Power hitters are said to offer protection to those batting before them in the lineup. The idea is that with a force warming up on deck, a pitcher will throw more strikes in hopes that he won’t be giving the opposing hitter a free pass and an RBI or that a batter will make contact and make an out. Personally, I don’t think that’s really ever the case and I doubt lineup protection exists at all. If it did, it stands to reason that only the very best slugger would have an effect on his preceding teammate’s performance. There is no arguing that Chris Davis was one of the league’s best hitters in 2013, finishing with 53 home runs and MVP consideration. Did Davis’ presence in the Orioles lineup help out Adam Jones, the most common player to bat in front of him?
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Without a definitive 2012 lineup to work off of, I had to go based on this preview of the team’s 2012 lineup from Yahoo! It affirms what I remember from 2012: Adam Jones batted ahead of Matt Wieters, who often batted fourth for some reason I never quite understood. In 2013, Jones usually batted fourth and Davis batted fifth. Davis also made 151 plate attempts batting third and 101 plate attempts batting fourth, 37.4% of his total plate attempts in 2013. That’s a pretty significant share of his plate attempts (as it should have been, since he led the team in both OBP and SLG), but for this exercise, his position in the lineup isn’t particularly important. What is important is that Jones spent most of 2012 in front of an inferior hitter, so a comparison of the two years can point to the existence of lineup protection.
In 2012, Adam Jones walked in an astoundingly low 4.9% of his plate attempts. He walked 34 times in 2012. Jones batted .287 and slugged .505, respectable figures for a budding star center fielder. If Jones was poor at taking free passes in 2012, he was awful in 2013, and those ratings are directly from the FanGraphs Sabermetrics Library. He walked just 3.6% of the time1 and got to take a leisurely stroll to first only 25 times in 2013. His batting rate statistics didn’t actually take that great of a hit, with Jones batting .285 and slugging .493.2
Outcomes may not be the best measure here. Jones matured physically, may have been given more leeway to swing for the fences, and may have totally forgotten that throwing a breaking ball in the dirt was a legal maneuver and not one that he was compelled to hack at. To remove these and other outside effects, we can look at what kind of pitches he actually saw and where he saw them.
If pitchers were worried about giving Jones an easy base because Davis was behind him, it would be expected that they’d throw him more pitches inside the zone to take the opportunity for walks away. Instead, pitchers started going outside the zone more often against Jones. 43.2% of the pitches Jones saw in 2012 were inside the strike zone, a figure that fell (if only slightly) to 42.1% in 2013. He did see a higher percentage of first-pitch strikes in 2013 (64.6%) than in 2012 (63.7%), which could be argued was a result of pitchers trying to get ahead and getting a better chance to make an out knowing that Davis was coming up.
There are two issues with this argument: this minuscule change may be the result of random chance and not even statistically significant, and Jones pushed his swinging strike percentage up by a full point from 2012 to 2013 and missed more pitches inside the strike zone (82.9% Z-Contact% in 2013 against 86.5% in 2012). He may have been seeing the exact same pitches to start the at bat and just flat out missing them.
Finally, Jones didn’t even get more fastballs thrown to him. Because they move the least, fastballs are the easiest pitches to hit. 31.9% of pitches Jones saw in 2013 were 4-seam or unclassified fastballs, compared to 34.4% of the same types in 2012. 2012 and 2013 were also the two years in which Jones saw the lowest percentage of fastballs.
If Jones actually got better pitches to hit, which it appears that he didn’t, he didn’t do a better job of hitting them hard. His LD% in 2012 was 21% compared to 20% in 2013. His HR/FB rate in 2013 was not appreciably better in 2013 (14.2%) than 2012 (13.9%), and his HR% was more or less the same (4.8% in 2013 versus 4.6% in 2012).
Simply put, Adam Jones in almost no ways improved at the plate in 2013. Given his walk tallies, it’s probably not surprising that Jones swung at 59% of pitches in 2013 compared to 55% of pitches in 2012. And let’s be honest about his abilities: Jones is a big, strong hitter and asking him to hit fewer XBH in favor of taking a few more walks would be a disservice to the team. It’s not too much to ask that he do a better job of taking pitches in the dirt, but that may be the price of letting Jones grow into a true power-hitting center fielder.
There is one last argument in favor of the lineup protection provided by Chris Davis: Jones actually did get better pitches to hit, it’s just that his most free-swinging and worst year in terms of SwStr% cancelled out any potential gains he could possibly have accrued. Maybe pitchers realized that they didn’t need to throw him fastballs to get him out; they threw him offspeed and breaking pitches and let him swing through it. In that case, I’d argue that pitchers were treating his at-bats as an independent event and not necessarily trying to stay inside the zone because Chris Davis was up next. And further, let’s see what happens in 2014.
Until then, I can’t say that my opinion of lineup protection has changed.
1 Just… wow. That really is horrendous.
2 Believe it or not, Jones was 4th on the team in OBP despite his seriously terrible walk rate. Behind him were Manny Machado (who apparently spent too much time living with Jones and took just 29 BBs), JJ Hardy, and Matt Wieters. Wieters took 43 walks, close to twice as many as Jones took, and had a BB% of 7.4%, but hit so poorly that his OBP was still .031 points worse than Jones’.