The Myth of Hunter Pence’s Protection

You’ve heard it a million times by now: Hunter Pence has given Ryan Howard some much-needed protection in the lineup, that’s why the slugger has posted a .955 OPS in September despite chronic foot problems. The concept of lineup protection has been studied rather extensively and none of the studies have shown “protection” to exist in any meaningful fashion. In fact, Baseball Between the Numbers (written by the Baseball Prospectus staff) did the most extensive study I’ve seen yet, concluding, “There’s no evidence that having a superior batter behind another batter provides the initial batter with better pitches to hit; if it does, those batters see no improvement in performance as a result.”

I decided to dig into the data for Howard, though. Let’s take a look at overall pitch selection before and after Pence’s arrival:

Note: Due to the inconsistency in fastball-labeling (there are about 10 different labels), I lumped all fastballs together in both sets. Intentional balls, pitch-outs, and knuckleballs were removed from both sets as well, so the overall pitch totals may vary slightly from other data sources.

Change-Ups Curve Balls Fast Balls Sliders TOTAL
Pre-Pence 210 12.2% 183 10.7% 909 52.9% 415 24.2% 1717
Post-Pence 93 12.9% 79 11.0% 369 51.3% 179 24.9% 720

Needless to say, the overall pitch selection numbers aren’t all that different. If anything, having Pence behind him has given Howard slightly more slop from opposing pitchers.

What about quality of contact?

Ground Balls Fly Balls Line Drives TOTAL
Pre-Pence 105 41.3% 93 36.6% 56 22.0% 254
Post-Pence 35 38.9% 34 37.8% 21 23.3% 90

Again, hardly any difference. Before Pence, Howard hit 20 home runs in 390 at-bats (one HR for every 20 AB) while he has hit 13 home runs in 149 at-bats after Pence joined the team (one HR for every 11 AB). On a per-fly ball basis, the rates are 22 percent and 38 percent, respectively. Howard’s overall career HR/FB rate is 29 percent, roughly halfway between the two totals, so it is reasonable to say Howard may have been a bit unlucky before Pence and a bit lucky after Pence. Additionally, it goes without saying that we are dealing with small samples. If Howard had 12 HR instead of 13, his HR/FB drops by a whopping three percent.

Adding to the disparity, Howard has hit in more hitter-friendly parks since the end of July. Below is a list of away games that have been played before and after Pence’s arrival. Park factor refers to each stadium’s wOBA park factor for left-handed hitters only, via StatCorner.

Before:

Pre-Pence Avg. PF Count
ARI 106 3
ATL 97 6
CHC 104 3
FLA 100 6
NYM 99 6
PIT 100 3
SDP 90 4
SEA 96 3
STL 97 5
TOR 100 3
WSN 103 6
TOTAL 99 48

After:

Post-Pence Avg. PF Count
CIN 103 4
COL 108 3
FLA 100 3
HOU 102 3
LAD 98 3
MIL 100 4
SFG 100 4
WSN 103 3
TOTAL 102 27

Most notably, Howard has played in just one pitcher-friendly park since Pence joined the team: Dodger Stadium. Compare that to before, when eight of 11 road parks are average or worse for hitters.

Finally, with regards to Howard’s 35 RBI since Pence arrived, as mentioned here, there are a lot of factors that go into RBI, particularly the quality and skills of the hitters ahead of the RBI-gatherer. Recall that Utley did not enter the lineup until May 23, missing the first 46 games of the season. In his stead, Wilson Valdez got the lion’s share of the playing time, with the remainder being split between Pete Orr and Michael Martinez. In right field, the Phillies were using a combination of under-performers Ben Francisco and Domonic Brown. And, lest we forget, John Mayberry, Jr. didn’t start getting hot until August — he had a .774 OPS at the end of July and has posted a .998 OPS since. So, yes, Howard’s RBI total is higher but that’s because the quality of the other hitters in the lineup has improved.

All told, there is no reason to conclude that Pence has provided protection to Howard in the lineup. Howard’s numbers are slightly better as a result of small sample variance, the improvement of his lineup, and visiting ballpark “friendliness”.