Billy Hamilton’s Reverse Lineup Protection

You’d think that here in 2015, alongside our flying hoverboards and pill-based meals, we’d have finally eradicated the myth of “lineup protection.” The idea that having a dangerous hitter on deck would give the pitcher incentive to challenge the current batter with hittable pitches lest he walk him and put a man on for the better hitter may make sense in theory, but in practice it’s been proven wrong in an endless stream of studies, dating back to at least 1985.

But as I’ve watched the first week of games, it keeps coming up on broadcasts, seemingly endlessly. It’s not worth worrying about whether a great hitter has someone dangerous behind him — that hasn’t stopped Andrew McCutchen or Giancarlo Stanton or Robinson Cano in recent years — and it’s not worth worrying about whether the hitters in front of those great hitters get more hittable pitches. It’s been definitively proven that either there’s no effect at all or, if there is one, it’s so imperceptibly small and clouded by other variables that there’s no meaningful gain to be had from it.

It’s certainly not my intention today to give you yet another study on why lineup protection is terribly overrated in the traditional sense. What’s more interesting today is that we’re seeing, at least in one case in the early going, a different kind of lineup protection.

Depending on how you looked at it, Billy Hamilton’s rookie season was either a nice success or a disappointing letdown. Thanks to outstanding defense and elite speed, Hamilton put up a season worth nearly four wins. For a player who’d been playing the outfield for just one professional season and brought considerable questions about whether he’d be able to hit enough in the bigs to stick, that’s a nice first impression.

On the other hand, Hamilton gave us arguably the worst swing we’ve ever seen, hit just .200/.254/.257 in the second half, and, most unforgivably, was thrown out nearly 30% of the time when trying to steal, a number completely unacceptable for a player with his speed. He didn’t just lead the majors in times caught stealing; he came within one time of tying for the most since the turn of the century.

Some of that, surely, can be chalked up to a young player in his first year in the big leagues learning the rhythms of the pitchers and catchers around the league, and Hamilton committed to working with first base coach Billy Hatcher (who stole more than 30 bags four times himself) to improve that. So far, things have been a little different. Through Sunday, the Reds have played six games. Hamilton has stolen seven bags, and been caught zero times.

Now maybe you’re wondering how we veered off from a conversation about lineup protection into one about Billy Hamilton stealing bases, and here’s how we tie that together. Hamilton himself credits a different kind of lineup protection for helping him be more successful on the bases:

Hamilton says having Joey Votto, the Reds’ most selective hitter, hit behind him helps. “I feel like now I don’t have to steal right away,” Hamilton said. “I can go whenever I feel like is the right time.”

“One thing I noticed is they’re not going to slide-step every pitch,” he said. “Last year, it was in my mind to go right away. I’m going to curveballs more, deeper in the count. (Thursday), I went on ball in the dirt and got an easy one.

Last year, six different Reds got at least a dozen starts in the No. 2 spot, including Skip Schumaker (19!) and Brayan Pena (13!!). This year, it’s been Votto every game, as the surprising Reds have gotten off to a 4-2 start. Five of the seven steals have come with Votto hitting. (The other two have come with Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco batting.) If this sounds familiar, it’s because nearly a year ago, Votto told Eno Sarris that this really is the only type of lineup protection that matters:

“The best lineup protection is when Billy Hamilton is on base in front of me, and it’s not about protection, it’s that I get a more predictable pitch to hit — fastball,” Votto said.

Hamilton likes having Votto behind him. Votto likes having Hamilton ahead of him. It’s a perfect pairing, apparently. So this is interesting, because it puts the opposition in a difficult spot. Do you throw a fastball, hoping to limit Hamilton on the bases while risking giving Votto something juicy? Or do you attack Votto with breaking pitches, knowing that it’ll make throwing Hamilton out difficult or impossible?

After those comments, studies focused on whether Votto actually did get more fastballs. Jason Collette looked into it here in May and determined that he hadn’t; Ben Lindbergh did the same a few weeks later and reminded us that attempted steals can be distracting to both the pitcher and the batter. Ultimately, both cautioned that the sample size was too limited to draw any real conclusions about the impact on Votto, and while it’s fun to look at his .333/.429/.708 line to start the season, the variable of being healthier than last year has to color any analysis. We still don’t really have enough data to determine how hitting behind Hamilton has affected Votto.

Anyway, we’re not talking about fastballs to Votto in terms of how it helps him hit, we’re talking about how Votto’s presence may help Hamilton steal. It’s not like opponents don’t know that stealing bases is the primary reason why Hamilton exists — in a baseball sense, not a metaphysical one — and if there’s something about Votto hitting second that helps Hamilton, then it’s certainly worth the Reds’ time.

Last year, of Hamilton’s 23 times caught stealing, six were marked as pickoffs. Though they’re still outs made on the bases, we’ll set them aside for now. Of the remaining 17, they broke down like this:

Billy Hamilton, Caught Stealing, 2014
Batter Pitch Type Pitch of PA
Frazier 5 Hard 16 First 8
Phillips 2 Breaking 1 Second 6
Schumaker 2 Third 2
Votto 2 Fourth 1
Bruce 1 Fifth Or More 0
Negron 1
Santiago 1
Heisey 1
Pena 1
Cozart 1

So immediately, something stands out there, and that’s the middle column. I’m using the Brooks definition for pitch classification there, which means that the 16 times Hamilton got thrown out on a fastball (two- or four-seam, or a cutter or sinker) are referred to as “hard.” There were no off-speed pitches to speak of, and the one time he got thrown out on a breaking pitch, it was a June slider with Todd Frazier at the plate.

This says a few things, namely that there really might be something to Hamilton saying that he needs to choose his pitches better, and that it really might be close to impossible to throw Hamilton out without a fastball. Since I already know you’re dying to know, here’s how that lone breaking pitch caught stealing went — there’s not a whole lot of “slide” in that Ryan Vogelsong “slider.”

hamilton_posey_caught-stealing

So Hamilton usually went early, and he usually went on pitches that would put him in the most danger. Unfortunately, gathering that info was a pretty manual process, so I don’t currently have the data on his successful steals to compare it against. But we can immediately see a difference by looking at what he’s done in his seven successful steals so far this year:

Billy Hamilton, Stolen Bases, 2015
Batter Pitch Type Pitch of PA
Votto 5 Hard 2 First 2
Frazier 1 Breaking 3 Second 3
Mesoraco 1 Off-Speed 1 Third 2
Other 1 Fourth 0
Four 0

He’s still running early — that part hasn’t changed — but check out that middle column. Bearing in mind that the uncorrected PITCHf/x labels aren’t always perfect, that’s a massive difference. Now, he’s runnng on sliders and change-ups, not only fastballs.

But wait, “other?” Yes, “other.” It’s the only reasonable description that covers stealing on a pitchout…

hamilton_pitch-out_steal

…which reminds you that Hamilton’s speed is so dangerous that sometimes it really doesn’t matter what choice he makes. But so far this season, we’re seeing smarter choices, and we’re seeing considerably improved success.

Now: Is this “lineup protection,” or is this a young player learning the finer qualities of the running game? Both, probably. Hamilton is learning when he ought to go. The threat of Votto prevents the opposition from simply pumping fastballs with Hamilton on base, as they could have when the punchless Schumaker or Pena or Cozart were up. The Reds need a whole lot to go right if they’re going to stick around this year. A lineup top two that functions in a positive symbiotic relationship with one another like Hamilton and Votto would be a fantastic start towards that goal.





Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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Rockshu
Member

Great read, Mike.