An article on lineup protection by Ken Rosenthal inspired some thought on the state of the Yankees lineup. It has been widely speculated that Alex Rodriguez needs protection in order to hit at his best. Why people think this, I have no idea. He’s Alex freakin’ Rodriguez; shouldn’t he be the one protecting others in the lineup?
The short, short version of the protection myth: hitters benefit from having a power hitter behind them because a pitcher is more likely to pitch more cautiously and throw more strikes so that he won’t have to face said power hitter. Anecdotally, this makes a degree of sense. A pitcher working extra cautiously can be prone to making mistakes, and mistakes lead to big plays. Even absent a screw up, the increase in strikes should lead to more hittable pitches.
Ah, but what of the hitters in front of the power duo? Ryan Howard, via Rosenthal’s article, believes that the guys in front of him contribute to his success just as much as the guy behind him. This also makes a degree of anecdotal sense. Wouldn’t a pitcher become more cautious with a few men on base â€” particularly if they’re in scoring position â€” than he would in fear of the on-deck hitter?
In the Yankees lineup, batting Alex later seems to be the best choice. Sabermatricians may disagree, arguing that lineup order doesn’t have much affect on the number of runs it can produce. While that’s true in a purely statistical sense, Rosenthal makes an excellent point to the contrary:
The numbers that statistical analysts produce to debunk the importance of lineup protection are difficult to ignore. But those numbers are mere outcomes that reveal little about a pitcher’s process â€” his approach to an at-bat, a game situation, a lineup as a whole.
We obviously cannot measure these factors as they relate to a pitcher’s approach. This is why a study of the effect of lineup protection would likely yield less than accurate results. But that doesn’t mean we can’t put together a case based on circumstantial evidence, right?
The top of the Yankees order is filled with on-base machines. Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter and especially Bobby Abreu find themselves on base well more than the average player. Add Jason Giambi’s exquisite plate discipline and you have an excellent chance that Alex hits with plenty of men on base. Plus, don’t forget that dude hitting behind him…what’s his name…Hideki Matsui. He may not be Manny Ramirez, but he provides a more than adequate degree of protection.
I’ll admit that the next bit of evidence is a bit disingenuous. Nothing here speaks of the players hitting in front of Alex in these particular at bats, and it also comes with the caveat of a small sample size. All that aside, in 461 career plate appearances when batting in the fifth slot (roughly a season’s worth with a stint on the DL), his line is .334/.422/.641, good for a monstrous 1.063 OPS, his highest of any position in the batting order. Of course, he has much larger samples when hitting in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th spots. But it’s not like we’re working with a sample size of 40 plate appearances.
Many fans would object to this because they don’t want Alex hitting with men on base. “He chokes,” they say. “And he was pressing last season,” they add, and in both instances they’re not wholly inaccurate. However, in 294 at bats with runners on last season, his OPS was .938 (.293/.404/.534). Not too shabby.
The Yankees high on-base guys, combined with Alex’s career trends, is, I believe, reason enough to place him fifth in the order, at least to start the season. The guys ahead of him will afford him many opportunities to hit with men on base, and the guys behind him — from Hideki to Jorge to Robby (sorry, MInkie) — basically make protection in the Yankee order a non-issue.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson