Orders of protection

Last week, as a tangent to my argument for Ryan Braun as the undisputed king of the fantasy outfielders, I touched on the topic of lineup protection, claiming that an impending Prince Fielder departure isn’t reason to slot Braun down your draft board. During the week, I also discussed, with another fantasy writer, lineup protection and what it means to the value of players who will lose and gain “protectors” as the hot stove season leads to the annual talent shuffle around the league.

While thinking about this issue in the context of broadstroke fantasy advice, I’ve distilled two fundamental points on which to focus. Neither of these points are revelations; quite the contrary, actually. But, sometimes it’s important to get back to basics before applying our advanced analysis or gut-based prognostications.

Axiom No. 1: The best predictors of a player’s production are his talent and skill set.

Lineup protection is largely a myth. Players don’t become different players upon being united with new teammates. There’s not much to indicate that “protected hitters” even get better pitches to hit because they are “protected.”

Sometimes you will see an increase in intentional walks in situations in which an elite batter is unprotected, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that said batter would have received good pitchers to hit if he was protected. Pitchers pitch around good hitters when it is in their advantage to do so.

A 2006 study by Tom Tango, published here at The Hardball Times, covers this issue pretty well, and here’s another link to another one of many studies testing the lineup prediction theory.

I’m not going to beat the lineup protection point to death, especially because I think much of our readership is generally on board with my point of view on the matter. But, that doesn’t stop the chatter that trickles its way into the fantasy hype and hate machines for newly signed mashers and those who hit around them.

The truth is self-evident though, even anecdotally speaking. Elite talent produces at elite levels. Toronto’s composite second-place hitter produced a .311 OBP, while its composite clean-up hitter slugged .413. Did that stop Jose Bautista from producing at first-round value? Not in the slightest!

What did that dynamic actually do to Joey Bats? Well, Bautista was walked an AL-leading 132 times, including 24 intentional passes, which also led the league. But, did it hurt his value? I’m not sure it did.

First of all, a combination of above-average plate discipline and pitchers wariness of his mighty bat helped Bautista see a lot of pitches, allowed him to be selective, and quite possibly helped lay the context for him to post a career-best .302 batting average. This same dynamic helped Bautista post a fantastic .447 OBP, which presented him many opportunities to score.

In those 24 IBB PA, and who knows how many pseudo IBB PA, Bautista would have gotten himself out more than half the time had a “protector” been able to force pitchers to engage Bautista more.

Often ignored in the assumption that a “protector” forces pitchers to pitch to the batter preceding him is that before an improved “protector” can use his superior skill to increase the other batter’s runs scored total, he’s going to have to overcome the reduced number of opportunities that arise from a lower OBP resulting from the fewer walks to the preceding batter.

I’m not going to bean count here, but my main point is the addition of protectors doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and sometimes what is gained in RBI or homers when a “protector” comes on board is given back in AVG or runs.

It takes a village to raise an offense. The addition of one elite slugger will not transform the production of the existing hitter who is now slated to hit in front of or behind that hitter. There are much more important factors to a player’s traditional stats production than whether his team adds a high-priced, bopping tag-team partner.

Elite talents who aren’t paired with other elite talents have no trouble producing top fantasy value, and mediocre, or even good, players don’t become better players because their team adds a new, shiny .900-OPS toy.

Axiom No. 2: Opportunity and situation drive counting stats

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

This may seem like an academic distinction, and it may even be misconstrued as undermining the previous paragraphs, but I assure you, it’s not: The extent to which a player may see an increase in certain stats as a partial result of having new teammates is not due to the idea of lineup protection, but to an increase in opportunity to accrue counting stats.

Now, you might be saying to yourself, I thought he just said that overall production isn’t likely to change, and now he’s saying that it is, but as a result of X and not Y. But that’s not the case; I’m simply speaking in generalities here. These are two discreet points.

A player’s runs scored and RBI totals are going to largely be driven by the opportunities he’s given to drive in runs, along with his own offensive skill set and the number of opportunities he helps give his teammates to drive him home.

More opportunities mean more conversions, but to meaningfully increase opportunities is a teamwide effort that requires more than just replacing an .810-OPS first baseman with a .880-OPS one. The ultimate counting stat is plate appearances, and it takes a team dedicated to minimizing its out-making to truly create the additional opportunities to really change a player’s output by rounds’ worth of fantasy value.

When talking about players changing teams, it is important to note things like park factors. Clearly, this is remedial-level info, but I mention it simply to note that there are many aspects of a player’s situation more important to his projection than the batters in front of and behind him in the order.

Jason Bay could have hit behind Joe Morgan and in front of Lou Gehrig on the Mets; he wasn’t going to mimic his production in Fenway Park after he moved to Citi Field. And, what would have helped him as much as anything in that dream scenario is the amount of outs saved by adding those two players to the lineup and, thus, extra chances afforded to Bay to produce at whatever level he’s going to produce.

Finally, let’s neither forget luck nor its cousin, random variation. Sometimes players wind up with an inordinate amount of RBI opportunities, inconsistent with the OBPs of those around them. Sometimes, a player benefits from an unsustainable spike in BABIP. Sometimes that BABIP spike manifests itself disproportionately in RBI situations, or an unlikely percentage of a player’s homers come with multiple men on.

The way I always like to think about luck and random variation is this: When a batter hits a ground ball that happens to be 18 inches beyond the reach of an infielder, that’s not luck, that’s random variation; whether that instance of random variation occurs with two out and nobody on, or the bases loaded, is where the luck comes in.

Even if we were to assume that we had projections that got the underlying talent of every player exactly correct, we must concede that many of the forces that determine whether those players hit the high or low end of their projections are beyond our control or capacity to predict. What we do have is a sound, though imperfect, idea of underlying talent. That should be your starting point when evaluating most players.

So, I conclude this column with a super axiom, which everything above reflects. It is important to process information, and to make use of new information about changing player situations, but it is also important not to out-think oneself. Elite talent is rarely counterfeited or hidden by single circumstantial events.

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11 years ago

You have done a good job of explaining in laymen terms the impact, or lack of impact, of roster changes affecting individual player performance as it relates to “lineup protection; and you clearly explained the difference between luck and random variation. I especially like your final axiom about processing information. I’m happy to own Ryan Braun in my keeper league.

11 years ago

Derek…I added a comment to the Matt Kemp piece below and wanted to say I appreciate your comment.

This piece on line up protection is a classic example of how people mistake narrative for causation.  When folks do player evaluation they often use narrative reasoning to create or justify their opinions.  Narrative reasoning is basically taking factoids that on the surface seem to make sense and stringing them together to create a perception.  Stuff like players changing teams, adding/losing line up protection, getting in the best shape of their lives etc.  We have to be particularly careful to consider that there’s no documented evidence and no way to predict the impact of these things on a specific player or to correlate any of it mathematically to performance.  Touts and fantasy experts fall into this trap all the time because all they have to do is create plausible narratives to generate content.  They can then use confirmation bias to go back and point to places where the prediction proved correct and ignore the faiures.