The Sports Daily > The Brewers Bar
The Protection Myth

(Image: Footbasket.com)

(Editor's note: this is the debut post by new contributor Enrique Bakemeyer.)


Opening day is just over a week away, and it sure feels a lot different than last year.  There is the relatively untested starting rotation without experienced major leaguers Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, and Randy Wolf.  There is the bullpen that is completely transformed with the exception of John Axford and his beard.  There is no sign of Mat Gamel or the missing “t” from his first name.  There is probably going to be snow on the ground.

One thing that will be the same – and heartwarmingly so – is Aramis Ramirez batting cleanup.  At this time last year, it wasn’t certain how well Ramirez would replace Prince Fielder (“You can’t replace a guy like Fielder!”) in the Brewers’ lineup.  As it turned out, Ramirez replaced the heck out of Fielder – his 105 RBIs in 2012 was just a few short of Prince’s 108.

I seem to recall one of the questions about Prince leaving after 2011 was how it would affect Ryan Braun: Would Braun still be able to produce without Fielder behind him in the batting order?  Prior to the 2012 season, this genre of analysis was typical: “Since bursting into the majors and claiming the 2007 Rookie of the Year Award, Braun has had the privilege to be protected in the lineup by one of the most feared hitters in baseball.”

The idea that a good hitter protects the guy in front of him in the batting order is pretty unremarkable.  It’s basically an accepted truth among baseball commentators, pundits, and fans.  It’s also a myth.

I recently re-read the 2008 book The Baseball Economist by economics (natch) professor J.C. Bradbury.  In the book, Bradbury applies tools of economic analysis to answer various questions about the game: Why are there no left-handed catchers?  Is it worth it for managers to work the umpires?  Do big-market teams really have an advantage over small-market teams?  One of the most interesting findings was that good hitters don’t protect batters in front of them – at least, the numbers don’t show “protected” hitters produce better offensive outcomes.

After analyzing something like seven seasons’ worth of data, Bradbury found that when the batter on deck is a recognizable threat – when the pitcher doesn’t want to face him – the hitter in front of him was less likely to hit safely and less likely to get an extra base hit.  The “protected” hitter is also less likely to draw a walk, which you might expect, but his offensive production notably does not improve. 

Bradbury’s theory is that if a pitcher doesn’t want to face the hitter on deck, he’ll put more effort into his pitches.  Throughout a game, pitchers take a little off, put a little on, keep hitters off balance, etc.  They’re not giving 100% every time, so when they reeeeeeally don’t want to face the on deck hitter, they’ll try harder to get the guy in the batter’s box out – whether it’s Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, or Cody Ransom (he did hit a grand slam last year).  More often than not, the pitcher succeeds.  At least, that’s what the numbers show.

As Brewers fans, we’re obviously hoping Braun and Ramirez have great 2013s, comparable to their 2012s.  But if Braun has another almost-MVP year, it won’t be because Ramirez protected him.  I’m pretty sure it won’t have anything to do with Cody Ransom either.