Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Murderer's Row

Fear comes from a lack confidence that results from impending circumstances out of your control. A person or group of people feel fear when an opponent has the opportunity, nay likelihood, of causing them harm, pain, or suffering. In baseball, match ups, constitute the crux of every part of the game. Do I bring in the lefty from the bullpen, or stick with the starter to face the pinch hitter? Wait, what if the other team pinch runs for the man on first, do I tell the pitcher to throw over, worry about a possible hit-and-run, or let the pitcher focus on the hitter? Baseball is a game of situations, match ups, one-on-one battles that incur difficult decisions influenced by dozens of factors. When fear clouds the judgment, we tend to make bad decisions, overlook objective data, and panic.

When putting together a team, General Managers want to compile an imposing lineup. How they decide what imposing means generally lies within their philosophy. Billy Beane's A's teams of the early 2000's, got on base from top to bottom. Some GM's look for hitters who all have power, or speed, or some other quality that makes it difficult for pitchers as they work there way through the batting order. If a pitchers sees a group of hitters who consistently get on base, it means throwing lots of pitches, and needing to be precise where the strike zone is concerned. If a pitcher sees a lineup full of home run hitters it invites the pitcher to be careful about leaving pitches in the middle of the strike zone, or to throw fewer fastballs early in the count.

Fielder and Cabrera
Every so often, one of the best teams in baseball can put out a lineup with 8 or 9, depending on the league, hitters that all strike fear in some way in the opposing pitcher. More often, pecuniary constraints force GMs to concentrate some fear-inspiring hitter in the middle or towards the top of the team's batting order. For example, Dave Dombrowski, the Detroit Tigers GM, signed Prince Fielder this past offseason to compliment his other great hitter Miguel Cabrera in the middle of the Tigers order. Those two have combined for an 11.6 fWAR, 244 runs batted in, 73 home runs, and 190 runs scored. These two embody the term run producers. Nonetheless, they make up only 2/9 of the Tigers daily lineup.

While 3/9 does not constitute that much more than 2/9, but it is 1/3 of a team's lineup. So, I took a look at who has the best set of three-in-a-row hitters in the Major Leagues. 6 teams stuck out more than the others.

Atlanta Braves: I begin with Atlanta, for no other reason than they are only one of two teams on this list to have their threesome include the leadoff hitter. Michael Bourn, Martin Prado, and Jason Heyward have individually put together outstanding seasons. They have the highest combined fWAR of any of the trios I have yet to mention at 18.7. The three bat 1-2-3 in the lineup, combining for 508 hits and 265 runs scored. These three get on base, OBP's of .335 or higher, steal bases, 76 combined steals, and make up 38% of the runs scored for the entire Braves team this season.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: The Angels made big splashes in the offseason signing big fish free-agent Albert Pujols, as well as lefty C.J. Wilson. On the other hand, two of the three boppers in their lineup came from elsewhere. Mike Trout, the should be AL MVP, does his damage from the leadoff position, while Torri Hunter, who has spent half of his career in Anaheim, sits for the most part in the second spot. Pujols, who has had a somewhat lesser year in comparison to his MVP-like seasons in St. Louis, has still put up good enough numbers to make this threesome quite formidable. They combined for 18.5 fWAR, 75 home runs, 286 runs scored, and 499 hits. They average a .366 on base percentage, .507 slugging percentage, and all three had at least a 126 wRC+. Much of the production is weighted towards Trout, but Pujols and Hunter make it very difficult for opposing pitchers to find comfort after dealing with Trout. It is obvious that Trout gets on base, and Hunter and Pujols knock him in, as the two have 120 extra-base hits so far this season.

Washington Nationals: The Nationals represent one of the few teams that can post a lineup card, minus the pitcher, full of very good hitters. Especially since Jayson Werth returned to the lineup, this group of batters has proven a pitcher's nightmare. On the other hand, for our purposes in this discussion, let's focus on three specific Nats. Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, and Adam LaRoche. These three wouldn't strike fear just by name, but they do a great job of wearing out opposing pitchers. They do so to the tune of a 12.6 combined fWAR, but more importantly, 454 hits, 77 home runs, and at least a .338 OBP from each. Harper has the 3rd highest OPS and 3rd most extra base hits among National League center fielders this season. Most importantly, all three hitters make the opposing pitchers throw more pitches. The three have an average pitches seen per plate appearance of 3.96, which ranks in the top quarter of the National League.

Aaron Hill
Arizona Diamondbacks: This trio of hitters surprised me more than any other on the list. The Diamondbacks are not in playoff contention, nor do they have any MVP candidates, but Aaron Hill, Justin Upton, and Miguel Montero have proven to be dangerous. Much of the three's success is supplied from Hill and Montero, who are both having great seasons. On the other hand, while Justin Upton hasn't lived up to his 2011 campaign, he remains dangerous due to his combination of power, speed, and ability to hit to the opposite field. These three combined to score 260 runs, and compiled 466 hits on their way to a combined fWAR of 13.6. This threesome had a higher average wOBA than the Braves best three hitters (according to WAR the best three in a row hitters on the list), doing so despite an fWAR difference of 4.9. The category these three lack that stops them from being one of the top 2 trios is their power. With only 56 combined home runs and only one player's ISO above .200, Aaron Hill, it seems clear that had Justin Upton played up to his potential this might have been the three best hitters in a row in the entire league.

St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals have been one of the highest ranked offenses in the Major Leagues all season, so it is only fitting that they appear on this list. Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, and Allen Craig have been huge for the Cardinals. Add in Carlos Beltran and David Freese on either end and you have a string of imposing hitters without any relief. Holliday, Molina, and Craig combined for a 15.0 fWAR and all three have at least a 6.50 RC/27 or higher, putting them all in the top 15 in the NL. These three are all right-handed, all have power, and 172 extra base hits. If we lop off Craig and add in Carlos Beltran, the trio of Beltran, Holliday, and Molina does a great job at getting on base with wOBAs of .348 or above, and an average walk percentage of 9.73%. Whether you use Beltran or Craig (both with 3.3 fWAR) the Cardinals provide a great combination of efficiency and power at the plate.

Ramirez and Hart
Milwaukee Brewers: This is the trio that sparked my interest in this piece. No trio makes pitchers as miserable as Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez, and Corey Hart. These three define murderer's row. A 17.7 combined fWAR does not do them justice for their offensive output. 507 combined hits, 98 home runs, 288 runs scored, and an average wRC+ of 146 put them in high esteem. When Braun, Ramirez, and Hart come to the plate, they use their best features, their muscles. Each brings to the plate an ISO of .239 or higher, and slugging percentages of .513 or higher. Braun carries a lot of the load here, but Ramirez and Hart aren't far behind.

It takes an entire team to win a ball game, but offensively, just a few players can often carry the load. If three hitters each have plate appearances, and they do so all in a row, it changes the way a pitcher has to prepare, and can often lead to compromising situations for managers. Baseball-Reference denotes low-leverage, medium-leverage, and high-leverage situations, and when three hitters like Trout, Hunter, and Pujols, or Braun, Ramirez, and Hart step to the plate, they will almost always provide more stress and pressure for a pitcher. Anything that can disrupt, even the best pitchers gives the hitting side, which is always at a disadvantage, more of a chance to succeed.

One important thing to note is that of the trios on this list with the highest combined WARs, neither the Angels nor the Brewers will likely be heading to October. What is most impressive about all of this, is that the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, despite not having a third player to back them up, have put together some of the best numbers for two hitters in a row in the Majors. These two mashers make it extremely difficult for opposing pitchers, especially since one is left-handed and other is a righty, and they have Austin Jackson at the top of the lineup, getting on base. While three fearsome hitter in a row definitely bests two, Prince and Miggy have made the best of their situation, and have seriously helped a defensively inept squad like the Tigers win the AL Central and make the playoffs.

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