Recently there was a story posted at Walk Like a Sabermetrician about the production by lineup slot. The data brought to light the struggles the Rays had in the important cleanup spot in their lineup in 2011. Overall the Rays cleanup hitters ranked 13th out of 14 teams in the AL in batting average at .230, SLG% at .386, and OPS at .689 and 12th in the AL in OBP at .306,
Sixteen players had a plate appearance in the cleanup spot for the Rays in 2011 and as stated above posted a very poor slash line of .230/.306/.387 an OPS of .693. Three players, Ben Zobrist, Evan Longoria, and Matt Joyce, amassed 68.2% of the plate appearances in the cleanup spot (478 of the 701 plate appearances). Below is each players overall performance (including plate appearances as pinch hitters) while hitting 4th:
- Ben Zobrist: 221 PA — .254/.314/.425 an OPS of .739
- Evan Longoria: 161 PA — .206/.323/.353 an OPS of .676
- Matt Joyce: 96 PA —.282/.354/.565 an OPS of .919
In Baseball Prospectus book Baseball Between the Numbers James Click (a current member of the Rays front office) wrote a chapter titled Was Billy Martin Crazy where he focused on a number of topics concerning a teams lineup construction. He opened the chapter with the following:
Picking a lineup is one of baseball's most scrutinized decisions. Players often discuss feeling more comfortable in one lineup spot or another. Whether a player bats seventh or fifth can cause major controversy on sports radio and talk shows. Managers move players around the lineup in attempts to increase the team's run scoring, both by getting better players more plate appearances and by supposedly protecting the big bats in the lineup.
Although Ben Zobrist and Matt Joyce performed adequately in the cleanup position in 2011. Evan Longoria seemed to struggle the most in the cleanup spot in 2011 which is an oddity for him. In 2008 he had 143 PA as the cleanup hitter and posted a slash line of .281/.350/.594 an OPS of .943 and in 2010 he had 360 PA as the cleanup hitter and posted a slash line of .313/.369/.558 an OPS of .927.
When this disparity in numbers is brought up its only natural to ask the question - Did Evan Longoria have more protection hitting behind him in 2008 and 2010 than he had in 2011? One of the statements made by James Click in Was Billy Martin Crazy article was, "Furthermore, managers worrying about protecting their best hitters need not fret." An interesting commentary and an opportunity to examine what type of protection Zobrist, Longoria, and Joyce had hitting behind them when they hit in the cleanup spot in 2011 then let's take a look at the difference in protection in the lineup for Evan Longoria in 2008 and 2010 as opposed to 2011. It should be noted that no data is examined for Longoria's 2009 season because he only had 9 PAs in the cleanup spot.
Ben Zobrist made the most starts(52) as the Rays cleanup hitter in 2011 and posted a slash line of .255/.314/.425 an OPS of .739. The hitters who hit behind Zobrist in the fifth spot posted a slash line slightly better than Zobrist by posting a slash line of .259/.355/.407 an OPS of .762. The chart below details the five players who were used as protection for Ben Zobrist in the lineup.
Evan Longoria made the second most starts (38) as the cleanup hitter for the Rays and struggled and posted a slash line of .206/.323/.353 an OPS of .676. The hitters who hit fifth to protect Longoria were quite impressive and posted a slash line of .348/.396/.610 and OPS of 1.006. The chart below details the four players who were used as protection for Evan Longoria in the lineup.
Matt Joyce made the third most starts (33) as the cleanup hitter for the Rays in 2011 and posted an impressive slash line of .286/.358/.571 an OPS of .929. The hitters who hit fifth to protect Joyce were equally impressive and posted a slash line of .313/.370/.590 and OPS of 960. The chart below details the five players who were used as protection for Matt Joyce in the lineup.
In 2010 Evan Longoria made 84 starts as the cleanup hitter in the Rays lineup and posted a slash line of .313/.369/.558 an OPS of .927. The hitters that Joe Maddon placed 5th in the lineup as protection posted a slash line of .193/.317/.376 an OPS of .694. The chart below details the eight players who were used as protection for Evan Longoria in the lineup.
In 2008 Evan Longoria made 33 starts in the 4 spot in the Rays lineup and posted a slash line of .281/.350/.594 an OPS of .943. The hitters that Joe Maddon placed 5th in the lineup as protection posted a slash line of .217/.295/.426 an OPS of .721. The chart below details the six players who were used as protection for Evan Longoria in the lineup.
Much of the time Longoria spent in the cleanup spot in 2011 came after a disabled lists tint for a strained oblique and later it was revealed that he was fighting through a nerve-foot condition; therefore, the lack of protection in the lineup does not seem to be a valid reason as to why he struggled. The final conclusion in the James Click article is that:
There's no evidence that having a superior batter behind another batter provides the initial batter with better pitches to hit; if it does, those batters see no improvement in performance as a result.
This conclusion seems to be reinforced by Longoria's ability to far outperform his protection in 2008 and 2010.