Little Myth Can’t Be Wrong (Or Can It?): Lineup Protection

You like that title? I came up with it after hearing a guy with a lisp covering a Spin Doctors ditty at karaoke night. Okay, that’s not true, but I bet you’re gonna have a tough time getting that little earworm out of your head at this point.

No, I wanted to come up with something that might be catchy enough to serve as an ongoing series in which I examine a commonly-held baseball belief to see whether it’th myth or truth. Other contenders were Did You Myth Me, Did I Myth Something, and Hits & Mythes. Now I jutht hope I can keep my tongue out of my teeth after reading this little mondegreen over and over.

But perhaps that’s fitting, since the new-look Cubs are becoming the poster team for incorrect pronunciation (Alcantara, Szczur, Soler, etc). They’re also becoming much more exciting, thanks to those same names, not to mention those that put less stress on the American-English speech patterns.

Yes, the Cubs are starting to hit and to score runs (they have hung a nice crooked number of 5 on the Cards in the 1st inning as I’m writing this), giving everyone some hope for the future. Where Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro had once been the only bright spots in the lineup, those two cornerstones now appear to have a great deal of the foundation built up around them.

Dare I say they’ve now got protection in the lineup, the kind of support that will make both young All-Stars even better in the future? Well, the old guard baseball man in me wants to say “Of course they do,” while the avant garde student of the game says, “no such thing.”

It’s long been thought that the addition of stronger hitter on deck would force a pitcher to change his approach with the man at the plate, particularly out of fear that he’d put the batter on base ahead of a strong offensive player. The trouble is, there’s really no solid empirical data to support this.

That’s right, despite the common-sense idea that a pitcher would be trying to limit damage in the future, all signs point to the fact that they do indeed focus on the man at the plate. In other words, they aren’t up there calculating the next batter’s WRC+ and wOBA and thinking, “Whoa, bruh.”

If you’d like a really in-depth review of the absence of the lineup protection, take a look at this great piece by FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan about Miguel Cabrera in Detroit. In short, whether he was backed by Brennan Boesch and Carol Guillen or Prince Fielder, his results were very much the same. His Triple Crown came, interestingly enough, while backed by a Prince, but it was more a result of the rest of the league regressing than it was Cabrera being better.

Then again, just because something can’t necessarily be seen and measured doesn’t mean it’s not there, right? Take gravity, for instance. Wait, no, that can in fact be measured. Though before we learned that the Earth is round, the prevailing thought was that we were all walking around on a flat surface. Could lineup protection be the same thing?

The idea of a better hitter providing protection does certainly have its merits. Baseball is a mental game and even the slightest lapses can lead to mistakes. If a pitcher did indeed start to think about a potential murderer’s row awaiting him after the batter in the box, he might hang a pitch or two. And he’d also be wary of walking said batter, thereby giving him more pitches to hit.

And better hitters in the lineup often means better plate approaches, which would translate to more pitches thrown and seen. That would seem to provide an advantage to all the hitters in a given lineup. But therein lies the rub: lineup protection does exist, just not in the sense in which we typically think of it.

Rather than act as a bodyguard for the man in front of him, a better hitter in the lineup is a boon to the whole team. After all, a rising tide lifts all ships, not just one. And in the case of the Cubs, both now and in the future, it may even be working the other way around. They’ve been adding so many ships that the volume of water they’ve displaced has increased the tide.

It’s also possible, particularly in the Cubs’ case, that the protection comes in the form of a psychological boost. The attitude in the clubhouse has surely improved just as it has in the stands; make no mistake, confidence is the original PED. And it’s got to feel better for Castro and Rizzo to not be forced to carry the load alone any longer.

So while it certainly appears that the time-held theory of lineup protection has been disproved, there’s no doubt that a better lineup in general is going to produce better results. And if that sounds incredibly obvious, it’s because it is. A better hitter doesn’t make the guy in front of him a more dangerous hitter, he simply improves the team because, well, he’s a better hitter than the guy they had previously employed in his spot.

I’m sorry if I’ve debunked a romantic notion that you’ve been holding all this time. I must admit that I’m a little disappointed myself. But c’est la vie, I guess. There are plenty more baseball myths out there though, and I’ll be here to run some fact-checks. If you have myth you’d like me to profile, leave it in the comments or tweet me.




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