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April 15, 2013

Profiles in Lack of Lineup Protection

Giancarlo Stanton So Far

by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller

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A few days before the season started, I wrote about Marlins manager Mike Redmond’s decision to consider batting Placido Polanco in the cleanup slot. Most of the article was about where Polanco would rank among historically terrible cleanup hitters, but it ended with this:

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 [Giancarlo] Stanton this season, it won’t be for fear of the hitter batting behind him.

There’s a common perception that sabermetricians don’t believe lineup protection matters. And it’s true, at least in the aggregate, that whether a pitcher is pitching to or pitching around a hitter doesn’t seem to affect the batter’s success when he puts the ball in play. However, the pitcher’s approach does affect how often the batter puts the ball in play: well-protected hitters, intuitively enough, walk and strike out more often. After two weeks of baseball, we can already start to see the effects of putting a powerless hitter like Polanco behind a slugger like Stanton. To begin, I’m going to see how pitchers have approached Stanton, and below, Sam will examine how Stanton has responded.

Stanton has started nine games. In four of those games, he’s been “protected” by Polanco. In the other five, he’s hit ahead of Greg Dobbs. PECOTA actually prefers Polanco to Dobbs, who was projected for a .241 TAv this season. So while the Polanco cleanup plan has only partially come to pass, the lack of lineup protection has been as extreme as expected.

At BP, we preach a cautious approach to small sample size. It’s much too early to look at Stanton’s slash lines (.167/.342/.233) and say that he can’t succeed without a better hitter behind him. That said, certain stats become meaningful much more quickly than others. As Russell Carleton puts it, “the general rule of thumb is that the fewer things a ball has to bounce off to get to that event, the more reliable the stat.” The ball doesn’t bounce off anything before it gets to the plate (unless Francisco Liriano is pitching), so stats that describe batter and pitcher decisions stabilize more quickly than stats that depend on outcomes. Swing rate, Russell found, stabilizes after 50 plate appearances. He hasn’t run the numbers for zone rate, but it stands to reason that it would also be more meaningful in small samples than most stats. (Although It’s true that zone rate depends to some extent on your opponents—if you just faced Francisco Liriano in the first game of the season, and you have a low zone rate, it’s not necessarily because he was pitching around you. It might just because he was pitching. That opponent factor tends to even out over a long season, but it might not over small stretches.)

Last season, 44.8 percent of the pitches thrown to Stanton (not counting intentional balls) were inside the strike zone typically called on right-handed hitters. League average was 50.3 percent; Stanton’s rate was the 11th-lowest among the 290 hitters who saw at least 1000 pitches. That makes sense. There’s a moderate negative correlation between percentage of pitches seen inside the strike zone and Isolated Power; the more likely a hitter is to punish a pitch inside the zone, the less likely he is to see one.

In addition, Stanton isn’t an especially selective hitter. He’s not a hacker like Josh Hamilton or Pablo Sandoval, but he will swing at pitches outside the zone. Last year, he chased 35.1 percent of such pitches, which ranked 43rd among those same 290. (To be fair, at 6’6”, Stanton probably has a better chance of making good contact with a pitch off the outside corner than an average-sized hitter would.) Between his willingness to expand the zone and his tendency to hit balls inside the zone a very long way, Stanton is one of the best batters not to throw strikes to.

If you ask Stanton how he’s been pitched this season, he’ll say that nothing has changed:

Stanton isn’t placing the blame for his struggles on anyone but himself. Even though the Marlins lineup doesn’t feature a true clean-up hitter to protect him, Stanton said Monday he has been seeing about the same amount of pitches inside the strike zone as he did a year ago. He has just been swinging and missing more often than not.

“They’ve been going at him with fastballs — he’s just not there yet,” manager Mike Redmond said. “I know he’s a streaky guy. We’ll keep running him out there and stay positive.”

There are two claims in that excerpt: first, that Stanton isn’t seeing fewer strikes, and second, that he’s not seeing fewer fastballs. Let’s take them one by one.

This season, only 36.2 percent of pitches to Stanton have been inside the strike zone, a decline of about 19 percent from 2012. Among hitters who’ve seen at least 100 pitches, Stanton’s rate of pitches inside the zone ranks third lowest. So he is seeing fewer pitches inside the strike zone, despite the fact that he's had only seven plate appearances with runners in scoring position, when he's even more likely to be pitched around. (The Marlins don't put many hitters on ahead of him.) 

Stanton has seen 152 pitches this season, not counting intentional balls (which we’re not; Stanton has been walked once intentionally). If we look at all of his stretches of 150 pitches last season—pitch one to 151, pitch two to 152, and so on—we do find a few with zone rates lower than 36.2, albeit barely (less than a percentage point). None of them started earlier than May 23 or ended later than June 13. During that late May/early June period, Stanton was mostly hitting ahead of Logan Morrison, who batted .176 in May. He also had Dobbs batting behind him twice. Maybe we’re building narratives out of random numbers, but it’s certainly suggestive that A) Stanton has seen fewer strikes thus far this season than he did over almost any same-sized stretch last season, and B) in the few stretches last season over which he did see as few strikes, he was hitting ahead of Dobbs and Morrison, who’d barely gotten on base for a month.

As for the fastballs, the stats suggest that Redmond is right. Stanton has seen a higher percentage of four-seam fastballs (41.4 percent) than he did last season (31.1 percent). Stanton's percentage of fastballs faced ranks in the top 25 among batters with at least 30 PA. Maybe it's because he hasn't hit yet; maybe he's faced pitchers who rely on their heaters more than most. Whatever the explanation, it seems unlikely that Stanton will continue to see more fastballs while also seeing so few pitches inside the strike zone; either pitchers are going to challenge him, or they aren't. But all those fastballs don't make it any easier to interpret his puzzling performance so far.

Stanton has been sidelined since last Wednesday by a sore shoulder he bruised in a dive for a ball. (MRIs were negative.) When he was told that he wouldn’t have to face Stanton, Friday’s Phillies starter John Lannan admitted that he wasn’t unhappy to hear the news:

Lannan said the news of Stanton's absence allowed him to change his "approach."

"That was the one guy," Lannan said, "if he is in there, you probably have to pitch around him."

That’s the sort of mindset that Stanton will have to contend with all year, or for at least for as long as he remains in Miami’s league-worst lineup. How he handles no pitchers wanting a piece of him will be one of the season’s most interesting storylines. Especially on the Marlins, who have few interesting storylines to speak of on days that Jose Fernandez doesn't pitch. —Ben Lindbergh

***

I’ve always felt like the best strategy in any game is usually the one that thwarts my opponent’s strategy, even if I think my opponent’s strategy might be a bad strategy. If he wants to do something, I figure, he has more knowledge about his position and chances than I do, and he’s presumably rational. So I want him not to do that something.

So if opposing pitchers have decided Giancarlo Stanton is far less dangerous on first base than swinging away, my instinct (as a hypothetical Giancarlo Stanton) would be to swing twice as often. That doesn’t mean swinging at pitches that I can’t hit; tempting Stanton to do that is, after all, part of the opposing team’s strategy, or else they’d just have the catcher stand up with his arm out. But it means swinging at every pitch I can hit. The strike zone doesn’t expand, exactly, but the strike zone does become an imperative, as it does for the eighth batter in the lineup with a runner in scoring position.

The most interesting part of Stanton’s season so far isn’t that he’s seeing fewer hittable pitches. The 340-point difference between Stanton’s OPS in 2012 and Placido Polanco’s is almost exactly as big as the difference between the NL’s eighth-place hitters and the NL’s pitchers last year. That gap was enough to lead opposing moundsmen to walk lousy eight-place hitters more often than the league’s leadoff hitters. Put a good hitter in front of a terrible hitter and walks will happen.

What’s not predictable is how Stanton has adjusted, or not adjusted, or adjusted but done it wrong, or perhaps adjusted and not done it wrong. He has not swung at more pitches in the strike zone in order to thwart his opponents’ strategy. He has also, perhaps to his credit, not gotten impatient and swung at more pitches on impulse. He has not swung at more pitches. It’s so strange.

In 2011, among baseball’s 260 most prolific batters, Stanton had the 191st-lowest swing rate at pitches in the zone. In 2012, he swung more often than all but 170 other hitters. But this year, he’s at the other end of the leaderboard. Just 24 batters have swung less often at balls in the strike zone, a combination of extreme-patience guys (A.J. Ellis, Derek Norris), extremely weak hitters (Robert Andino, Pedro Florimon), and three or four legit sluggers (Prince Fielder, Ryan Zimmerman, Edwin Encarnacion). In the very small window that we have into Stanton this year—and it’s very small, don’t forget; very small—he has transformed from Mark Trumbo to Carlos Santana on pitches in the zone. In no 150-pitch stretch from 2012 was Stanton's in-zone swing rate within five percentage points of where it stands this season.

Stanton has taken 29 called strikes this year. He took 291 called strikes in 2012, 10 times as many called strikes in 13 times the plate appearances.

Let’s take a look.

One of the challenges of writing about plate discipline in small samples is that it’s hard to say Stanton should have swung at any one individual pitch. Above, you see Kris Medlen throw a fastball down the middle in an 0-1 count. He’s trying to jam Stanton up and in; he instead leaves it over the plate, thigh high, just a little bit further out than the center of the plate. We can presume all sorts of things about this pitch, about its intent and missed intent, about Stanton’s ability to hit it and his expectations for it. But we don’t actually know that this was the pitch for Stanton to hit. He might have been dialed in on a slider. We just don’t know. But, on an 0-1 count, with a runner on first, with his team down two in the first inning, with Placido Polanco batting behind him, he took this pitch.

Seven times last year he saw a pitch in a similar location—within 0.1 feet in any direction—and he swung at all seven, five fastballs and two sliders.

The count was 0-1, incidentally, because he took this first-pitch fastball a few moments earlier:

Again, not saying he should have swung at it. There are all sorts of reasons for him to take that pitch. But I am saying that, more than likely, last year he would have swung at it. Last year he saw 11 pitches in a similar location, eight of them fastballs. He swung 10 times.

There are some explanations for this in-zone patience that might come to mind. Hypothesis no. 1, the most compelling one in theory, is the idea that if pitchers are pitching Stanton more carefully, then the strikes he does see are more likely to be on the edges of the zone, or off-speed pitches. That would be logical and that might turn out to be true when the numbers get bigger, but so far it’s not the case:

  • 2012 called strikes: 56 percent fastballs, average nine inches from center of zone
  • 2013 called strikes: 62 percent fastballs, average eight inches from center of zone

He’s also making contact on more pitches in the zone when he does swing, which suggests that he truly is being choosier within the strike zone.

Hypothesis no. 2 is that he’s swinging less often because his shoulder is bothering him. Except that he’s not really swinging less often. On pitches outside the zone, he’s got the 56th-highest swing rate, at about 35 percent. Last year, he had the 37th-highest rate, also 35 percent. In 2011, he swung at 31 percent of pitches outside the zone. “His shoulder hurts only on swings in the strike zone. There, I figured it out,” Ben Lindbergh tells me.

If Stanton continues to be selective on strikes, he’ll be the anomaly. I found five hitters over the past five seasons who a) saw fewer than 46 percent of pitches in the strike zone, b) had that rate drop by at least 2.5 percentage points from the previous year, and c) had an OPS at least 200 points better than the primary hitter behind them in the lineup. Cumulatively, these players provide a blunt measure for lack of lineup protection. Four of the five—Pablo Sandoval and Joey Votto in 2009, Justin Morneau and Miguel Cabrera in 2010, and Stanton in 2011—swung more often at pitches in the zone when there were fewer pitches in the zone:

Player With protection Without
Pablo Sandoval 76.2 79.3
Joey Votto 69.9 72.5
Justin Morneau 64.3 62.3
Miguel Cabrera 67.6 70.1
Mike Stanton 58.7 65.8

Hypothesis no. 3 is that this is nothing more than a sample-size quirk, which is what I assume you all reasonably think—we’re talking about 54 pitches in the zone, and seven extra pitches taken compared to his 2012 rate. I don’t mind that position. For predictive purposes, I’d bet on an imminent adjustment, too. But what has happened has happened, and it strikes me as a significant window into the challenge Stanton has faced, regardless of whether he adjusts and squares his swing rates up moving forward.

Hypothesis no. 4, though, is that this whole thing is messing up Stanton’s head something fierce. The Marlins have been talking about this, with Stanton and with the media, and you can appreciate how many different voices he’s hearing in his head. An incomplete selection of advice he’s reportedly received in the past week from his manager Mike Redmond, his hitting coach Tino Martinez, and Marlins executive Andre Dawson:

  • “If you shrink the zone a little bit you’ll be fine.”
  • “Dawson said (Stanton) will have to change his approach a little bit. ‘Mike has taken some good pitches for a called strike three. He’s taken good pitches to hit.’”
  • “You have to be protective of a certain part of the plate, not cover the whole plate.”
  • “Take the walk.”
  • “Be ready to hit.”
  • “Patience in the strike zone.”
  • “At the same time you've got to be aggressive.”
  • “Just worry about hitting instead of worrying about what the pitcher is trying to do.”

Now go get ’em, kid. —Sam Miller

(Sources for Marlins’ hitting advice here, here, here, here.) Thanks to Dan Brooks, Rob McQuown and Colin Wyers for research assistance.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here
Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

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