Much has been made about the Brewers’ revamped line-up. Since Jean Segura, Ryan Braun, Jonathan Lucroy, and Carlos Gomez were slotted 1-4, which started last Saturday in Miami, the Brewers have averaged 6.1 runs per game. Leading the charge is the Brewers’ latest lead-off hitter, Jean Segura. After landing in the top spot during the series finale in Atlanta, Segura has gone on a tear. In the nine games that he has led off, prior to Sunday’s matinee with the Cubs, Segura is hitting for a .333 AVG / .778 OPS with 9 R, 3 RBI, and 2 SB. After a sluggish start to the season, Segura’s 114 wRC+ shows that he’s become an above-average offensive threat at the top of this line-up.
Recently, on the Brewers’ FS-Wisconsin broadcast, Brian Anderson mentioned that Ron Roenicke’s decision to move Segura to the top of the order was inspired by Tampa Bay Ray’s coach Joe Maddon. Supposedly, Maddon likes to move a struggling hitter into a new slot in line-up in the hopes that the new perspective gets his bat going. After relaying the story, Anderson threw in the quick suggestion that hitting before Ryan Braun probably didn’t hurt Segura either.
Line-up protection is a concept normally applied to sluggers and stars. Prince Fielder batted behind Braun, then Miguel Cabrera during their respective MVP seasons, and some have argued that Fielder deserves a little credit for their success. They suggest that pitchers adjusted their approach to Braun and Cabrera because Fielder loomed in the on-deck circle.
Anderson’s remark about Braun, in essence, “protecting” Segura got me thinking. Segura surged to start last season, while primarily batting before Braun. Then limped through the season’s second half with Braun on his mandatory vacation. While that was my initial impression, I wondered if there was any statistical proof that Segura’s offense has been better when batting before Braun.
So I built a spreadsheet that tracked where Segura batted, who batted behind him, how he performed, and how he was pitched. What I first discovered was that Segura is an interesting test case for the line-up protection theory based on the variety of players who have batted behind him. Here’s a breakdown of who has protected Segura in the Brewers’ line-up:
[Stats cover Segura’s first game with the Crew (8/6/12) through Saturday’s game against the Cubs (5/31/14)]
That’s a solid cross-section of the team that has batted behind Segura. I grouped anyone without a significant sample size in the “Other” category. For the super inquisitive, here’s how the “Others” category breaks down by PA:
So Segura has had Braun batting behind more than any other Brewer. Is there any connection to whether Segura hits better with an MVP protecting him?
Below is how Segura has performed while batting before his various protectors. Listed from his best OPS to worst:
Surprisingly, Segura’s best numbers come when he’s batting before the “Other” group. Then there’s a nearly 50-point dip in OPS followed by Gomez and, finally, Braun. So, while Segura has a solid slash line when batting before Braun, Ryan Braun doesn’t do a better job of “protecting” Segura than a random assortment of “other” Brewers.
Now, Segura’s best numbers also come with the two groups (Other and Gomez) that have the smallest sample size. So there’s a good chance that if he got 200 more PAs before Gomez or the “Others,” Segura’s numbers would dip. Plus, the numbers above are the results of the PAs. What about the pitchers’ process? Is it significantly different when Braun is batting next compared to the pitcher’s spot?
If the “line-up” protection theory has legs, one would expect that Segura would see more pitches in the strike zone while batting before Braun and fewer when batting before pitchers or the “Others” group. The thinking is that a pitcher would rather challenge Segura when Braun was up next and would be more cautious to Segura with the pitcher waiting in the wings. Similarly, one might expect that Segura would see more fastballs when batting before Braun for the same reasons.
So I dissected how Segura was pitched based on who batted behind him. I looked at Zone%, the percentage of pitches thrown in the strike zone to Segura, and what kind of pitches they were. I’ve taken what I’ve discovered and sorted them by highest to lowest Zone%:
Again, the numbers don’t fit the perception of “line-up” protection. Segura sees fewer pitches in the strike zone when Braun bats behind him. That’s not what one would expect. Also, Segura sees the lowest percentage of fastballs when Braun is protecting him. Again, not what the theory of line-up protection would predict.
To me, the tight grouping of Zone% suggests that pitchers are not changing their approach to Segura based on who’s batting behind him. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pitcher or an MVP in the on-deck circle, pitchers are throwing Segura something in the strike zone about 50% of the time.
In the end, I couldn’t find any statistical evidence that Segura benefits from Braun batting behind him. In this case, line-up protection seems to be a theory without any teeth. It may build a good narrative but it doesn’t bare out in the numbers.