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Lineup protection is up for debate

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Lineup protection is up for debate
Ken Rosenthal / FOXSports.com CLEARWATER, Fla. - Welcome to the No. 5 spot in the Phillies' batting order, the latest battleground in baseball's ongoing struggle between traditionalists and statistical reformers.
Phillies general manager Pat Gillick, representing the old school, was willing to invest more than $100 million in free agent Alfonso Soriano last off-season, intending for him to hit behind National League Most Valuable Player Ryan Howard.

Bill James, godfather of the statistical movement, called such protection "overrated" and told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he would project Howard's numbers to be the same whether Albert Pujols or Corey Patterson were hitting behind him.

That's not a difference of opinion, it's a philosophical divide. As in red-state, blue-state politics, each side is adamant that its position is correct. In reality, such polarization is misplaced, because the truth is elusive.

The numbers that statistical analysts produce to debunk the importance of lineup protection are difficult to ignore. But those numbers are mere outcomes that reveal little about a pitcher's process ? his approach to an at-bat, a game situation, a lineup as a whole.

A discussion of the Phillies' No. 5 hitter, or any on-deck hitter, involves too narrow a focus. Just as a political analyst would not use a statewide race to predict a national trend, a Phillies' fan should not believe that Howard's season depends solely on the Phillies' No. 5 hitter, Pat Burrell.

Yet, if lineup protection were completely insignificant, Barry Bonds would not have walked 232 times in 2004. The Red Sox would not be reluctant to break up David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. And teams would not seek to build the strongest possible lineups, the better to wear down opposing pitchers.

With all due respect to James, Pujols and Patterson are not equal, never will be equal and do not merit equal consideration. "Do not let this guy beat you," is a mantra at pitchers' meetings. Previous matchups, left-right concerns and ballpark effects all figure into a pitcher's approach. Still, according to statistical research, the difference in the Phillies' No. 5 spot between relatively comparable batters such as Burrell and Jimmy Rollins would be marginal.

Kennesaw State professor J.C. Bradbury, author of "The Baseball Economist: The Real Game Exposed," argues that there is some downside to a powerful on-deck hitter. Fearing the on-deck hitter, a pitcher throws more strikes, issuing fewer walks, and better strikes, allowing fewer hits. The net effect is negligible; protection is a wash.

In most cases, that probably is true. In extreme cases, the difference between on-deck hitters is more tangible. Howard is an extreme case, the closest thing in the game to the old Bonds. Pitchers treated him as such when he got hot after the All-Star break, issuing him 77 walks ? 32 intentional ? in 75 games.

So, Ryan, is protection a myth?

"It is and it isn't," he says. "It all depends upon what the situation is. Obviously you have to go out there and try to still do what you can, be selective on pitches. But if they're intentionally walking you, you want that guy behind you to come through."

For the Phillies, that guy remains Burrell, a walking statistical contradiction, and thus the perfect symbol of this complex debate.

Burrell's critics point to his .167 batting average with two outs and runners in scoring position last season as proof that he is incapable of protecting Howard. Yet, Burrell finished with 29 homers, 95 RBIs and an .890 on-base/slugging percentage even in a trying season. And, in 22 plate appearances after a Howard walk, his OPS zoomed to 1.356.

Those numbers, along with Burrell's overall track record, suggest that he should be given another shot to hit behind Howard. But so many other factors will help determine how Howard is pitched.

Howard points out the importance of the three hitters in front of him ? Rollins, Shane Victorino and Chase Utley ? getting on base. His manager, Charlie Manuel, says the sixth hitter, most likely center fielder Aaron Rowand or third baseman Wes Helms, also will play an important role.

Oh, and don't forget the No. 4 hitter ? Howard himself.

"Usually individual performance comes from within," Burrell says. "Somebody asked me the other day: Are you the biggest key to Ryan Howard's success? No, he is. That's just the way the game is."

Manuel agrees.

"Howard's patience will play the biggest part in it," he says. "When he took off last year, it was because of his patience at the plate. If he keeps the same patience, looks for good balls to hit, his production will be good."

That said, Manuel has considered moving Rollins from the leadoff to the fifth spot, a move endorsed by some members of the Phillies' front office. Rollins is a switch-hitter, and his 79 extra-base hits last season ranked seventh in the NL. Burrell, a right-handed hitter, had 54 extra-base hits.

The problem with dropping Rollins, Manuel says, is that his No. 2 hitter, Shane Victorino, is not ready to hit leadoff. Victorino had a higher on-base percentage than Rollins last season, .346 to .334, but Rollins saw more pitches per plate appearance, 3.70 to 3.42. He also stole 36 bases in 40 attempts.

So, the Phillies are back to where they were after they traded Bobby Abreu last July, with Rollins batting leadoff and Burrell fifth. Last September, Manuel frequently replaced Burrell with David Dellucci or Jeff Conine, neither of whom is still with the club. The Phillies entered the off-season intending to trade Burrell and sign Soriano, but Soriano went to the Cubs.

To Bill James, Soriano would not have been a significant upgrade over Burrell in the No. 5 spot, a poorly spent $100-plus million.

To Pat Gillick, Soriano would have transformed the Phillies' lineup, creating a potential Ortiz-Ramirez dynamic.

Crazy as it sounds, both points of view have merit.

Lineup protection might be overrated. But it sure isn't a myth.

Ken Rosenthal is FOXSports.com's senior baseball writer.
 

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