By Ronnie Tellalian
A hitter steps up to the plate to face a team of nine fielders; it is an event unique to baseball, the individual stands on the field of play alone against a team. It is baseball’s greatest and most recognizable challenge. There is however, one exception.
There is a widely held belief that a man that is not even playing at the moment can somehow influence the success or failure of the batter. This man is the hitter on-deck. The idea that the on-deck hitter holds influence over the current hitter-pitcher battle is such a common belief that it is simply accepted as fact. This concept is called protecting a hitter. This terminology is thrown around quite a bit by baseball fans and media.
The Indians have veteran power hitter Nick Swisher hitting behind rising star Jason Kipnis. I wanted to find out how much, if any, influence Swisher’s presence in the lineup has over Kipnis. Swisher has an established reputation around the league as a good hitter, while Kipnis is still staking his claim in the American League. Under the idea of protection, Swisher should provide protection in the lineup for Kipnis and help him by forcing opposing pitchers to give him better pitches to hit. If this theory is correct, Kipnis will have a better year with Swisher hitting behind him than if Lou Marson were hitting behind him. I put this theory to the test to not only see if the influence exists, but how much it actually helps.
In order to find a large sample size and keep the results random, I took the numbers of every hitter in the American League and measured the hitter’s success when a better or worse batter was hitting behind him in the lineup. I used OPS as my standard and considered a hitter with 50 points less in OPS to be a “worse” hitter and 50 more in OPS to be a “better” hitter. In this study, players batting average increased by .005 when a better hitter was hitting behind them and decreased by .011 when followed by a worse hitter. On-base percentage was similarly influenced, with an increase of .011 in front of a better hitter and a decrease of .011 in front of a worse hitter. Slugging was even more drastic with a .021 increase when hitting in front of a better hitter and a decrease of .025 hitting before a worse hitter. This indicates that when a better hitter is on deck, the batter will get better pitches to hit.
Looking at Jason Kipnis’ numbers in 2012, he had 302 plate appearances when a worse hitter followed him in the lineup, 242 plate appearances when a similar hitter followed him, and 51 when a better hitter followed him. With a worse hitter behind him he batted .238/.315/.334, with a similar hitter behind him he batted .252/.341/.397, and with a better hitter on-deck he hit .404/.440/.574. The sample size is very small but he hit much better when a player with an OPS 50 points above his batted behind him in the lineup. This would seem to indicate that Kipnis got better pitches to see when better hitters followed him in the lineup. Swisher had an OPS 120 points above Kipnis in 2012, indicating that his influence in the on-deck circle will help Kipnis see better pitches in 2013.
Not only did Kipnis seem to get better pitches to hit, he also saw more pitches in the strike zone when a better hitter batted behind him. Zone% is the number of pitches a hitter sees in the strike zone. When followed by a better hitter, Kipnis’ Zone% was 51.2%. When a similar hitter batted behind him his Zone% was 47.6%, and when a worse hitter hit behind him his Zone% was 45.5%. The quality of pitches is verified by his zone contact percentage. He made contact with 83% of pitches he swung at in the strike zone with a worse hitter following him. With a better hitter behind him his zone contact percentage increased to 91%.
With all these indications, Swisher hitting fourth behind Kipnis should help him see more strikes and see a better quality of strikes. Kipnis’ speed should also be a deterrent for opposing pitchers to put him on base. Coming off a solid first full season in 2012 Kipnis will be protected in the lineup by Swisher and have every opportunity to launch himself into the one of the top hitting second baseman in the Major Leagues.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer