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July 2, 2013

Overthinking It

Robinson Cano and the Latest Debate About Lineup Protection

by Ben Lindbergh

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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.

First, the strikes:

Year

Pitches

Zone Rate

2013

1260

47.5

2012

2428

45.2

Entering Monday’s game, Cano had seen more pitches inside the typically called strike zone, according to BP’s PITCHf/x plate discipline stats, than he did during his 2012 career year. And here’s the fastball breakdown, according to Brooks Baseball’s pitch-type classifications:

Year

4-Seam

Sinker

Cutter

All Fastball

2013

38.1%

20.6%

6.4%

65.1%

2012

34.1%

21.8%

8.0%

63.8%

Cano has seen slightly fewer sinkers and cutters, but more four-seam fastballs. On the whole, he’s seen more hard stuff than he did last season. The biggest difference, aside from the increase in four-seam fastballs, has been a decrease in curves.

Even if pitchers aren’t pitching around Cano, they are making more of an effort to avoid him entirely: through 81 games, Cano had drawn 10 intentional walks, equaling his 2012 total (the tables above exclude intentional balls). That’s a difference, though it’s not one that would explain why Cano’s stats, as Girardi acknowledges, are “not quite where they are expected to be.” It’s possible that Cano is seeing fewer strikes and/or fastballs in certain situations, but if pitchers are being more careful when he comes up with runners in scoring position, it hasn’t hurt his production. (He’s hit better w/RISP than he did last year, and while he’s come up with fewer batters on base, he’s driven in a higher percentage of them, putting him ahead of his 2012 RBI pace.)

It’s also possible that the plate discipline and pitch type stats have been skewed somewhat by a different distribution of base-out states when Cano has come up, since he’s been batting second or third for an offensively impoverished team instead of third or fourth for one that could be called the “Bombers” without any irony. But the changes since last season in the percentage of Cano’s plate appearances with runners in scoring position (26.3 percent to 24.1 percent) and the percentage of his PA with bases empty (51.5 percent to 53.5 percent) are slight. And it seems unlikely that after half a season, he could have faced a pool of pitchers who throw many more fastballs or have much better control. We can’t rule out the possibility that if Cano feels less protected, he could be less confident at the plate. But blaming Cano’s struggles on the psychological effects of a lack of lineup protection seems about as sound as crediting his successes to his contract year—which could be either an incentive or a distraction, depending on your narrative—or the fact that his birth sign is on the Ascendant.

Cano, not beat writers or bloggers, will be the one who either kills this story or gives the latest iteration of the protection debate legs. If last night is any indication, he’s going to kill it, and quickly. With Vernon Wells—who entered the game hitting .184/.205/.274 since the end of April, and at this point offers about as much protection as an NL pitcher— batting behind him, Cano went 3-for-4 with two home runs, a double, and a walk. And with all of those extra bases under his belt, his stat line looks, well…a lot like last season’s. He has a higher walk rate, the same strikeout rate, and essentially the same ISO, with the only difference being about 30 points of BABIP and 20 points of batting average.

The Yankees have some serious offensive issues, and in light of how poorly their third basemen have hit—.231/.293/.315—A-Rod’s return might help solve some of them, however little he has left as a fragile about-to-be-38-year-old. But as much as New York has missed its disabled stars, Cano’s individual performance doesn’t seem to have suffered.

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

Related Content:  Robinson Cano,  Yankees,  Lineup Protection

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