There has been a lot of discussion this year in Philadelphia about where Ryan Howard ought to hit in the batting order. Last season, the NL MVP batted fourth behind Chase Utley and in front of Pat Burrell. Many fans, sports writers, and even manager Charlie Manuel (whom I remember fondly leading the Triple-A Charlotte Knights) have pondered changing the line-up in order to produce more offense. The most popular idea was to flip-flop Utley and Howard in the order—having Howard bat third and Utley fourth—to allow Utley to “protect” Howard. I also wonder why Philly fans hate Pat Burrell so much. The Braves would be happy to take him off of your hands.
The popular concept of protection is that a good on-deck hitter affects the way the pitcher throws to the batter. The traditional argument says that pitchers cannot “pitch around” batters, because if he walks the batter he’ll have to face a good batter with a man on. But, the argument isn’t done yet. This allows a protected batter to see better pitches to hit—the pitcher can’t nibble around the edge of the strike zone for fear of inducing a walk—and thus increase his ability to hit for power.
However, I believe one crucial element has been left out of the analysis. Pitchers can alter more than just pitching inside and outside of the zone. Pitchers also regulate their effort from one batter to the next, conserving energy to put on a fastball or hiding a wicked out-pitch for just the right occasion. In a situation where a good on-deck hitter follows the batter, the pitcher has likely saved up his best just for this moment. Even if the pitcher is less likely to walk the batter, the batter isn’t necessarily going to be more productive at the plate.
This is something that Doug Drinen and I addressed in a study on protection (here is an old post on the subject), and I use this study to examine the issue in Chapter 2 of The Baseball Economist (“The Legendary Power of the On-Deck Hitter”). Using play-by-play data and a host of empirical techniques to control for many factors we found that a better on-deck does lower probability that the batter walks, which is the first step in demonstrating protection. However, this does not translate into more productive at-bats. As the on-deck batter improves, the probability that the batter gets hit, extra-base, and hits a home run declines—the exact opposite of the protection hypothesis. But, the magnitude of the effect is so small that it’s best to say that there is no such thing as protection.
Now, when Doug and I wrote this study, we were very proud of the granulated data we used. After all, how can you get more specific than play-by-play? Well, how about pitch-by-pitch data? Steven Levitt at Freakonomics points to a new study by Ken Kovash that breaks the game down even more than we did. He finds that good on-deck hitters induce pitchers to throw more strikes and more fastballs—fastballs are easier to throw for strikes than breaking balls and change-ups. This fits with our finding that the quality if the on-deck hitter impacts walks. However, I’m curious as to how this effect translates into overall success of the batter. One thing that Ken does not report—I’m hoping that he will report it when his schedule clears up—is how the on-deck batter affects the speed of the pitch. Doug and I could only hypothesize as to why the on-deck hitter does not lower the output of the current batter. If the answer is more pitcher effort, we ought to see pitchers putting a little more mustard on their pitches with a good batter on deck.
The moral of the story is this: a good on-deck hitter lowers the likelihood of a batter walking, but it does not translate into more offensive production.