Protecting Pujols

I posted this HERE initially but wanted to reproduce it on VEB. Afterall, much of my reason for writing is to get feedback on analysis and how it could improve.

It's a tired theme from the last several years that's likely to continue. The Cardinals obviously provided one answer by signing Matt Holliday to a franchise record contract. If Pujols and his career 173 wRC+ is given a free pass, the next hitter will still be difficult in Holliday (career 139 wRC+). For perspective on how much better this makes the Cards lineup, last year they had Ankiel (career 100 wRC+) and Ludwick (career 121 wRC+) batting cleanup for much of the season. With Holliday pushing Ludwick further down in the order, the Cardinals' offensive potential is much more formidable. That goes without factoring in the added production from third base. David Freese's widely projected average major leaguer status (VEB article) will be welcomed after 2009 when Cards' 3B hit a combined .229/.292/.369. This is clearly a more potent offense... but it all comes back to Albert.

The best way to force opposing teams to pitch to Pujols is for the guy hitting first or second to get on base AHEAD of him. Skip as lead-off hitter is a foregone conclusion but who is the best candidate for hitting second? If spring training trends are any indication, LaRussa believes it's Brendan Ryan who has taken a grand total of zero walks in 39 ABs; good for a line of .231/.225/.436. Meanwhile, Colby Rasmus had 16 BBs in 58 ABs and produced a sizzling .362/.500/.707 line.

Of course, Rasmus will not sustain such other-worldly numbers and there are concerns given his bizarre, "I'm not up there to take walks," (paraphrased from memory) statement and 6.9% BB from 2009. But Colby seems to be changing his approach at the plate as evidenced by quotes featured in BJ Rains' article in the Globe Democrat: "My focus has been on just taking a good approach up there and not swinging at anything that I don’t want to swing at, whether they call it or not." He also emphasizes the need to, "stay in your own strike zone," while LaRussa welcomes the young center fielder's changed hitting philosophy: "If he walks, those are runs." And there's a track record; Rasmus cultivated a career minor league walk rate that's right around 12%.

I'll admit that I was initially in favor of batting Rasmus lower in the order as it allows him to steal bases without the risk of taking the bat out of Pujols' hands if he were to get caught or create an open base at first by a successful steal attempt. In fact, I was arguing with one of my roommates about this just the other day. According to Derrick Goold's recent P-D article, LaRussa is considering a changed approach of his own by allowing the number two hitter to run more often, even if it comes at the expense of Pujols being intentionally walked.

According to The Book written by Tango, Lichtman, and Dolphin (2007), where the scoring distribution for base/out states are provided, walking Pujols would always lead to a greater chance of scoring a run.

1B 2B 3B Outs Run Expectancy
-- -- -- 0 .555
Rasmus -- -- 0 .953
-- Rasmus -- 0 1.189
Pujols Rasmus -- 0 1.573
-- -- -- 1 .297
Pujols -- -- 1 .573
Pujols Rasmus -- 1 .971
Pujols Rasmus -- 2 .466

This table clearly illustrates that the Cardinals benefit when Pujols is given a free pass... and taking the bat out of his hands isn't necessarily a bad development. Even in the worst case scenario where the opposing pitcher manages to retire the next two hitters (likely Holliday and Ludwick) without allowing the runners to advance, the Cardinals would still have a run expectancy of .466 (only .089 difference from when the inning started). With that said, there is considerable risk in allowing Colby (or anyone) to run in front of Pujols; an unsuccessful attempt drastically reduces the Cardinals' run expectancy. Even in that case, an intentional walk to Pujols elevates their run expectancy above .555 (where every inning begins).


Of course, these numbers don't account for the quality of pitcher on the mound and quality of hitter at the plate... so they aren't entirely accurate. Anyone know where to find that kind of information?

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