Leadoff Protection

May 15, 2014
  
A baseball player has been talking recently about ‘protection’ in the lineup. This wouldn’t ordinarily be news, except that the baseball player chirping about protection happened to be Cincinnati-by-way-of-Canada slugger Joey Votto, a fervent proselytizer of the virtues of on-base percentage in the dusty (Baker) wasteland of the Reds clubhouse. 
 
Phrased differently: if any superstar slugger was going to explain why lineup protect doesn’t exist – why, say, the departure of Prince Fielder will have no bearing on the pitches Miguel Cabrera sees in 2014 – that player would probably be the Queen City Canuck.
 
And Votto, true-to-form, has explained away the myth of a hitter batting behind him offering protection in the lineup. Instead, the first baseman has posited that Billy Hamilton, the Reds blazingly fast rookie centerfielder, will offer Votto protection in front of him in the order.
 
Paradigm: meet thy shift.
 
Votto’s thesis is simple enough: when Billy Hamilton is on base in front of him, Votto is going to see more fastballs, because the pitcher and catcher won’t want to give the human cheetah standing at first an extra heartbeat to reach second. Votto has also suggests that he will see better pitches: pitches that are more in the zone, and easier to hit: 
 
[Pitchers] changing their approach against me and spending their time and energy…or at least splitting their focus between me and [Hamilton]. I saw several pitches that split the plate or in a part of the strike zone I never ever would’ve gotten before because of him…I personally noticed a difference last season. (Votto talking to Lance McAllister, ESPN 1350)
 
This makes an intuitive sense: a pitcher, distracted by a last second glance at Billy Hamilton dancing over at first, might be more prone to missing corners with their fastballs.
 
Jason Collette over at FanGraphs has already looked into whether or not Votto has seen more fastballs this year….I’ll link his article and not give away his conclusion.
 
I thought I’d take a different tack, and check out a few recent Big Stolen Base Seasons, to see whether or not there’s any evidence of protection for the #2 hitters. Do #2 hitters tend to see an uptick in performance when there’s a really big stolen base threat hitting ahead of them?
 
 
*          *          *
 
Base Stealer
Year
SB
#2 hitter
Rickey Henderson
1982
130
Dwayne Murphy
 
Starting with the single-season record holder for stolen bases, and the career record holder: did Rickey’s epic 1982 season help Dwayne Murphy see better pitches?
 
Murphy’s baseline abilities as a hitter are a little difficult to figure out, because he spent the bulk of his peak hitting behind Henderson. 1979 was Murphy’s first full year in the majors, and it was Henderson’s first half-season …by July of that year they were hitting 1-2 in the Oakland lineup, an order that wouldn’t change through the 1982 season. Murphy posted an OPS+ of 120 over those years.
 
In 1983 Murphy was moved down in the order, slotting either 3rd or 4thon the old card. This might’ve had something to do with the 1982 season: while Henderson broke the major league record for steals in a season, Murphy hit a paltry .232 from the #2 spot in the lineup. In a little over 100 plate appearances batting third, Murphy hit .324, with an OPS nearing 1.000. It’s possible that Murphy, noticing that he had posted much better numbers in the 3rd spot in the lineup, asked to be moved down.
 
If Murphy did request a lower slot in the batting order, it didn’t pan out for him: Dwayne set career lows across his triple-slash line in 1983, hitting .227 with an OPS of just .694. He moved back to the #2 spot the next year and rebounded mightily. When Rickey packed his bags for the bright lights of the Bronx, Murphy’s percentages held steady. 
 
But was he actually holding his own without Henderson? Baseball Reference’s Offensive WAR suggests that Murphy was a much better hitter hitting behind Henderson than he was hitting behind anyone else:
 
Year
oWAR
Notes
1979
2.6
Henderson's rookie year, half-a-season
1980
4.5
Ronald Reagan ushers in new era of prosperity for the already prosperous.
1981
3.4
Stee-rike!
1982
4.7
Henderson sets the record
1983
1.0
Murphy drops to hitting 3rd or 4th
1984
4.6
Murphy back to the #2 spot
1985
2.7
Henderson goes to the Yankees.
1986
2.0
Challenger. Buckner. Ugh.
1987
1.3
A record called Joshua Tree is released by some guys from Ireland.
1988
0.7
E-mail debuts. Tom Browning throws a perfect game.
1989
0.7
The Berlin Wall Falls. Will Clark has a monster year. 
 
Dwayne Murphy, at least by this metric, was about a four-win hitter when he was batting behind Rickey Henderson. When he was hitting somewhere else in the lineup, and when Rickey left Oakland, Murphy’s value as a hitter decreased. 
 
It’s tough to draw conclusions on Dwayne Murphy, because so much of his career was spent hitting behind Henderson. But there’s some evidence that Murphy was a better hitter batting behind Rickey Henderson, even if he didn’t like it too much.
 
 
*          *          *
 
Base Stealer
Year
SB
#2 hitter
Lou Brock
1974
118
Ted Sizemore
 
Ted Sizemore was a high-contact, low power infielder who won the Rookie of the Year in 1969, before being traded to the Cardinals in 1971.
 
Lou Brock was a star when Sizemore arrived: a fast leadoff hitter who had paced the NL in steals four times. Sizemore became the #2 hitter for the Cardinals halfway through the 1971 season, a spot he’d hold (more or less) for the next four seasons.
 
Sizemore was never a great hitter: he doesn’t compare to Dwayne Murphy, and he can’t hold a candle to Joey Votto. His counting stats declined when Brock went for the record in 1974…Sizemore posted career lows across his triple-slash lines with Brock running wild…but it wasn’t anything new for Sizemore to see someone running ahead of him, and his decline could just as easily be age related. There’s not much evidence here.
 
 
*          *          *
 
Base Stealer
Year
SB
#2 hitter
Vince Coleman
1985
110
Willie McGee
 
Willie McGee had – by a comfortable margin - the best season of his professional career when Vince Van Go broke into the big leagues in 1985.
 
McGee hit all over the lineup during the preceding season, hitting leadoff about a third of the time and batting 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, or 7th  for about a dozen games. He hit .291, with a 103 OPS+, which was comfortably in line with his established level of play.
 
Coleman came up the next year, and the Cards lineup settled in after him. Side-note a’comin’: one of the ancillary benefits of a clear leadoff hitter, methinks, is that they give more structure to the rest of the lineup. I think teams do better when they have the right lineups….when everyone knows where, approximately, they fit into the offense. Having a burner at the top of the order simplifies things for everyone else. It’s just a theory, but I’d love to see (someone else) spend a decade checking up on it.
 
McGee settled into the #2 spot, and had a monster season, pacing the league in batting average (.353) hits (216) and triples (18) while stealing 56 bases and winning a Gold Glove in center. He won the MVP and clearly deserved it, unless you’re the kind of person who thinks pitchers should be eligible for the MVP. Those people didn’t exist in 1985: McGee (8.1 rWAR) received 14 first-place votes, while only one voter picked Dwight Gooden (13.2 rWAR)
 
This might be proof of Votto’s theory, expect McGee’s advantage didn’t carry over into 1986. Vince Coleman was still stealing bases at a century-clip, but McGee’s batting line dropped precipitously. He was especially bad out of the #2 slot, hitting just .263 with a .701 OPS. In 1987, dropped down to the fifth spot, McGee had a slight bounce-back, hitting .285 and driving in 105 runners.
 
So while McGee had a brilliant uptick in performance during Year One of the Vince Coleman Era, that uptick didn’t last. It’s interesting, though.
 
 
*          *          *
 
Base Stealer
Year
SB
#2 hitter
Maury Wills
1962
104
Jim Gilliam
 
After stealing 35 bases in 50 attempts in 1961, Maury Wills decided he wasn’t cut out for this base-stealing stuff, and decided to focus on other elements to his game.
 
Just kidding: Wills doubled-down on the crazy, becoming the first player since Original Recipe Billy Hamilton to cross the century mark in stolen bases.
 
Jim Gilliam was the guy hitting behind Wills. His batting lines didn’t change appreciably when Wills had his MVP season. Not that Gilliam (65 career homers) is a useful comparable to Joey Votto.
 
 
*          *          *
 
Base Stealer
Year
SB
#2 hitter
Ron LeFlore
1980
97
Rodney Scott
 
The difficulty of this project is the multitude of variables at play: maybe Willie McGee had his career year because pitchers were worried about Coleman, and maybe McGee had a career year because he tried a different batting stance, or he was taking fish oil supplements, or he just lucked into a few extra hits on balls in play.
 
One of the reasons this isn’t a mathy article is because the math wouldn’t likely be relevant. Even if we found that batters hit 10% better when they were hitting behind a speedy leadoff guy, it’d be difficult to know that that improvement had any direct relationship to the speedster hitting in front of them. A marked improvement could, for instance, be entirely attributable to age: #2 hitters are often middle-level contact bats, players who don’t have long careers. It’s possible that a jump, say, in OPS+, would just be related entirely to age: #2 hitters are likely to be playing at the peak of their abilities and would be expected to hit better than their career averages…when their decline happens, they drop to the 7-8-9 spots in the order.
 
Anyway…getting to the immortal Ron LeFlore.
 
LeFlore was traded to LeExpos for Dan Schatzeder in 1980, and then signed with the White Sox as a free agent in 1981. Rodney Scott played in Montreal in 1979-1981, and was actually the primary #2 hitter for all three of those years, so we’re getting something close to a ‘clean’ sample here. We have:
 
1)      An elite stolen base player who shows up for a year and then leaves, and:
2)      A #2 hitter who hits in that spot before, during, and after the speedster.
 
Perfect confluence. How did ‘Cool Breeze’ Rodney Scott do?
 
Just about the same. Scott posted a .613 OPS in 1979, hitting behind Andre Dawson. In 1980, with LeFlore at the front, Scott posted a .600 OPS. In 1981 he posted a .558 OPS.
 
That’s a minimal decline in 1981, and we can’t pin it on the absence of LeFlore: Tim Raines took over the leadoff gig that year, so Cool Breeze was still hitting behind a stolen base threat. 
 
There are a lot of cases that are exactly like LeFlore and Scott (or Brock and Sizemore): situations where you have an elite base stealer at the leadoff spot, and a contact-hitting middle-infielder hitting second to take pitches and move the runner along. The 1980 Pirates are another example: Omar Moreno stealing 96 bases…the #2 hitter was Tim Foli, a middle infielder with a career triple-slash line of .251/.283/.309.
 
These aren’t great hitters. For this to have any relevance to Votto and the Reds, we need to find some real bats.
 
 
*          *          *
 
Base Stealer
Year
SB
#4 Hitter
Tim Raines
1984
75
Andre Dawson, Gary Carter
 
Okay…we’ve got Hall-of-Fame caliber players here.
 
The Expos opened their 1984 season with Raines hitting in the #3 spot, and newcomer Pete Rose batting leadoff. This meant that Raines was hitting ahead of Andre Dawson, who was coming off a second-place finish for the NL MVP the year before.
 
While Raines performed at an equivalent level in the #3 spot, Andre Dawson struggled mightily hitting behind him. The Hawk posted a .237/.320/.362 batting line in the 175 plate appearances he had with Raines ahead of him on the lineup card. In late May, Dawson was swapped out for Gary Carter in the cleanup spot, and posted a better (though still disappointing) batting line of .252/.292/.428) without Raines in front of him.
 
Gary Carter stint of hitting behind Raines was short-lived, but the Hall-of-Fame catcher thrived, posting an OPS better than .900 when batting behind Raines.
 
The experiment sputtered out: when summer rolled around, Raines took his rightful spot at the top of the order, with Dawson and Carter settling into the #3 and #4 spots.
 
What’s interesting is that, from our position of hindsight, the lineup experiments of the 1984 Expos worked out exactly as you’d expect.
 
Andre Dawson was an elite hitter who ran well, but he didn’t walk much and wasn’t a hitter apt to take pitches so that Raines could steal. Having him hit behind a speedster like Raines seems like a bad idea because it asks Dawson to do things as a hitter that he wasn’t good at. Taking pitches, working a count…that wasn’t Dawson’s game. When forced to change his approach, Dawson struggled.
 
And Gary Carter thrived. This, too, is unsurprising. What hitter would best understand the thoughts and anxieties of a pitcher and catcher dealing with the likes of Tim Raines on first base, and take advantage of those anxieties? Another catcher, of course.
 
What the 1984 Expos reveal is that some players do well hitting behind exceptional base runners, and some struggle. Which isn’t actually surprising, but it’s nice to have proof of it.
 
 
*          *          *
 
Base Stealer
Year
SB
#2 Hitter
Willie Wilson
1979
83
George Brett, Hal McRae
 
The 1979 Royals saw two great hitters share turns behind Willie Wilson. George Brett started the season slowly, carrying a batting average around .250 into mid-May. The Royals moved him up to the #2 spot on the 13th of May….here are his splits:
 
Brett Splits
PA
BA
OBP
SLG
Pre-Wilson
147
.252
.308
.407
May 13-July 21
172
.397
.448
.667
Post-Wilson
382
.328
.369
.576
 
The slumping Brett turned his season around behind Wilson, posting a batting average close to .400 in the two months he hit in the #2 slot.  In July the Royals dropped the red-hot Brett to the third spot in the batting order, where he hit slightly worse than he did in the #2 spot.
 
The guy they swapped Brett with was Hal McRae. The designated hitter, mired in a season that saw his batting average hovering around .250, moved to the second spot in late July.
 
And, like Brett, Hal McRae hit much better batting behind Wilson:
 
McRae Splits
PA
BA
OBP
SLG
Pre-Wilson
238
.252
.312
.433
Wilson
197
.337
.403
.520
 
Willie Wilson was sort of magic for the Royals in 1979: he made everyone hitting behind him better.
 
So what did the Royals do in 1980? 
 
They decided to platoon two contact-heavy middle infielders – second baseman Frank White (.289 OBP) and shortstop U.L. Washington (.336) - in the #2 slot.
 
 
*          *          *
 
Base Stealer
Year
SB
#2 Hitter
Rickey Henderson
1985-1988
301
Don Mattingly
 
Last one: Rickey and Donnie.
 
Mattingly mostly hit in the #3 spot for the majority of Henderson’s time in New York, but Donnie Baseball did get in about 500 plate appearances from the #2 spot, mostly hitting behind Henderson.
 
How do you think Mattingly did? Do you think he was better hitting in the #2 slot, or better as a #3 hitter?
 
Mattingly, as a hitter, had walk rates similar to Dawson’s. Mattingly wasn’t as fast as Dawson, but he made better contact in his prime. He was an aggressive hitter, like Dawson.
 
Here are Mattingly’s year-by-year splits:
 
1985
PA
BA
OBP
SLG
#2
274
.355
.414
.674
#3
446
.304
.344
.505
 
First go-around: Mattingly was much better hitting in the #2 slot than he was in the #3 spot, posting an OPS of 1.088 behind Henderson, and a (still respectable) .851 OPS in the three hole.
 
1986
PA
BA
OBP
SLG
#2
120
.387
.429
.730
#3
612
.343
.386
.537
 
In 1986, Mattingly again hits better in the #2 spot behind Henderson. He gets a break in 1987: Rickey was injured for a third of the season, and Mattingly bats third for the entire year. In 1988 Rickey is healthy again, and Mattingly again splits time between #2 and #3:
 
1988
PA
BA
OBP
SLG
#2
144
.336
.375
.455
#3
506
.304
.348
.468
 
Again, Mattingly posts a better batting line hitting directly behind Henderson than he does hitting in the #3 spot.
 
The Yankees mostly hit Mattingly third in the batting order. They did this because this is what baseball teams have always done: a high average power hitter who doesn’t walk is supposed tohit 3rd…that’s where he belongs. It’s too bad no one noticed that he was a much better hitter when he hit second behind Henderson.
 
In 1989 Rickey was traded to the Oakland A’s in June, where he immediately went to the leadoff spot. By July Rickey was hitting ahead of Carney Lansford, a thirty-two year-old third baseman eight years removed from a batting title. Lansford, already having a comeback season, hit a remarkable .349 after moving to the #2 slot behind Henderson, narrowly losing a second batting title to Kirby Puckett.
 
*          *          *
 
We have a long season left for the Reds this year. After a slow start and a hand injury, Billy Hamilton is starting to get on base at a tolerable clip. The Red batting order has been shifted around, and Joey Votto’s seen plate appearances in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th spots in the order. Votto’s on-base percentage is .372 in the #3 spot, and .400 at clean-up.

And in the 107 plate appearances where Votto has hit second in the order, his on-base percentage is .430
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.  
 
 

COMMENTS (11 Comments, most recent shown first)

OldBackstop
KaiserD:"But when McCovey replaced Cepeda in the clean-up spot, Willie (Mays) stopped stealing in order to make the hole bigger on the right side."

With McCovey being a lefty, an attempted steal would at least possibly open up the right side, if the 2nd baseman was on the cover (unlikely with McCovey, but not making the right side any smaller either way). I would think that Mays would avoid stealing sometimes to avoid taking the bat out of McCovey's hands with an IBB.


8:21 PM May 19th
 
OldBackstop
Hmm...that read sort of snotty, didn't mean too. What I mean is, there are times when a take, implicit or implied may be on so the steal can be attempted. So, the guy has to take a strike.
6:55 PM May 16th
 
KaiserD2
These ideas are not new. In one of the biographies he wrote for Willie Mays, Charles Einstein said that when Cepeda came to the Giants and started batting fourth behind Willie, Willie stole a lot of bases to get Cepeda more fastballs. (Later in his career Orlando preferred curves.) But when McCovey replaced Cepeda in the clean-up spot, Willie stopped stealing in order to make the hole bigger on the right side. Whether there was any real percentage gain in either case, I don't know.

Also, in 1962, an umpire--don't remember who--said after the season that Wills had cost the Dodgers the pennant, because Gilliam had taken so many pitches that Gilliam could have hit to help him steal. Speaking of the 1962 Dodgers, Wills's selection as the MVP--rather than the most valuable base stealer--was one of the worst selections of all time. Check baseball-reference.com. Wills as a hitter was 3 runs above average in 1962. They credit his stolen bases with 19 runs and he gets three more for not grounding into double plays. So, total, 25 offensive runs above average. In the same league, using the same categories, we have Willie Mays (whose team won the pennant) with 57 RAA, Frank Robinson with 65, and Henry Aaron with 59. (Mays was the real MVP because he also had huge defensive value; Wills was average defensively.) Tommy Davis, who drove in 153 runs, had 43.

I think it's very hard to find a clear pattern in John's data.

DK
8:25 AM May 16th
 
OldBackstop
I don't know how you can delve into this without factoring the times these guys have to take a pitch when the steal sign is on.
7:15 AM May 16th
 
chuck
Ok, I tried gathering all the times Hamilton has been on 1st base thus far in his career, where 2nd base was not occupied. I found 38 such times. It's a small sample. Here are the results:
19 steals
6 caught stealing
12 times a batter got to hit before a sb or cs happened.

Of those 12:
7 outs (3 K)
5 hits (2 HR)
1 walk
.462 OBP
.417 AVG
.429 batting average on balls in play

Votto has been up for 20 of these occasions:
6 SB
2 CS
5 outs (1 K)
3 hits (2 HR)
1 walk
2:37 PM May 15th
 
jimgus
No lie, Vent!

Seriously, this is a VERY fun article, mostly because I remember the guys that you used as examples, Dave... but also because it is "Rickey-heavy" and he's only the best player I ever saw. :-)

I particularly like that you filled the article with terrific use of the lingo.

Cordially,
JimmyG
1:10 PM May 15th
 
cfalstrom
If the Reds had a guy that could lead off and just get to 1st base a lot more often than Hamilton does, I think Votto would have an unbelievable year.

Like the guy they had last year?​
12:33 PM May 15th
 
chuck
By the way, thank you, Dave, for filling in in the Hey Bill duties. I give you 1.5 wins above replacement, which is a lot for a short time.
12:33 PM May 15th
 
ventboys
Whatcha been reading lately, Dave? It's like Shakespeare sneezed on your first two paragraphs:)
9:06 AM May 15th
 
greggborgeson
Good article. But I think Chuck is closer to the right approach -- we should study the results in individual at bats. Chuck's stats indicate that a batter has an advantage in any at bat with any runner on first. What we need to do is parse that out to see what happens in at bats when that runner is a prolific base stealer.
5:59 AM May 15th
 
chuck
There might be some small advantage if a fast runner on 1st distracts a pitcher enough to make a mistake over the plate. But I would think the main advantage is just the runner- any runner that gets held on- just being there in the first place, forcing the 1st baseman to hold him on and creating a hole for the LH hitter to ground the ball through.

In looking at pitchers in situational splits recently, I learned that in the man on 1st situation, 3 things are common: strikeout rate declines by around 10%, walk+HBP rate declines by around 10%, and batting average on balls in play rises by 5 to 6 percent. With more batted balls happening, at a higher ball-in-play average, a hitter's average can easily go up 20 points from that combination.
MLB averages: 1st number is with no men on, 2nd with a man on 1st.
2010 .252 / .272
2011 .251 / .269
2012 .249 / .271
2013 .250 / .264

If the Reds had a guy that could lead off and just get to 1st base a lot more often than Hamilton does, I think Votto would have an unbelievable year.
2:37 AM May 15th
 
 
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