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Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Protection: Fact or Fiction?

Dylan takes a crack at one of the most hotly contested stathead/non-stathead debates.

One of the most traditionally accepted baseball assumptions is that of "hitting protection."  Specifically that a big bat hitting behind the batter helps him offensively.  We most recently heard this confirmed in 2002 with Jeff Kent moving in front of Barry Bonds in the SF Giants batting order.  Batting order "protection" is so often heard spouted out by broadcasters and fans, it?s hard to label it a "theory"?it?s more like a given "truth."  On the other hand, some assume it doesn?t exist at all.  I decided to see what the data itself showed.  This, of course, is more of a study for fun than a real impact on the game itself.


The common sense theory of "protection" is that the pitcher wants to avoid a walking a hitter in front of a big masher who can drive him in.  Thus a hitter with "protection" should see more strikes.  Since everyone knows this (pitcher, batter, manager, fans, announcers, GM?s who trade for "protectors," etc.), the batter has an advantage.  This advantage will logically help the hitter at the plate produce better numbers.


A few studies have tried to verify whether this protection advantage exists, and if so, how large this advantage is.  [After all, baseball ultimately is a game of numbers: hits, walks, runs, wins, championships, dollars, etc.]  The most notable study I?m aware of was done by David Grabiner for the 1991 AL (  He found that there was no conclusive evidence that protection existed on a league wide scale in the 1991 AL.


I followed Grabiner?s approach for my study of 2002 National League hitters.  As I describe the method, I think the following perspective might help.  This study is focusing on the individual "protectees", not the individual "protectors."  Think of a "protector" in the on deck circle as a "split factor" just like other "split factors" (day-night, home-road, LHP-RHP, "clutch"-"non-clutch", etc).  If Rich Aurilla qualified (he doesn?t) it doesn?t matter whether Barry Bonds or Jeff Kent is the "protector"?we?d only be looking at his "protected" vs. "unprotected" split


Below are my classifications in order to help structure the study:


  • "Protector": A batter who?s slugging percentage (SLG %) was .500 or higher and qualified for the batting title according to (502 plate appearances I assume).
  • "Protectees": Having at least 75 AB?s in front of a protector and at least 75 AB?s not in front of a protector


The statistics that were collected are at bats, hits, walks, total bases, and strikeouts. Batting average (AVG), on-base percentage (OBP), slugging percentage (SLG), & "on-base plus slugging" OPS were then generated from these components.  (Please note, "OBP" is not the "official version" because it lacks hit by pitch & sacrifice fly adjustments) (they cite STATS as their source) was used initially.  From their "sortable stats" page, the "qualified" filter was used to identify the "protectors" by sorting the SLG column.  For each "protectee," under splits, their batting order distribution was noted.  Most classic sluggers don?t move around in the batting order much?when Barry Bonds & Jeff Kent did it was news.  Mark Bellhorn was an exception, but since many of his at bats were in the leadoff spot, we weren?t going study his protection of Kerry Wood?s at bats?this year.  Then each team was studied and "protectee" candidates were identified, again using splits.  To weed out pinch-hitting effects (and to make the data gathering more efficient), any spot in batting order splits that had 15 or fewer AB?s was excluded.  Therefore the totals for all batters will not necessarily equal their totals for 2002.  (This applied to both protectors and protectees).


If a protectee had more than 15 AB?s in a batting order spot that was isolated from any possible teammate protector, those were counted as "unprotected" otherwise, for potential "protectees"?Retrosheet was used to review individual box scores and match up games between protectees & protectors.


For the sake of simplicity, the starting lineup was used.  If a protectee was listed in front of a protector, he was credited for all that game?s totals as "protected."  If a protectee was not in front of a protector, his totals for that game were "unprotected."  The assumption was that the pitcher didn?t know the protector in the on-deck circle was going to be removed for next inning for defense, he forgot, etc.

Data Results:

Using the classifications stated above, there were 23 protectors and 27 protectees. Out of those 27 protectees, 11 of them saw an improved performance in OPS hitting in front of a protector, while 16 of them saw a decrease in performance. By looking at (BB+K)/PA as an estimation of players seeing more strikes, we see that 15 batters had an increase in (BB+K)/PA with a protector behind them, while 11 had a lower (Sosa had almost the exact % here). TB/H gives us a good estimation of how hard the balls were that the batters hit were. 13 of the batters had a higher amount of bases per hit with a protector behind them while 14 were lower.


Looking at overall performance by totaling the 27 protectee?s stats together, it looks like OPS increase by about 3.5%, (BB+K)/PA increased by about 6.4% and TB/H increased by about 2%. The data can be seen here.


Some of the potential limitations of this study include arbitrary selection of the definitions that would leave off potential protectors or protectees.  This includes players who might have a reputation without the performance (pitchers don?t look at SLG %), or players who have the production but not the required AB?s. Another method could have been to look at career SLG% instead of just the 2002 season. There is also the potential to have noise in the data regarding certain batters hitting in certain positions. If a certain batter were more comfortable leading off than hitting 3rd but happens to not be protected leading off, how much would this affect his production? A third issue is a protectee?s performance relative to his protectors. In other words, can anyone really protect Bonds v2002?


Dylan Wright Posted: July 01, 2003 at 06:00 AM | 11 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. John Posted: July 01, 2003 at 02:23 AM (#611966)
I don't think that your selection of firm, fixed points for protection help in the specific context of these players. I'd be more looking at what happens when a player has a guy batting behind him who isn't markedly worse (in other words Barry Bonds' 2002 can not be protected short of Ted Williams or Babe Ruth) rather than simply an arbitrary designation of a .500 SLG. The reason I'd look at it this way is this, even if Jeff Kent is a solid hitter behind Barry Bonds, are you really going to pitch to Bonds because of Kent?
   2. Dylan Wright Posted: July 01, 2003 at 02:24 AM (#611974)
I definately agree that there is a context in the study of protecting a player; however, I was attempting to ride the line between the objective approach and the "old school" beliefs. I think a lot of people here would agree with the question of "Can you protect Bonds?", but Alou was quoted earlier this month saying "I've got to look for the best protection for Barry, and Durham is really hot right now," (

The base-out situation would be a definate step foreward in hashing this out to more detail. A very good suggestion.

The hitter whose split stuck out the most to me was Sheffield. His Unprotected OPS was half of his Protected OPS.
   3. Dylan Wright Posted: July 01, 2003 at 02:24 AM (#611982)
Uh, that should be pitches seen. A typo on my part, sorry. Good catch
   4. Walt Davis Posted: July 01, 2003 at 02:24 AM (#611985)
Interesting article, but what really needs to be addressed is whether the differences are statistically significant. On the one hand, looking at the totals, all the "unprotected" numbers are lower, which does suggest tht something was probably going on. On the other hand, looking at total OBP and using the binomial distribution, we see that, even in 15,894 PA, the 95% confidence interval around that .358 mean is +/- .0076, putting the protected/unprotected split numbers well within random variation.
   5. Walt Davis Posted: July 01, 2003 at 02:24 AM (#611994)
Unfortunately, I think the "theory of protection" is, or should be, more complicated than that.

Take the case of Alex Gonzalez of the Cubs, who spent at least the first part of the year hitting mostly in front of Sammy Sosa. So sure, you don't want Gonzalez to be on base when Sosa comes to the plate, so in some sense you'd change the way you pitch to him and throw him more strikes. On the other hand, Gonzalez has always had a pretty poor OBP, so if your goal is to minimize his OBP, you should pitch him exactly the way you always have (especially with no one on base). What these numbers suggest is that pitchers would pitch to Gonzalez in such a way that his OBP goes up a bit -- which of course makes no sense at all.

That's the paradox of protection. Assume the point from the pitcher's perspective is to keep the guy off the bases. But if protection works the way its supporters say (and these data suggest), the batter is reaching base more often. So if the only rationale for pitching a batter with protection differently is to keep him off base, pitchers are failing at it.

For protection to exist and for these numbers to make sense, it seems there must be some sort of strange game theoretic model operating based on the notion of "not letting Sammy beat us," though it's hard to see how it's better to let Gonzalez beat you.

Or maybe it really operates from the batter's perspective more than the pitcher's. Gonzalez, when a bottom-of-the-order hitter, figures he's the last/best hope to generate some offense and expands his strike zone, but when hitting near the top becomes more selective.

Or maybe the pitcher is doing his best to keep the guy off base but the batter is doing his best to reach base and the two effects cancel each other out and there's no protection. :-)
   6. jeff angus Posted: July 01, 2003 at 02:24 AM (#611996)
I agree w/the already-noted point that context is vital in protection specifics. To elaborate, the "protected" hitter's output will be strongly affected by his delta from his "protector", so in the series Edmonds-Pujols-Rolen, a great protector is kind of trivial for the first two because there's too much firepower to just throw strikes and hope for an out. You put those gents in any order (presuming theey're all in the same level of groove, and there'll be only the rarest of changes in pitcher behaviours.

OTOH, a Rolen-Taguchi-Metheny series should have a stronger component depending on the order. My conclusion: Higher deltas should result in higher "effects".

Another big factor is the kind of hitter the "protected" is. If he's Manny Sanguillen (he throws, I swing and make contact) it should make a lot less difference than if the protected is someone who works off the theory you only get one good pitch to hit per PA.

I think these factors and many others like them make it near-impossible to get enough data to get to significance. But I still enjoyed reading the work resulting from the effort.
   7. Ned Garvin: Male Prostitute Posted: July 01, 2003 at 02:24 AM (#611997)
Bonds can most definitely be protected. Imagine Bonds is batting 3rd, and Jeff Kent is batting 4th. Now, imagine Bonds is batting 3rd, and Jeff Kunkel is batting 4th. Nobody would ever pitch to Bonds, in any situation, ever.
   8. OCF Posted: July 01, 2003 at 02:24 AM (#612001)
The problem with the whole concept has always been the word itself - "protection." This leads one to focus, as this study did, on the performance of the player allegedly being protected. The typical sportwriter or average fan says, "We need to get a good hitter to bat behind our Babe so the big guy will see better pitches." But that's at best a trivial reason. The Babe is going to do what he does in any case, including that he's going to draw a whole lot of walks no matter who's batting behind him. For that, you don't want protection, you want revenge: you want the other guys to pay for the walk. Well, maybe "revenge" isn't the right word either - the Babe's going to create a lot of opportunities for the guy after him, and you want someone who will turn those opportunities into runs.

The focus on "protection" also diverts attention from the batters in front of the big guy, who have far more influence on the big guy's RBI's than the guys after him.

An example from 1987: For the Cubs, Andre Dawson batted 4th, and led the league in both HR and RBI. But Dawson drew only 32 walks. Leon Durham batted behind Dawson, and had a .513 SLG, missing a month of the season. Durham only had 63 RBI's, and his season was widely regarded as a failure. For the Cardinals, Jack Clark (who also missed a month of the season) was the big guy batting cleanup - and drawing 136 walks. Batting 5th was Willie McGee, having a typical McGee year, with a .434 SLG. Was Dawson better "protected" than Clark? Does that question even matter? With about the same total playing time, Dawson + Durham had 137 + 63 = 200 RBI and Clark + McGee had 106 + 105 = 211 RBI. It's very hard to see how McGee or Durham had any effect on the performance of Clark and Dawson. Similarly, Clark and Dawson probably didn't have much effect on the performance (OPS or any other such raw measure) of Durham and McGee, but they had such a huge effect on the RBI's that it colored the whole public perception of Durham and McGee.

Incidentally, it wasn't silly to use McGee as a "protection" batter - you could use Ichiro in that role. If one run matters, and the Babe just got intentionally or semi-intentionally walked, isn't it the next guy's batting average that makes the most difference?

Vaguely related side issue: can anyone explain why the 2001 Giants scored so few runs?
   9. Walt Davis Posted: July 02, 2003 at 02:24 AM (#612011)
In addition to his main point, unc84steve raises (unintentionally?) another potentially complicating factor -- platoon splits. Frequently a batter's spot in the order is a function of the handedness of the starting pitcher. For example (because I'm replaying the 84 season in DM right now), for the 84 Cubs, Durham batted 4th against righties but often (especially early in the season) 7th against lefties. When batting 4th, he was "protected"; when batting 7th, he had Bowa behind him ... but when batting 4th he was usually facing a rightie while batting 7th he was usually facing a leftie. So what might look like protection effects could be platoon effects (or possibly vice versa). With sufficient PAs the handedness of the pitcher could be controlled for ... but the number of cases with a sufficient number of PAs are probably relatively few.
   10. tangotiger Posted: July 02, 2003 at 02:24 AM (#612021)
I think that the biggest problem is with the word "Protection", as others have mentioned.

Of course pitchers pitch differently to batters, depending on many factors (inning, score, base, out, speed of runners, batters on deck, and due up, park, etc, etc). The question is: what is the impact of each of these variables on the outcome of the PA? It cannot and can never be "no impact". There's always some impact. As a sabermetrician, his job is to figure out the degree of impact, within a certain confidence interval.

Asking a pitcher is really irrelevant. We know what he'll say, and we agree with him. "Yes, under certain conditions, I'll pitch that guy differently than in these other conditions".
   11. Dylan Wright Posted: July 05, 2003 at 02:25 AM (#612045)
Dan, what you are arguing for is, in essence, "weak protection". I think there is a consensus that weak protection exist in at least the obvious form of a pitcher hitting (or if they suited up you or I on the field); however, "strong protection" isn't as clear cut.

I think this might be similar to DIPS in that there is an obvious "weak" side but once you reach a certain level of ability the "strong" side seems to be random (or at least appear so as other factors out weigh it by so much).

We are not able to make a distinction between hitting in front on Sosa or hitting in front of Bill Mueller even though we know Sosa is the more feared player and is the more productive player.

If there is one thing I've learned, it's that assuming "common wisdom" is correct in the baseball world.

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