It adds up (03/13/02)
(Editor's note: I updated this column several days after the original posting in order to more accurately express the opinion I was trying to get across)
There's an ongoing debate about the validity of protection. There have been several studies in recent years that have shown that protection - the idea that a hitter will hit better or worse depending on who hits behind him - does not exist. They demonstrated this by showing about 200 examples of star players who were supposed to benefit from the presence of a newly acquired star hitter to hit behind them. The results were negligible.
Someone brought up those studies to Thad Bosley, the hitting coach of the Oakland A's, one of the most forward thinking organizations in baseball. He simply replied, "why would they [show a difference]? Those guys are great hitters. They don't need anyone hitting behind them. That's why they're great. It's the guys who aren't great hitters who benefit from protection."
So does protection exist? Hard to say one way of the other since no one has done a complete study on it. Do great hitters benefit from having another great hitter hitting behind them? I'm inclined to side with Bosley: it probably shouldn't make a difference.
However, what we really should be asking is does improving the line-up affect how productive a hitter is? That answer is yes.
Let's assume you have a line-up in which all 8 (NL) or 9 (AL) guys are 10% more productive than the average. The result will not be that your line-up will be 10% more productive. Your line-up will be closer to 15% more productive. Why? Because the effects of having successive above average players is cumulative. To wit, if the first guy in the line-up is 10% more productive than average, then the second guy will have 10% more opportunities to be more productive. If he is also 10% more productive than average, then the cumulative effect is that he will be 11% (10% + (10% of 10%) more productive. And so on and so on.
If, however, you have below average players in the mix, much, if not all those cumulative gains are lost. That 10% boost from the first player is zeroed out by a player who is 10% less productive. If you have Rey Ordonez in the line-up, not even the '27 Yankees could recover enough to be average.
You wanna know how the D-backs went from one of the worst offense in 1998 to the best in 1999? They got rid of the well-below average producers and replaced them with slightly above average producers. Instead of 150 games of Yamil Benitez and Brent Brede, they brought in Steve Finley and Luis Gonzales. That combined with healthy years from the rest of the line-up was the reason for the nearly 250 run improvement.
In this sense, protection definitely exists. If all the players in a line-up are above average, all will benefit from having more opportunities to produce. Even if some are only average, there will be a bump in production. However, with below average players in the mix, those gains are lost. And if there aren't enough above average hitters in the line-up, or the quality of those hitters isn't enough to offset that, then the results can be catastrophic.
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