The Problem With The Protection Theory
Of all the reasons given for re-acquiring Russ Branyan, perhaps the one that resonates most with people is the hope that having a guy who can hit the ball 450 feet may help the underachievers in the line-up to perform better. There’s no doubt that Chone Figgins, Jose Lopez, and Milton Bradley have all been miserable at the plate this year, producing far less than they did a year ago, and beyond any reasonable expectation of their performance for 2010. Now, with Branyan in the line-up to provide some power, a good amount of people are hoping that those guys will get better pitches to hit, and their production will rise over the course of the season because of it.
There’s two problems with this, however. The first one is that there’s no evidence to support the protection theory. It has been studied many times, and there’s been no link found between the performance of a batter and quality of the player hitting behind him. It’s a theory based on speculation, not on data, which should always make you take pause.
However, that’s not the only issue, nor the one I want to focus on, because making the data argument just leads us back down the tired road of people suggesting we’re too tied up in numbers (read: facts) and miss the human aspect of the game. So, instead, let’s talk about that human aspect, and the side that never gets brought up when the protection theory is espoused – the pitcher.
Pitchers want to get hitters out. In general, pitchers who get to the major leagues and stick around are pretty good at this singular job. It’s what they do, and what they get paid for. However, a key assumption of the protection theory is that major league pitchers are dumber than a box of rocks.
Seriously, here’s the basic theory – if there’s a good hitter on deck, pitchers will want to avoid pitching to that guy with a runner on base, so they’ll throw more strikes in order to avoid walks. These strikes are apparently meatballs, and because the batter in front of the feared hitter is now getting good pitches to hit, he’ll get more hits and get on base more often. The theory demands the pitchers actually pitch in such a way that they fail at the original stated goal, which is to avoid pitching to good hitters with runners on base. Apparently, we’re supposed to believe that pitchers are dumb enough to not notice that this suboptimal pitching strategy allows the guy in front of the good hitter to get more hits, as they just continue pounding fastballs in the strike zone that Mediocre Hitter X can whack.
Seriously, this is the backbone of the theory, and it doesn’t make any sense at all. Why would a pitcher rather give up a hit to a mediocre batter than a walk? They wouldn’t, and they don’t. If a pitcher saw that the way he was attacking guys in front of the sluggers was allowing more baserunners (a necessary result of the idea that guys like Figgins will perform better than they have been), then they would pitch differently, because they would actually be faced with more situations where the slugger had a chance to drive in runs, not less.
With just a few exceptions, pitchers are not dumb. If they can get Chone Figgins to hit .230 by pitching him the way they are now, sans home run hitter behind him, they’re not going to suddenly start pitching him in a way that will let him hit .280. That’s counterproductive to their entire goal. If the protection theory was legitimate, and pitchers did indeed throw meatballs to guys batting in front of big sluggers, they would quickly figure out that this wasn’t a very good idea, and that they would be better off pitching each hitter in a way that gives them the absolute best chance of getting that guy out, regardless of who is on deck.
Which is exactly what they do. This is how pitchers work – get the guy out at the plate, worry about the next guy when he steps in. They do not throw easily whacked fastballs down the middle because they’re living in fear of the guy on deck. It’s just not reality.
Chone Figgins, Jose Lopez, and Milton Bradley should hit better the rest of the year, but it won’t because pitchers are finally giving them pitches they can tee off on due to the presence of Russ Branyan.