|Freddie Freeman will slay the Dragon!|
Many times you'll hear a baseball person comment about how they need to protect certain hitters, or offer better protection for guys in the lineup. I think that many fans may not understand this concept, or even worse misinterpret what they mean. So what is protection in baseball? Armed guards? Security gates? Condoms and a prayer? Well, maybe all of those off the field, but on the field it's something totally different.
For those of you who understand protection in a lineup, feel free to jump ahead if you want. For those of you that don't, here's how it works. On every major league club there is one hitter who is known as a game-wrecker. He's the guy that can change things with one swing of the bat. The long-bomber, the power guy, the home run hitter, the RBI machine. The pitcher would rather clean clubhouse toilets than pitch to this guy with the sacks packed.
The idea behind protection is that your power hitter is going to see less quality pitches if the guy behind him is a sub-par hitter. As an example, say I have a guy on second and two outs with Freddie Freeman coming to the plate. Last year, Freddie was slugging .461 with 78 RBIs. Behind him is Justin Upton, a guy slugging .491 with 29 homers. In this scenario I have to make a choice. Do I walk Freeman with a base open and pitch to an even more dangerous power hitter, although he has more strikeouts? Or would I rather just pitch to Freeman even though he's got a better RISP average?
In this case, the power of Justin Upton is providing some protection for Freddie. He's likely going to see more pitches and less intentional walks because you'd rather not put an extra runner on base with Justin Upton at the plate. But if it were BJ Upton behind Freddie Freeman? (Just go with me and assume that Fredi G was high when he made out the lineup) I'm absolutely walking Freddie and taking my chances with BJ since he's about as dangerous as two kittens in a fuzzy blanket. In that case, Freddie has no protection and won't see as many good hitting chances in key scenarios. With nobody on base, this obviously matters less, but baseball is all about managing scenarios.
Now, if you know me you'll know that I think sabermetrics people like to overplay their hands and start debates that are anti-common sense. There's a lot of things they do that provide value, but they like to be controversial and stick their spreadsheets into things that simply don't belong, then rig the numbers in their favor with weighting of formulas. The simplest things they do are the best, but any time you see adjusted weightings inside largely complicated vast formulas, start asking yourself who is deciding what goes into those formulas and what they are trying to prove.
That aside, a sabermatrician would likely tell you protection is meaningless or in their usual parlance "overrated." A traditionalist would tell you protection is invaluable. I fall somewhere in the middle, as I do on most things in the this statistical holy war. I don't think either side from a predictive standpoint is right. I don't think we can be right because you can't fully predict outcomes of baseball games. What I do know is that logically in baseball scenarios I'm going to want to reduce my risk of a game-changing event. And if that means walking or pitching around a batter in a RISP scenario to get to a much lower risk guy, I'm going to do that.
What I do know is that Freddie Freeman will be the Braves best hitter going into this season. Freddie has a career OPS of .831, he's got an on-base of .431 in spring so far, and he's already hit two homers. What's interesting is that he's also amassed the second most walks on the team with 8 walks, and that's not a coincidence. Freeman has a great eye, and pitchers don't want to get embarrassed so he'll see fewer give-in pitches. That could continue into the regular season, which is why Freddie will need some protection in the lineup.
That protection will likely come in the form of Chris Johnson if he can return to 2013 form, or Jonny Gomes if he can get the big stick going in the right direction. Either way, that's not exactly Justin Upton. The reality is that Fredi Gonzalez is going to have to hope that CJ 2.0 plays really well, or he's going to be constantly shuffling the lineup again to find a hot hand that will play behind Freeman. For a sport where players love consistency, those kinds of changes really mess with production. It's a key thing to watch as the season develops: Who is going to be the consistent clean-up hitter? If the answer is, "We don't know," or "This set of guys," the Braves are in big trouble.
All in all, I think that protection for Freeman would be a great thing, because it means that two guys in the middle of the lineup are swinging the bat well. It's hard to argue against that.