Listening to Philadelphia sports fans recently makes me wonder if they all have amnesia. Everyone is concerned with Ryan Howard's "protection" and is saying Pat Burrell just doesn't cut it in that role.
Has everyone forgotten that Howard was MVP last year, with 58 home runs and a 1.084 OPS? And that was with Burrell, Aaron Rowand, David Dellucci, Jeff Conine, and even David Bell hitting behind him throughout the year. That's not exactly Murderer's Row for "protection."
That being said, I figured it would be worth looking at the actual lineups in Phillies games last year. Thanks to the wonderful resource at Baseball Reference, we have the complete list of Phillies lineups for 2006. As sometimes happens, tallying up the numbers surprised me. Do the casual fans and WIPidiots actually have it right? (GASP!)
It looks like they just might be correct . . . albeit with three qualifications and one limitation.
Pat Burrell batted behind Ryan Howard in only 38 games last year. Here are Howard's numbers in those games:
Ryan Howard had someone else hitting behind him in 121 games. In the beginning of the season, his "protection" came mostly from David Bell and Aaron Rowand. By the end of the season, it was coming from David Dellucci and Jeff Conine. Here's how Howard hit in those 121 games:
Comparing the two, with someone other than Burrell hitting behind him, Howard hit more home runs per plate appearance and had a higher slugging percentage, walked less and had a lower on-base percentage, hit for a higher average, and had a higher OPS.
Did reaching base more (with more walks) when Burrell hit behind him at least translate into a higher runs scored rate? No. In both sets of games, Howard scored one run every 6.8 plate appearances.
So there we have it. As much as it pains me to say it, the casual fan was right about last year: Ryan Howard was a more productive hitter with someone other than Pat Burrell hitting behind him.
But now the qualifications. First, Howard was still an MVP-caliber hitter with Pat Burrell hitting behind him. A 1.053 OPS is certainly nothing to laugh at (it would make him 4th in MLB in 2006, rather than 3rd); neither is a home run every 13.5 plate appearances. So, even with Burrell "protecting" him, Howard was excellent last year.
Second, as jonk pointed out yesterday, maybe Pat Burrell and his .388 OBP (in 2006) hitting in front of Howard is Howard's best "protection," because then he'd be hitting with a man on base. So, Burrell's value could be in hitting in front of Howard. And, with Howard behind Burrell, Burrell might see more pitches to hit.
Third, we do have a smallish sample size issue here with the Burrell games. Howard had 528 plate appearances without Burrell behind him, but only 176 with Burrell.
With all of these qualifications out there, I'll reiterate the conclusion: Howard hit better with someone other than Burrell behind him last year.
(Finally, the limitation. The lineup data I used is just the collection of starting lineups for games. I wasn't able to account for in-game lineup changes.)