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”.

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29 comments

  1. Rob SJ

    September 20, 2011 09:43 AM

    This is just one of those things that just makes so much sense. Why wouldn’t Howard see more fastballs if you were more concerned about pitching to the hitter behind him? That’s why it is so persistent, it just makes sense. Anyway, if you’re a rationale person you can’t argue against hard data, so it is a myth. But it will be a persistent myth.

  2. Kevin

    September 20, 2011 09:52 AM

    I think Howard is a bad example to test this theory. Being that he’s a below average base runner, and even worse of late, I’m sure limits a pitcher’s concern for putting him on base.

  3. sean

    September 20, 2011 10:20 AM

    RobSJ fans always think like fans, not there is anything wrong with that, but if you thought about it from the pitcher you’d see why it’s crazy to think I’ll pitch differently because of who’s behind him. This go along with the pitching to the score thing that people seem to think is real.

    The job of a pitcher is to get outs. They will have a gameplan of how to get a hitter out before the game even starts, based on the scouting reports. Putting men on base only makes it harder to do your job, since you would have to pitch out of the stretch(if you are a starter), and your defense has to change it’s alignment to guard against the runner on base. If you are up 3-1 in a game why would you intentional unintenially walk someone to allow the tying run to get to the plate, instead of attacking the hitter? You are making your own life harder and giving the other team a better chance to tie the game.

  4. JohnP

    September 20, 2011 11:13 AM

    I would be curious to see the pitch count numbers broken down by not just type but whether or not it was a strike. I think that is the more interesting stat to look at when doing the comparisons.

  5. Dan

    September 20, 2011 11:27 AM

    Has anyone ever looked into whether the opposite of protection is happening? That is to say, what if the hitter being “protected” actually sees FEWER hittable pitches.

    I doubt it’s the case, but it’s just as worth looking into as the traditional protection debate. My thinking behind it is that if there is another good hitter in the on-deck circle, a pitcher may be less inclined to just try to get weak contact and instead just go right out after a strikeout. Since very few pitchers use their fastball as their out pitch, this would probably result in more off-speed pitches.

    Again, I doubt anything would come out of it, but it doesn’t really hurt to look into it if someone has the time and desire.

  6. Dave

    September 20, 2011 01:07 PM

    perhaps having a better hitter behind you doesnt show a great improvement because its all about marginal greatness. if I am behind Howard’s spot (I cant play baseball at all well) obviously you would go around Howard to get to me in 2 out, maybe even 1 out situations because I pose significantly less of a threat than Howard and even in 1 out bases empty situation it could be a DP setup. Im sure the same can be seen with the #8 hitter in any NL lineup because the marginal difference between any regular position players batting and the pitcher is so great

  7. LTG

    September 20, 2011 07:41 PM

    While watching another Phillies slugfest tonight, I am wondering, is it rational to panic yet?

  8. Pete

    September 20, 2011 10:04 PM

    @sean

    I don’t think it’s fair to tag the fans as the source of this myth. It seems to come from announcers and analysts, and then gets picked up by the fans. Which makes me wonder: can it be that an ex-catcher who is still pushing the myth (i.e., Tim McCarver) thought he was changing his pitch selection but really wasn’t?

  9. LTG

    September 20, 2011 11:57 PM

    no because it is never rational to panic, or no because of some reason like “they’ve let the foot off the gas pedal”?

  10. RM

    September 21, 2011 03:49 AM

    @LTG

    The latter. I don’t think the players (minus the call ups) could possibly care less about these games.

    If you’re a Red Sox fan or Atlanta fan however, now would be a good time to panic.

  11. Tyler

    September 21, 2011 09:40 AM

    The ballpark factors here really don’t go into enough detail to prove the point. I buy the argument, but at the same time Howard got a HR in one of the games in LA and didn’t get any in SF, Washington or Florida after Pence and his Slugging percentage has steadily fallen since April before averaging out in July/August. He’s hit fewer doubles and more HR since Pence joined, I guess that’s where the ballpark factors come in but I had to dig that up myself, I need someone smart to tell me whether that makes any sense.

    Pence, on the other hand, has improved quite a bit on his already good numbers since joining the Phillies. Clearly Ibanez is giving him more protection than Carlos Lee

  12. Scott G

    September 21, 2011 10:24 AM

    Mind sharing this post with t-Mac, wheels, and sarge? Please and thank you.

  13. KH

    September 21, 2011 11:19 AM

    You should write and entry about how awful Chase Utley has been lately. I would read that isntead of re-hashes.

  14. LTG

    September 21, 2011 11:55 AM

    On Utley,

    I’d be curious to see a spray chart on him, like the ones we are constantly seeing on Howard. I don’t trust my eyes entirely, but it seems to me Utley has had a lot of trouble hitting the ball hard to the opposite field. When he goes the other way, he seems to hit mostly pop-ups, weak fly balls, and easy grounders. Is this true? Is it different than in years past? If different, what might be the underlying cause?

  15. hk

    September 21, 2011 12:06 PM

    In the small sample size of 62 plate appearances in September, during which his BABIP is .200, Chase Utley has produced an OPS of .574, which places him behind the all of the other regulars except Victorino (.556 OPS on a .194 BABIP) and Rollins (.546 OPS on a .265 BABIP). Maybe this three-some should occupy the 6, 7 and 8 spots in the order.

  16. FC

    September 21, 2011 05:15 PM

    I would focus on Quality of Contact rather than Pitch Selection, since those stats say nothing of WHERE the pitches are being located. Not that I believe there is a significant difference but it’s still a minor point.

    To me the primary value of Pence has been that the few times Howard has been pitched around or intentionally walked Pence has come through with good hits. That’s more than Jayson Werth EVER did.

  17. Phillie697

    September 21, 2011 05:29 PM

    @Bill, surprised that you didn’t mention that September also is usually when Howard does his business, so it could just be that. I mean I can’t explain it, but he does seem to really like September, and decides to take a vacation in the post-season. I hope that’s not the case this year… We need all the help we can get on offense. I’m not asking for much Ryan, but at least a .800 OPS, pretty please?

  18. Scott G

    September 22, 2011 07:26 AM

    Phillips,

    Not that I think you should take stuff from small samples, but Howard OPSed .900 in the nlcs last year. It’s not hard to find.

    FC,

    Really about Werth? I’d take Werth over Pence everyday of the week

  19. Phillie697

    September 22, 2011 02:45 PM

    @Scott G,

    Yeah, and OPSed .657 in the NLDS. If you’re going to use statistics, try not to be completely biased.

  20. Scott G

    September 22, 2011 04:04 PM

    I’m not biased. You were the one who said he takes a vacation in the post season. The NLCS is part of the post season. The NLCS went 6 games. The NLDS went 3 games.

    I was on my phone at the time, and the baseball-reference format isn’t the best. Now that I’m on the computer I’ll point to this – His career post-season numbers.

    In 178 PAs, he has a .382 OBP and a .517 SLG. That’s a .899 OPS. His career regular season OPS is .928. That’s pretty close to me.

    PS, I don’t think you could find a more realistic person when it comes to Ryan Howard.

  21. Pete

    September 22, 2011 09:13 PM

    @Scott G

    Really about Werth? You’d take him every day of the week over Pence?

    Maybe every day of the week last year or two years ago. But next week? Next year? Two or three years from now?

    You can have him. I’ll take Pence.

  22. Phiilie697

    September 22, 2011 10:39 PM

    @Scott G,

    That’s better :)

  23. JohnAdams

    September 22, 2011 11:20 PM

    I think you’re all missing a larger issue concerning Hunter Pence’s impact on the team since joining on 7/30. Every great team has de facto leaders, a “core” of veteran players that become the faces and soul of the current generation’s team. Until the end of July, the team leaders in my opinion were Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Shane Victorino.
    On the day of the Pence trade (7/30), Roy Oswalt was interviewed and asked what the new guy was like. To paraphrase, Roy answered that Hunter always has to be the leader and won’t play 2nd fiddle to anybody. Those words of his former teammate have proven to be prophetic as Hunter is clearly the face and leader of the “new Phillies”.
    So, I guess my point is that if you want to look at numbers, forget about Hunter’s individual stats and/or whether he’s protecting Howard. Go check out the SPLITS for Jimmy, Chase, and Shane for August and September. Then compare BA, OBP, and SLG to July when these guys were still the leaders.

  24. Phillie697

    September 23, 2011 08:13 AM

    @JohnAdams,

    Perfect kind of comment given Bill’s article yesterday. So how do you know that? How do you prove that?

  25. Scott G

    September 23, 2011 10:40 AM

    Pete,

    Jayson Werth’s fWAR since 2007: 21.3
    Hunter Pence’s fWAR since 2007: 19.0

    Everyone likes Hunter Pence because he runs like a wounded animal and let everyone know that he felt the human urge of hunger. It’s absurd.

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