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Is lineup protection a myth or reality? It's both, and that paradox is telling

The idea of lineup protection is a site where inherited wisdom clashes with sabermetric analysis, but neither side is wrong about it.

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Lineup protection—the notion that stacking two great hitters together in the lineup will ensure that the first will receive quality pitches, and the converse idea that a lonely great hitter’s performance will suffer without a great hitter behind him—does not exist. Sabermetricicians have long held that lineup protection does not translate to positive results, and they have shown the same.

Lineup protection exists. One of the things about inherited baseball wisdom is that the maxims tend to come from individuals who have control of either enacting or hindering the action in question. They don’t just come from stubborn old broadcasters suspicious of new ideas. And in fact, those stubborn old men frequently used to be the ones in control of the practice of inherited wisdom on the baseball diamond.

David Laurila of FanGraphs recently supplied a number of quotes from players and managers who used to be. He asked them about lineup protection. The article is worth reading in full (as is Laurila’s excellent "Sunday Notes" column). Because these players and managers are the ones in control of the game, we should take their words seriously, even if they conflict with compelling studies that dispute their words.

Madison Bumgarner tries not to let a lineup built around protection—an existent thing for him—influence the way he approaches batters. But he views this avoidance as something he thinks can be improved about his game. "I should look over at the on-deck circle a lot of time," Bumgarner told FanGraphs, "but my pride gets the better of me." Bumgarner is more focused on the batter at hand rather than the sequence of batters that he, as a starter, has to confront multiple times a game. Indeed, Bumgarner asserts that by not accounting for protection in the opposition’s lineup, he’s not being as resourceful as he ought to be. He states: "I can’t remember a time that I looked over there and was actually smart about the situation." But Bumgarner does not view his willful neglect of protection as a total failure. Indeed, doing so might lead to him "giv[ing] in"—but he doesn’t "want to give in."

Tim Hudson, Bumgaraner’s teammate, thinks otherwise. "You’re foolish if you don’t look at the next hitter," Hudson posits. By internalizing the basic tenet of lineup protection, Hudson reifies it; however, his notion of lineup protection is less reductive than the myth of it. This is how Hudson sees it: "we know who in the lineup has had success against us and who hasn’t. If you have a guy on deck that you know doesn’t see you well, and there’s a guy in scoring position, and you’re facing a guy that sees you well, you’ve got to be smart. Pitch him tough, and take your chances with the guy on deck." For Hudson, lineup protection is contextual. It’s also not that different from the application of scouting reports and a memory of success or failure.

Tom Tango suggests that lineup protection positively manifests in just one measurable way, and it relates to what Bumgarner alludes to. Protection leads to a slight uptick in walks, which very well might be Bumgarner’s "giving in." If Bumgarner starts let his mind drift to the guy on deck rather than the one in the batter’s box, it might lead to nibbling and, possibly, a base on balls. He prefers to discount protection and instead attack the opposition. While walks are good for an offense, the idea of protection rests on the idea that the first of the two great hitters will receive better pitches to hit. In this regard, Tango suggests that lineup protection does not exist: protection "merely increases the ratio of walks to non-walks without significantly affecting how well the hitter performs if he isn’t actually walked."

Indeed, other pitchers are not as concerned with "giving in" as Bumgarner is and are willing to issue a walk. This qualitative evidence bolsters Tango’s quantitative one. Relief pitcher Kevin Jepsen, for instance, indicates that he works based on context. What is the score? Are there runners on base? Jepsen states that "the only time I’m really looking to see who’s on deck" once he has entered a game "is when there’s a base open." In other words, if there is already traffic, he’s going to do everything he can to record an out. But with a base open, he’s more amenable to trying to hit corners when facing a series of intimidating batters, even if it risks a walk.

CC Sabathia echoes Jepsen. Sabathia knows that lineup protection exists, but he doesn’t always allow it to change his approach. "I’m always conscious of [lineup protection], but I try not to change the way I pitch too much," Sabathia asserts. Sensibly, he goes on to say that he "tr[ies] to get everybody out, but if a certain situation calls for it, I’ll pitch around the zone a little." Adam Warren, Sabathia’ teammate, holds a similar position. As opposed to the beginning of the game, when lineup protection is a less pressing concern, he remarks that late in the game "you might pitch around a guy, or you might go right after him." And, in the end, "you have to be smart." Giving in isn’t necessarily a failure—it’s just a response to lineup protection.

The managers interviewed, Kevin Cash and Joe Girardi, have a more expansive idea of lineup protection; their idea of it is also grounded in context. For them, lineup protection exists insofar as every lineup is constructed to create the best possible results. "We factor in protection," Cash tells FanGraphs, "But it’s not just having that one guy in front of him, or behind him. That’s not the driving force when making a lineup." Girardi, presumably without consulting the Rays’ manager first, fleshes out what Cash implies: "I worry more about stacking lefties or stacking righties. I want righties between lefties, so it’s harder for them to match up against us later in the game."

Pitchers and managers are in control of the realization of lineup protection, while batters are the responders. And yet, they are also critical actors because they can modify their batting approach based on whether or not they believe themselves to be subject to the forces of lineup protection. They also act in accordance with lineup protection. Josh Donaldson, who currently finds himself in a lineup with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, states: "When you have guys behind you, they’re going to be more apt to make mistakes in the strike zone." Evan Longoria, in response to whether or not he thinks lineup protection is a thing, states that "it’s a question that answers itself. If you have somebody like Miguel Cabrera behind you, you’re going to get pitches to hit.

Indeed, Cabrera, a generational hitter, has been the subject of lineup protection analysis. It was quite the story when the Tigers signed Prince Fielder to hit behind him before the 2012 season. After the 2012 season, Jeff Sullivan made a genuine effort to identify an effect of lineup protection. That is, he searched for the results of the players’ intention to actualize their belief in the phenomenon. He didn’t find anything. The batter who finished sixth in all of baseball park adjusted offense, Fielder, did not change the way pitchers approached the batter who finished second, Cabrera. Cabrera did not receive fewer walks; his intentional walks were similar to other years; and the rate at which pitchers threw fastballs and first pitch fastballs didn’t change. There was no protection effect.

Sullivan’s 2012 findings corroborate a direct statement Donaldson offers and that many of the other players and managers cited above and in Laurila's account expressed in various forms: "People are going to pitch to you the way they’re going to pitch to you." While protection is on the mind of the managers and pitchers, it doesn’t trump the more immediate matter of pitching to the batter standing sixty feet away.

Lineup protection exists—it also doesn't. Baseball players are aware of lineup protection and modify their approach because of it, even though their managers might have a different idea entirely of what lineup protection means. Batters think about protection, too, and part of successful hitting is the ability to think with the game as it’s happening. However, modified approaches don’t alter results in any meaningful way, as analysts such as Tom Tango and Jeff Sullivan show.

The simultaneous existence and non-existence of lineup protection isn’t one of those "if you believe the lie, it’s true" sort of things because actors can make lineup protection true by action. Indeed, some of the quotes above indicate that they have put forth effort to do so. Baseball players and managers have made a concerted effort toward realizing lineup protection, and yet they have failed to do so. We're left without any evidence of an effect of protection.

But a paucity of evidence, in turn, leaves us with another sort of paradoxical truism that is at once boring and exciting. It all really boils down to a competition of talent between the pitcher and the batter—that’s baseball.


Eric Garcia McKinley is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. He writes about the Rockies for Purple Row, where he is also an editor. You can follow him on Twitter @garcia_mckinley.