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July 2, 2013

Overthinking It

Robinson Cano and the Latest Debate About Lineup Protection

by Ben Lindbergh


The more I learn about baseball, the more I think that much of the perceived divide between traditional baseball types and statheads—which is itself overstated—stems from some subset of each side overstating its case. Take clubhouse chemistry, the subject of frequent battles between people on opposite sides of the analytical aisle. A player (or former player) might insist that team chemistry is more important than talent, or that chemistry might be worth 20 wins. And a stathead, frustrated by an inability to measure it and without having experienced it himself, might say (or at least be said to say) that chemistry doesn’t matter.

It seems likely that the truth lies somewhere in the middle: chemistry can help, but probably not so much that it could make a last-place team into a first-place team. If either side said that, the other wouldn’t argue. Instead, extreme and polarizing claims from the pro-chemistry camp prompt equally extreme and polarizing claims from the anti-chemistry camp, and vice versa.

The debate about lineup protection is a little like that. Some say lineup protection matters; others insist it’s a myth. There’s some truth to both perspectives. Lineup protection matters, in that it produces an observable effect: players strike out less often when they’re protected, presumably because they’re not being pitched around. But it’s also a myth, in that it’s probably not something to plan around: yes, protected players strike out less often, but they also walk less often, and they don’t do any better when they put the ball in play. On the whole, it’s a wash: players perform differently when protected, but not really better or worse.

We’ve seen the lineup protection discussion provoked by any number of players over the past several years: David Ortiz and the Red Sox, Andrew McCutchen and the Pirates, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, Hunter Pence and Ryan Howard, Andre Ethier and Manny Ramirez. The most recent is Robinson Cano. Concern about Cano’s protection surfaced in advance of the season, and before Monday’s game, Joe Girardi suggested that Cano’s stats may have suffered from the absence of the injured Yankees who, if healthy, would have been hitting behind him. In a story entitled “A-Rod’s return may have big impact on Cano,” Girardi was quoted as saying, “[Cano] may not have as many opportunities with some of the injuries that we’ve had. He doesn’t maybe have some of the protection that he’s had in the past.”

The article suggests that getting Alex Rodriguez back could solve Cano’s protection problem. But even if we grant that a diminished Rodriguez could provide more protection than the collection of diminished players who’ve batted behind him to date, is there any indication that Cano needs the cavalry to come to his rescue?

When people fret about a batter’s protection, they’re fretting that he’ll see fewer hittable pitches, which is generally taken to mean A) fewer strikes and B) fewer fastballs. Has Cano seen fewer strikes and fastballs this season? In the wonderful world we live in, it’s easy enough to check.

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Related Content:  Robinson Cano,  Yankees,  Lineup Protection

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Premium Article What You Need to Know:... (07/02)
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Premium Article Prospects Will Break Y... (07/02)

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