-best defensive efficiency and FRAA, neither of which seems likely to be true of the 2013 Marlins.
The difference between Polanco and most of the worst cleanup hitters since 1974 is that there’s no particular reason to think that Polanco will produce. A reasonable case can be made that almost all of the others should have hit fairly well, even though it didn’t work out that way. Take Jim Edmonds, for example: he was always injury prone, but before 2007, he’d just about always been good when he was able to play. Our projection for Edmonds in the 2007 Annual called for a .290 TAv (at the time called EqA), as did Carlos Lee’s projection in 2010. Except for Johnson and Coomer, all of the bad cleanup hitters were coming off better offensive seasons than Polanco’s 2012; as a group, they averaged a .274 TAv in the seasons immediately before they went south. Polanco’s most recent TAv for the Phillies was .241. Things fall apart, and sometimes good cleanup hitters go bad, but unless you’re the Marlins, you don’t plan to go into a season with a cleanup hitter as bad as a 37-year-old Placido Polanco.
If there’s one good thing about the fact that the Marlins’ lineup is going to be embarrassing, it’s that we might learn a little more about how much lineup protection matters. Because if anyone pitches to Stanton this season, it won’t be for fear of the hitter batting behind him.
Thanks to Andrew Koo for research assistance.