Protecting Evan Longoria | The Process Report

Protecting Evan Longoria

When discussing a designated hitter option for the Rays, someone will mention how much the team needs that hitter in order to protect Evan Longoria. In baseball, protection is simply a disincentive so the opposing pitcher will not pitch around the team’s best hitter. Protection is usually in the form of a good hitter batting behind the best hitter, although some would likely accept clutch hitting as a proper disincentive too. The fear is that without protection for Longoria, the Rays’ offense will be wholly ineffective.

How legitimate is the concern?

Baseball’s leader in intentional walks since the 2008 season began play should be no surprise. Albert Pujols is the best hitter in the game and one who many considered unprotected in the St. Louis Cardinals’ lineup for years. Teams have given Pujols four wide ones 116 times over the last three seasons. The next highest total is Adrian Gonzalez (75) with the American League leader coming in a ways back at 52 (Miguel Cabrera). Longoria has 27 intentional walks in his career, or about nine per season, placing him in close company with Mark Teixeira and David Ortiz.

Below is a list of the players who rank in the top 10 of intentional walks since 2008. The number next to their names represents the annual average.

Albert Pujols: 39
Adrian Gonzalez: 25
Prince Fielder: 19
Miguel Cabrera: 17
Manny Ramirez: 16
Chipper Jones: 13
Ichiro Suzuki: 13
Lance Berkman: 13
Adam Dunn: 13
Ryan Howard: 13

Looking at those averages, one will notice the intentional walks are pretty uncommon. As it stands, Longoria is only four off (or 12 total) from making the top 10. That despite being adequately protected by Carlos Pena and others since breaking into the league. The working theory in the protection camp is that with Pena and Carl Crawford gone, Longoria’s intentional walks will sky rocket, but I’m not so sure that’s the case.

Take the case of Pujols – the man most commonly pitched around in baseball. He didn’t have his first 20-plus intentional walk season until his fifth full season in the majors; his first 30-plus intentional walk season came in his eight full season. These walks have driven the Cardinals to trading, signing, and re-signing numerous players in hopes of protecting their legend enough so that he can swing the bat more often.

The Cardinals acquired Matt Holliday to be their first line of defense in July 2009. Before that point in the season, the team used various hitters to watch Pujols’ back. Ryan Ludwick had done the best job, hitting .278/.338/.509 out of the fourth slot in nearly 300 plate appearances. Holliday has since outdone Ludwick in his first full season as chief protector by hitting .312/.390/.532 (along with 28 home runs and 45 doubles) but Ludwick did pretty well. The Cardinals did not just settle on Ludwick though. They used Chris Duncan for nearly 100 plate appearances and used Yadier Molina, Colby Rasmus, and even Nick Stavinoha on occasion.

With such an eclectic group, it becomes interesting to look at when Pujols was intentionally walked and when he was not during the 2009 season. Of his 44 intentional walks, only one came with the bases empty. All but two (42) came when there was a runner either on second, second and third, or third. A team walked Pujols with runners on the corners once. The most walks came in high leverage spots (20) but a higher sum came in medium and low leverage spots (24). In addition, more than half came with the Cardinals ahead (24) and only eight came with the Cardinals trailing (each by one run).

Clearly teams were not willing to let Pujols bat with a man in scoring position and why would they with inferior batters behind him. That was pre-Holliday, though, with Holliday, well, the decision to walk Pujols was not so easy. Yes, he remained the best hitter in baseball, but Holliday himself is no slouch. Teams had to ask themselves what’s worse: Pujols hitting with one or two men in scoring position or Holliday hitting with the bases loaded?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the latter is probably worse, so they decided to ease up on the intentional walks by, oh, six. That’s right, subbing in Holliday for Ludwick curbed the intentional walk problem by six. Not sixteen, not twenty-six, not sixty-six, but six. Teams still walked Pujols 36 times with a runner (or runners) in scoring position, once with the bases empty, and once with a runner on first (and second). Pujols was still walked 17 times in high leverage spots and 21 times in medium and low leverage spots, and teams actually walked Pujols with the Cardinals trailing one fewer time.

The thing is: Longoria will not receive the Pujols treatment. For one, Longoria is not as good as Pujols. Since 2008, Pujols has hit .331/.439/.635 with 126 home runs; Longoria has hit .283/.361/.521 with 82 home runs. Longoria is younger and plays in a tougher division, but he’s not in Pujols’ offensive stratosphere. Next – and remember, Pujols’ performance is a large part of the equation as to why he’s walked so much to begin with – is that Longoria actually has at least one good batter playing behind him in Matt Joyce. People love to ignore Joyce for some reason, but his career ISO is within a handful of points (six to be exact) of Pena’s career ISO. Now, Joyce is younger with less experience, but he’s also hit 25 home runs in his first 575 big league plate appearances.

It is true that teams may intentionally walk Longoria with a runner (or runners) in scoring position in order to bring in a lefty to face Joyce, but they could have and did do the very same things to Pena, Carl Crawford, and could do the same to David Ortiz, Adrian Gonzalez, Justin Morneau, and so on. Teams do these things as survival mechanisms. You know what teams won’t do? They won’t give Longoria four wide with the bases empty or a runner on first because 1) he’s not assured to reach base and 2) he’s too much of a double play threat. They also won’t walk Longoria in order to let Joyce face a right-handed pitcher; and if they do, it’s their mistake (Joyce has a career wOBA versus righties of .372; Longoria’s is .371).

If the plan is to protect Longoria from being walked then the solution is not necessarily adding a good batter behind him, but rather, adding a good batter in front of him. Longoria coming up with the bases empty is a sub-optimal condition. What the Rays want is Longoria up with runners on. Ideally, those runners will be in scoring position so that a single scores them, but with Longoria’s power, you could argue that he’s best leveraged by batting behind someone who gets on base yet lacks elite speed. The Rays happen to have those types in spades. There’s Dan Johnson, Joyce, Ben Zobrist, and even John Jaso on the current roster alone.

The added benefit to having one of the lefties hit in front of Longoria is that it should break up a chain of left-handed hitters. Particularly on days with a righty on the mound. Jaso could lead off with Zobrist batting second, then Joyce or Johnson, then Longoria, then the other of Joyce and Johnson, then a right-handed designated hitter, and so on.
If Longoria is intentionally walked more often with the bases empty, then maybe there’s something to the protection issues. But you know what? Worse things can happen than teams giving Longoria an on-base percentage well into the .400s.



3 Comments

  1. buddaley wrote:

    I agree with your conclusions, but I think you also have to contend with another argument that the “needs protection” people make, and that is that pitchers may not intentionally walk him more but will be more willing to nibble and pitch around him if they are not afraid of the next hitter. The upshot, these people say, is that Longoria will likely get fewer good pitches to hit and either expand his strike zone in frustration or be swinging at more pitcher’s pitches on the corners.

  2. m_weber wrote:

    I agree with the previous commenter. Protection doesn’t just mean protection from intentional walks, it also means protection from the opposing pitcher nibbling and not being concerned about walking the batter.

  3. buddaley wrote:

    Just to clarify, I am not agreeing with those who say Longoria needs protection to avoid facing pitchers who won’t challenge him. I am merely pointing out that I have heard and read those arguments. I think I have read research that disputes such views but am not sure where.

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