Tuesday, April 19, 2011

7 comments Why Is Jason Heyward Getting More At-Bats a Bad Thing?

There is a sort-of-but-not-really mini crisis going on in Atlanta right now. Jason Heyward is batting sixth in the Braves lineup on a consistent basis. I don't think it is necessarily Heyward hitting sixth that bothers some people, it is Nate McLouth hitting second instead of Heyward. McLouth has been pretty bad for the Braves since coming over from the Pirates. Now, the mini-crisis may be over or it may not be. Gonzalez refuses to say whether batting Heyward second in the lineup is permanent or not.

I will assume Fredi Gonzalez intends on sticking with this lineup, quite possibly until the day Jason Heyward leaves Atlanta to sign with the Yankees as a free agent in early 2017 (I think that's the date on my calendar this will happen). Anyway, Fredi Gonzalez wants us to know he isn't backing down on this and doesn't care if he has to use fuzzy logic to defend the move.

It doesn’t sound as if Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez is planning significant changes to his lineup. So don’t expect to see Jason Heyward batting second anytime soon.

Actually, Heyward did bat sixth a few days after this was written, but it isn't permanent and then Heyward was back in the 2-hole the day after that. It was just a tease. If it wasn't a small sample size, I would mention Heyward went 2-8 with a home run in the two games where he hit second. It is a small sample size of course, so I won't mention that, but as terrible as that is, it is still better than McLouth.

Plenty of fans and baseball analysts have opined that Gonzalez should move slugger and on-base-percentage machine Heyward up from his current sixth slot.

I have a very simple reason for saying this should happen. Jason Heyward should get as many at-bats as possible during the season. He gets on-base and the best place for him is second in the lineup because Jones, Uggla and McCann should be in the 3rd/4th/5th spots of the lineup. It's pretty simple. It's not about "protecting" anyone, but simply getting Heyward more at-bats.

The No. 2 position – Nate McLouth’s current spot — is a preferred destination of many critics.

Fangraphs has an article that basically says, "Having McLouth hit second isn't costing the Braves THAT many runs if you project McLouth's season optimistically" as the reasoning for Braves fans not worrying. I'm not going to get into the statistics of it, partially because I haven't looked into ZIPS very much in evaluating a player, but I will say I wouldn't go with the optimistic valuation of McLouth.

The two other reasons from this article about not worrying trouble me as well if I were a Braves fan:

1. Dave Cameron, the author, basically saying that it is a smart move based on ZIPS given McLouth's career statistics. Normally, I wouldn't have a problem with this, but McLouth has been awful over the past two seasons in Atlanta, so thinking he will hit his career averages, when he hasn't indicated he is capable of this is too optimistic for me.

McLouth has a career line in Pittsburgh of .261/.339.462.
McLouth has a career line in Atlanta of .227/.327/.370.

That's as of April 18th. So he has been bad in Atlanta and has been especially awful in 2010 and the first part of 2011, so even his average hitting during 2009 skews these numbers a bit.

2. The second reason he says Braves fans shouldn't worry is...and I will quote him exactly:

But if McLouth is going to hit like a middle infielder for the rest of 2011, odds are pretty good he’s not going to hit second all year. Gonzalez is not a stupid person, and he’s not going to keep an underperforming McLouth hitting at the top of the order all season. If the pessimistic assessment of his abilities is true, the difference in performance will be larger, but the length of time that this experiment lasts will be shorter.

So basically if McLouth keeps hitting like he has been then Fredi Gonzalez will eventually move him out of the second spot in the lineup. So basically don't worry Braves fans because your manager can't be stupid and keep McLouth in the second spot all year, even though the circumstantial evidence McLouth would hit better than Heyward at the beginning of the year wasn't compelling to anyone with eyes and Gonzalez still handed the second spot in the order to McLouth.

Besides, Gonzalez wants a second hitter that is fast and can bunt really well. I'm not kidding. That's his criteria for why McLouth is qualified for the job.

So I acknowledge Fan Graphs says not to worry, but what should worry the world in general is Gonzalez's entire logic behind the move. I say it should worry the world because one year it is a single manager using logic like this, the next year we see Josh Hamilton batting 7th in an attempt to protect Mike Napoli at the bottom of the Texas Rangers batting order.

“Yeah,” he said. “When you make out the lineup, the lineup is a function of the entire lineup – eight guys, not just one guy.

Which is why the entire logic of putting Heyward in the sixth spot to protect Dan Uggla and ensuring there is a rightie/leftie lineup all through the order doesn't make sense. We know the lineup is a function of the entire lineup, which is why batting your second best hitter sixth in the batting order doesn't necessarily make sense. In the function of the entire lineup, the second place hitter needs to be on-base for the other hitters in the lineup and using him to protect one other batter in a spot where he can be on-base for lesser hitters (namely Alex Gonzalez/Freddie Freeman) doesn't seem smart.

Statisticians, numbers crunchers and my SABR [Society for American Baseball Research] people – I’m a member – they shoot holes in that stuff.

Simply because you are a member doesn't mean all your decisions are SABR-approved.

But you’re dealing with humans in the way the lineup is constructed.

What? I thought these players were all robots?

Robots or humans, I think your best hitters need to get the most at-bats possible in the spot in the order where his value is optimized. I don't see how that is the sixth spot for Heyward.

“Yeah, you put this guy in the No. 2 hole, but what are you going to do to the 6-hole?

Put a player in there too? I don't see how the concern over what to do with the 6-hole means a lesser player (and more ill-fitted player) has to hit in the 2-hole. Did I miss memo where the sixth spot in the order was pronounced the most important spot in a batting order? Again, you want your best hitters getting the most at-bats at the best possible spot for them in the order. You want your best hitters to have guys to drive in as well. Nate McLouth's two biggest qualifications to bat in the second spot so far have been:

He isn't hitting well.
He can bunt.
He has "speed," which he utilize by running back to the dugout quickly after contributing nothing to the Braves team in the 2-hole.

What are you going to do to [No. 5 hitter Dan] Uggla when he’s hitting good?”

Watch him drive in more runs because there are more runners on-base? I thought the lineup was a function of the entire lineup and not just about one player. It seems Heyward hitting sixth is derived out of the primary function of making sure Dan Uggla has protection behind him. If Nate McLouth is good enough to hit in front of Chipper Jones, then why isn't he good enough to hit behind Dan Uggla?

It is some form of backward logic Gonzalez is using. Rather than worrying about the middle of the order having runners to bat in, he is worried the middle of the order has enough "protection," so they have a chance to get good pitches to hit, while forgetting he is burying one of his best players in the sixth spot. It doesn't matter if the middle of the order has "protection" or good pitches to hit if there aren't guys on-base to drive in. After saying the batting order is not about one player, Gonzalez has designed his entire batting order around two players, Nate McLouth and Dan Uggla. That doesn't make sense.

Gonzalez believes his current lineup is balanced, and that that balances, along with the alternating left-handed/right-handed situation up and down the order, will cause difficulties for opposing managers when most of the Braves are hitting well.

It's not balanced because a guy who got on-base at a .393 clip as a rookie is hitting sixth in the lineup for a guy who has a career high OBP of .356 and an OBP in 2010 of .298. His best hitters aren't getting the most at-bats in the spot of the order that maximizes their value.

“Like the situation [Tuesday], when McLouth bunts [Martin] Prado over to third,” he said. “Now are you are going to play the infield in?

This comment explains my entire problem perfectly. McLouth BUNTS Prado over to third base. Who wants a guy like Heyward who can actually get on-base without bunting when you can give away an out and bunt?

Are you going to pitch to Chipper or pitch to [No. 4 hitter Brian] McCann? That kind of stuff.

(Announcer #1) "What a move by Gonzalez! He has had McLouth bunt and now Martin Prado is at third-base. ARE THE CARDINALS GOING TO MOVE THE INFIELD IN OR NOT! YOUR MOVE LARUSSA!"

(Announcer #2) "I don't understand what's happening. It is the first inning. Why would the infield be drawn in?"

(Announcer #1) "You just don't get it. It's all part of the lineup function of the Braves. Are the Cardinals going to pitch to Chipper or McCann? Or will LaRussa just decide to walk those two guys and load the bases?"

(Announcer #2) "Don't we have that question anyway? First base is still open if the second hitter gets an out, so the Cardinals would still have to make this decision on how to pitch to Jones and McCann. It may have made more sense to put Heyward in the second spot and then hope he gets a base-hit or gets on-base, thereby having Jones and McCann up with zero outs."

(Announcer #1 spitting on Announcer #2) "Then who the hell would protect Dan Uggla?"

(Announcer #2) "What does Uggla have to do with this? I thought we were talking about the situation LaRussa was in about whether to pitch to Jones and McCann."

(Announcer #1 flashes his SABR card at Announcer #2) "I am a member, so I know what I am talking about. If Heyward is in the second spot then how the hell is Uggla supposed to be protected?"

(Announcer #2 screaming) "What does Dan Uggla have to do with the situation LaRussa is in right now? He isn't up for two more batters."

(Announcer #1) "But now LaRussa has to decide whether to pitch to Jones and McCann. What a move by Fredi Gonzalez. I have an erection."

(Announcer #2) "Of course he is going to pitch to them. It's the first inning. I am so confused as to what decision has to be made by Tony LaRussa. Potentially, if Jason Heyward were in the second spot then the Braves would have runners on first and third right now with zero outs. The point of an offense is to score runs."

(Announcer #1) "Actually, a lineup's purpose is to be functional. Yeah, Heyward could hit second, but then LaRussa wouldn't have to make a decision on whether to pitch to Jones or McCann because he would obviously pitch to them and that doesn't make it a functional lineup. It's all about a functional lineup."

(Announcer #2 sits in silence very confused)

(Announcer #1) "Tough break for the Braves as Jones walked and then McCann and Uggla struck out. Braves can't get a run across. The good news is Jason Heyward leads off the next inning for the Braves."

As far as Prado being at third, the same question would remain if Heyward was in the second spot. If someone bunted Prado over or (God forbid) got a base hit in the second spot, would the other team play the infield in or not? It depends purely on what inning it is and the circumstances of the game. The decision for the other team BEFORE the second spot comes up is how to pitch to Heyward because Chipper Jones is behind him in the lineup. Putting McLouth there lets the opposing team attack him (assuming he doesn't bunt) because he isn't a dangerous hitter and ensures Jones will come up with one out...at least ensuring moreso than if Heyward were in the second spot.

“When everybody doing things like we did yesterday, hitting gappers, hitting some balls out of the ballpark, it makes [the lineup] good.”

Of course, anytime a team is hitting the ball well the lineup looks really good. This is kind of "no-shit" statement. This reminds me of what one of my friends says in reference to his favorite college basketball team that annoys the shit out of me. He will say, "When UNC is hitting their three-point shots and playing great defense they can't be beat." No shit. That goes for pretty much any basketball team.

The same thing applies to a lineup here. If a lineup is hitting well, the lineup is good. I get concerned sometimes about things managers say.

Some critics have cited the additional 60-80 plate appearances that Heyward could get if he hit high in the order as a big flaw in Gonzalez’s lineup. He was asked specifically about that fact and if he thought it was outweighed by the overall function of the lineup.

Right. The "overall function of the lineup," which appears to be "protect Dan Uggla and make sure Nate McLouth hits well enough to be an average players" as opposed to the highly less logical, "score more fucking runs to win games."

“I think the way the lineup is constructed is more important,” he said,

No one is going to argue this point. Bottom line...the Braves lineup is constructed to where their second-best hitter sees less plate appearances, has fewer opportunities to get driven in when on-base and has less protection (if we REALLY want to talk about protection) then he would otherwise get batting second in the lineup.

Mumbling some crap about "overall function" of a lineup or talking about lineup construction is great. The problem is the overall function of a lineup is to score runs and even using overly optimistic projections of McLouth's hitting abilities still has the Braves scoring more runs with Jason Heyward hitting second rather than McLouth.

“Then why don’t we lead off [Albert] Pujols? Or [Barry] Bonds? Lead ‘em off.”


The fact Fredi Gonzalez said this tells me he doesn't understand the counter-argument to batting McLouth second in the batting order. No one is saying you should bat your best hitters as far up in the lineup as possible. The counter-argument is that a fast, great hitting, OBP-machine like Jason Heyward should be batting in the lineup at a spot where he is on-base to get driven in or in a spot where he can drive in runs. Since the third spot in the batting order is taken, the second spot is the best place for him.

To suggest Bonds or Pujols should bat higher in the order, even out of jest, shows Gonzalez just doesn't get it. They should not bat lead off because they need to be at-bat when there are runners on-base. Jason Heyward is a runner who would be on-base, because that's what he does well.

Gonzalez then came back to reiterate one of the factors he emphasizes – the “human being” aspect. He’s said several times that part of why he decided in the spring to put McLouth in the 2-hole – besides his speed and bunting ability — was that he wanted him to get more fastballs, to get him going after his career-worst 2010 season.

Because the primary function of the 2011 Braves lineup should be to make sure an outfielder who had two seasons of being an above average player gets back to that point. This logic coming from Gonzalez who previously said the function of the lineup isn't about one player, which clearly was a complete lie.

For fuck's sake...why the hell would you put McLouth in the second spot for his bunting ability when you can put a guy in that spot who can get on-base and doesn't have to give up an out? Can we fire Fredi Gonzalez now? He is placing players in the lineup based on their ability to BUNT.

I would also like to talk about McLouth's "speed." He has 84 career stolen bases and 39 stolen bases since the beginning of the 2009 season. Is his "speed" really that important to the Braves lineup compared to Heyward's ability to hit the baseball?

“Believe me,” Gonzalez said, “when a guy’s going good in a certain spot — he likes it; he’s comfortable –

Unfortunately, Nate McLouth isn't "going good" and hasn't been for two years now.

“When you’re going bad, you come up with the bases loaded every time. I mean, you can be hitting 11th and it’ll happen. When you’re going good, it doesn’t matter.

Clearly, Fredi Gonzalez is a spy sent from another team to submarine any chances the Braves have to win 90 games.

“Everybody [in the lineup] has got a function.”

More gibberish. The function of a guy with a batting average below .250, below an OBP of .300 and has shown no power is to push his ass as far down the lineup as possible. The function of a guy who hits .270+, with an OBP of .370+ and who can hit 20 home runs is to have him up to the plate as much as possible.

The function of Fredi Gonzalez is to talk gibberish in a terrible attempt to justify his crazy lineup.


J.S. said...

lol, I knew this was coming. Bottom of the Barrel now is in the "bloggers irate at Fredi Gonzalez" fraternity. Not exactly a great way to endear yourself to Braves fans after Bobby Cox now is it?

Nice piece Ben

Fred Trigger said...

I have a request. What is your take on the Perkins trade? I don't know shit about basketball, but you would think the sky is falling in Boston after the trade was made.

Bengoodfella said...

J.S. I tried to avoid being a part of the fraternity. I really did, but his comments about batting Pujols or Bonds first threw me over the edge.

I am all for Fredi Gonzalez trying different things, no problem there, but the different things have to make sense. This doesn't make sense. Heyward is born to be a #2/#3 hitter and taking him away from that spot just doesn't make sense. The idea it doesn't hurt the Braves THAT BAD is ridiculous. Best case scenario is the Braves lose minimal runs they need to win games.

Fred, I am not too smart about basketball either, but I didn't like the trade. I learned about it a few minutes before we did a podcast and I was in shock. I don't really care about Ubuntu and the team chemistry stuff. Winning creates chemistry sometimes. I was worried, and still am worried, the Celtics traded their best inside presence. I don't think he can be replaced in what they try to do offensively and defensively and it will come back to bite them.

I am not freaking out about it, but the Celtics got a backup small forward/power forward plus a soft center in return. I just think it will hurt them against tougher inside teams. So by getting the depth they think they needed they depleted the biggest question of the team, which is the center position with the two O'Neals not dependable at all.

I also don't buy they got younger. Jeff Green isn't that much younger than Perkins and I think he can be anymore than a backup on a championship team. I am happy to get the first round pick though. I like the depth, I hate losing skill at a position the Celtics will need skill at if they want to compete for an NBA title.

Anonymous said...

The stupid conventional baseball wisdom that the number two hitter has to be a slap-hitting guy who sucks but can bunt always struck me as a nonsensical idea.

The most obvious reason is the one you mentioned - that you want as many guys on base as possible for Chipper and McCann and Uggla.

And the other obvious reason is that intentionally giving an inferior hitter 60 more plate appearances over a far superior hitter is just an outright contradiction of common sense.

But here's one lesser reason that always seemed obvious to me that doesn't get talked about too much. Generally speaking, isn't the leadoff guy someone who can handle himself on the bases pretty well? So why the hell would anybody ever intentionally give away an out to move an already-decent baserunner over to third base? Prado could probably score on many base hits from 2nd base. Prado also could probably move over to third base on a number of types of batted balls, such as sac flies or even some groundballs and fielding errors. Basically my point is, the leadoff hitter usually isn't a guy that needs help moving around the bases - he can usually handle baserunning pretty well by himself. This seems especially nuts to me when an absolute speed demon like Jose Reyes is bunted over a base. It's like...what's the point? Can't he just swipe it on hiw own, or advance on a wide number of types of batted balls besides a bunt? It doesn't make any sense to me.

What a lot of people don't realize is that getting a good bunt isn't a 100% success event. It is far from that. Hitters screw it up quite often, even guys who are known as being good bunters. So part of the reason this strategy is self-defeating is that it doesn't have a 100% rate of actually advancing the runner.

The number two hitter should be one of the 4 best hitters on the team, period. Even if he gets out, chances are that the runners will be able to advance the bases anyway depending on the type of batted ball. Save the bunting crap for the bottom of the order, where you probably have a few players that might have trouble advancing themselves on the bases. Actually I would probably just do away with most bunting altogether (except for pitchers), it mostly seems self-defeating to me, unless you notice an obvious defensive gap in the infield and think you can bunt for a base hit.

Bengoodfella said...

Anon, your third paragraph is my entire reasoning for why Heyward should bat second. I don't believe it makes sense for an inferior hitter to get 60 more at-bats during a season than a better hitter. Throw in the fact you, as a manager, want guys on-base for your power hitters and moving McLouth from the 2-hole is just common sense.

I don't like the profile of the 2-hole hitter as the guy who bunts and all of that either.

I think you make a valid point and I was thinking of something similar when I wrote this, but couldn't formulate it into the thought that you did. If Prado or any leadoff hitter is on 2nd base, he has good odds of scoring on a base hit. So if there are zero outs in the inning, it may not make sense to bunt him over to third base unless you are playing for only one run (tie game in the 9th inning). Many leadoff hitters can score from second base on a base hit, so there may be no need to bunt...unless a team just likes giving outs away. For the Braves, Prado isn't terribly fast, but he can score from second on a hit often.

One other issue with McLouth specifically being the bunter is that if Prado is on second and McLouth gets a lousy bunt down, the catcher has a free lane and good vision to throw the ball to third base. The same thing would be true for Heyward being a left handed hitter, but he won't be bunting as often. The catcher doesn't have to worry about the runner crossing over his line of sight as the bunt is laid down, so it is possible with a bad bunt he could get the runner at third. Knowing a bunt isn't 100% successful, even when a bunt is successful it still gives away an out and I would rather have a good hitter in the 2-hole up there anyway.

The number two hitter should be one of the top batters, you are right about that. He is the guy who gets on-base for the "big boppers" and he should ideally be a guy who can get on-base. McLouth isn't that guy.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I do think that Robot Managers would be more effective than real managers.

I think baseball managers are pretty much all overrated. The fact that not one of them is willing to spit in the face of the save rule for more optimal bullpen management shows that they lack true innovation and lack original thinking. Most of them manage in a very robotic fashion anyway - they assign specific innings to relievers, they have dumb batting orders that they stubbornly stick to, they stick with the declining veteran too long over the younger guy with upside, etc.

A Robot Manager with some simple programming (Don't ever bat McClouth ahead of Jason Heyward") could probably squeeze out a better overall performance from the team. I'm kind of serious. I just don't get why any manager is paid millions of dollars to basically sit on their ass, watch baseball, and make decisions that are based more on cliche than rational thought.

Bengoodfella said...

Anon, managers can be overrated. Especially when they tinker too much and make too many changes in an effort to "improve" the team. I think managers have a place, but can be overrated in some ways. As long as the manager makes intelligent moves and doesn't overthink things, then I don't have a huge problem.

Managers do make decisions based on cliche, rather than rational thought. In Game 4 of the NLDS last year Bobby Cox brought in a lefty (I think it was Johnny Venters) to face Aubrey Huff instead of letting Craig Kimbrel face Huff because...............he wanted a LH-LH matchup. Nevermind Kimbrel pitched better statistically LH than Venters.

Yeah, I'm still bitter.

McLouth over Heyward in the 2-hole is a case of a manager overthinking things for a specific situation.