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July 15, 2008 at 10:58 AM

Protection racket?

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Now that we’ve remembered what home runs are supposed to look like, with a Canadian once again establishing athletic dominance last night in the made-for-relevision Home Run Derby (in the final round, anyhow — Josh Hamilton did the rest), we turn our attention back to Mariners DH Jose Vidro — a guy who hasn’t gone deep since John McLaren was still managing this team for GM Bill Bavasi.
This blog post last week, and this story I later wrote for the paper, about Mariners manager Jim Riggleman keeping Vidro in the clean-up role as “protection” for Raul Ibanez, earned him nationwide scorn and derision. And why not? Vidro has the fifth lowest on-base-plus slugging percentage (OPS) out of 200 major leaguers with at least 250 plate appearances. By the way, catcher Kenji Johjima is the worst on that list at .549 compared to Vidro’s .571. But both are beyond horrible.
So naturally, there was much hooting and hollering when Riggleman stated his line about Vidro “protecting” No. 3 hitter Ibanez.
Believe me, it was tough to hold off on ripping Riggleman for that. But I did want to do some legwork first. Some actual research to see whether this claim could possibly have merit.
Being that 100 percent of my day is taken up actually covering the team and traveling from place to place, I don’t always have time to sit down for an exhaustive crunching of numbers. It was going to take at least a couple of hours, time I did not have writing on-deadline in Oakland. The next day, Richie Sexson was released, then there were all kinds of tight flight plans to meet getting in and out of Kansas City. But I know Riggleman has been around the game a while and — like his predecessor — is not an idiot. So, I vowed that the moment I had a day off, I’d crunch the numbers to see what in the heck he’s thinking. I owed him that much, given how he’d been getting mocked for days. It was admittedly going to be a small sample size, since Vidro has only had 42 at-bats as a cleanup hitter. His stat line in that spot is the worst Vidro has hit at any spot in the order, with a .167 average, .222 on-base percentage and .214 slugging percentage for a laughable .436 OPS.
Sounds about right. But wait, this is supposed to be about Ibanez, right?
Ibanez has not had the greatest of seasons relative to his recent performances. He’s hitting .273 overall with a .338 OPB and .438 in slugging for an OPS of .776. Against right handed pitching, he’s at only .264 with a .763 OPS. Remember, Vidro bats cleanup when the opposing starter is right handed.
So, how has Ibanez done with Vidro “protecting” him in the clean-up spot? Hold on a minute. Go and find a chair because you’re about to get floored.

With Vidro “protecting” him, Ibanez is hitting .311 with a .378 OBP and a .467 slugging percentage for an OPS of .845.
No, I am not making that up. In fact, take away Vidro’s clean-up hitter games and Ibanez’s overall line drops to .260/.327/.421 for an overall OPS of .748.
So, with Vidro “protecting” Ibanez, his OPS jumps nearly 100 points.
And no, the walk rate is pretty much the same as when Vidro isn’t behind him. So that’s not what’s driven up Ibanez’s OBP.
Call it a small sample size. You’d be right. Say that Vidro is an awful hitter this year. You’d be right. Say he has nothing to do with Ibanez’s better stats when he is “protected” and you might be right too. But we won’t know that for a bit. At least, until the numbers have a chance to “regress to the mean” and we see how things play out over the long haul. But for now, when Riggleman says he sees something working for Ibanez with Vidro hitting behind him, well, tough as that is for a lot of us to swallow, the raw data bears that out.
Will it last? Who knows? Tough to justify using two players to boost one guy’s OPS, even by 100 points or so. As his own hitter, Vidro has been empty and awful. But for now, Riggleman might not be as nuts as many people around the country suspect.
ADDITIONAL NOTE (1:28 P.M.): Many of you have written in to point out, correctly, that it does the team little good to have Ibanez hit better if there’s to be a black hole negating that improvment in sticking with Vidro as a No. 4 hitter. I agree with this line of thinking and pretty much stated that in the final graph of the initial post.
So, let’s try to see what else might be factoring into Riggleman’s decisions.
There have actually been only 11 games in which Vidro has hit cleanup behind Ibanez. One of those was in the McLaren regime, on the day of his infamous tirade.
In the first five games that Riggleman tried this experiment, Vidro actually went 5-for-19 (.263), while Ibanez went 9-for-21 (.429). Looked good to that point.
The next two games is where Vidro began sliding, going 0-for-7, while Ibanez went 1-for-8. It was at that point that Riggleman explained his “protection” theory to me and why he was trying it out. Makes a little more sense. Of course, in three games since then, Vidro has gone only 2-for-12, Ibanez 2-for-13, so the numbers aren’t as enticing as they were at the beginning.
But as a cleanup hitter this year, in a larger 171-at-bat sample size, Beltre has just a .687 OPS. Not exactly lights-out either, and his strikeout rate is much higher than Vidro’s. As a No. 5 hitter, Beltre has a .932 OPS in 115 at-bats. So, there was some rationale for trying to bat Beltre fifth instead of fourth.
Ibanez as a clean-up man has a .638 OPS in 110 at-bats. Hardly your answer there either.
Is Vidro the answer right now? Not if his OPS stays below .500. Is it likely to? Based on recent history, probably. And that won’t work. He’s got to hit better. But I can see where, based on the early returns (and on the day he spoke to me) Riggleman thought he had grounds to try something new and that — based on a small sample size, which is all this terrible offense has to go on these days — that plan might be working.
For Nick in pdx, not me making the argument. It’s Riggleman. If you’re embarrassed, go someplace else. Or better yet, come up with a constructive solution. Other than telling everyone how much smarter you are than everyone else. If you think Beltre is better as a clean-up man, say so. Or, maybe it’s Ibanez? Do you have any thoughts to share? Put yourself out there. Explain to us why Riggleman is doing this. Is it because he’s dumb? Knows less than you? Doesn’t know baseball? We’re all dying to know your take on things.
For Seth Cotner, Ibanez’s numbers with everyone else batting behind him are: .260 average, .327 OBP, .421 SLG and .748 OPS. If you want to go person by person, I haven’t got time today, but I suspect all would be less than with Vidro.



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