Wednesday, January 9, 2013

By Greg Bird - Columnist

This began as a single article about who should hit number 2 in the line-up and as I looked into the stats I figured we first needed to talk about the most successful Angels’ two-hole hitter last year, Torii Hunter. As I researched Torii’s performance last year this article developed into two parts, both of which, I believe, are necessary for us to fully understand the true factors in the decision about who should bat second. This first part addresses the theories about how and why Torii was so successful. This will affect our discussion about replacing his production between Trout and Pujols next time. I imagine this piece will be most interesting to those of you who enjoy stats and those of you who don’t will probably be bored to tears. This is your warning; if you read on.  Don’t be upset with me if it’s all ‘sabermetric stat geeky’ sounding; it’s supposed to be.

The first thing we always hear about when asked why Torii was so good hitting second was that pitchers didn’t want to give Trout more of a chance to steal second, so, they threw Torii more fastballs. This theory seems to be based on the logic that since it is harder to steal second on a fastball and easier on a breaking ball that the primary way pitchers dealt with this problem was to pump fastballs. Let’s look at the numbers. First, in Torii’s overall ABs, he saw 61.4% fastballs. That ranks him 19th among 143 qualified hitters (those with enough ABs to qualify for the batting title.) The general range most hitters FB% fall into was 48%-65% with a half dozen outliers. Overall Hunter did see more fastballs but was that related to his position in the lineup or the way he has been pitched through his career? In 2008 and 2009 he saw 59.9% and 59.6% fastballs. It dropped off in 2010 to 57.9% but it went back up in 2011 to 60.4%. In 2009 he hit .299 so it seems in 2010 pitchers decided to throw him more breaking pitches and his BA dropped a bit. His BA was low in 2010, .261. In any case this article isn’t really about Torii’s career numbers.  The point is the increase in FB% in 2012 isn’t outside the realm of how someone would pitch Hunter.

Let’s look a little closer at Torii’s 2012 numbers and see if there is discernible differences by month, especially in the months he batted primarily in the two-hole. June 8th was his first game batting second and he served there primarily throughout the rest of the season (except when he was in the three-hole 3 times for Pujols in August and in September when he started in the four-hole 6 times in place of Morales.) Hunter’s highest FB% by month was May, the month before he batted second. It was a staggering 72.8%. Torii only played 13 games that month due to the legal troubles involving his son. In Hunter’s first month in the two-hole he was thrown a lot of fastballs, 68.2% of them to be exact. But as Hunter handled them well his fastball percentage went down. Hunter’s best month according to BA was August where he hit .354 and by then pitchers were only throwing him 58.9% fastballs. In September, when it was very clear Hunter was tearing up the league, Hunter received only 52.2% fastballs. It seems that the amount of fastballs Torii saw was entirely independent of his lineup position but more related to his own performance. Pitchers wanted to get him out and cared more about that than whether Trout would steal second or not. It seems, wisely, they cared more about the guy with the bat in his hand than the one on the base paths.

The second theory that has been put forth is that pitchers threw Torii more strikes because Pujols was batting after him and they didn’t want to risk walking him. The theory is based on the idea that pitchers didn’t want any unnecessary men on base to be driven in. It seems sound but does the evidence bear it out? There is a stat called Zone% on FanGraphs that lets us know what percentage of pitches a hitter sees that are actually in the strike zone. Torii’s Zone% last year was 46.5%, tied for 36th out of 143 qualified hitters. If we look at all those qualified hitters we find a general spread of Zone% between 39%-50%. By looking month-to-month we find June was the highest Zone% for Hunter with him receiving 51.4% strikes, and his lowest Zone% month was August receiving only 41.5% strikes. Here too it seems that pitchers pitched Torii more with the intent to get him out than to give him pitches to hit for some assumed fear of men on base for Pujols. On his own team Torii ranked third for most pitches seen in the zone behind Kendrick who saw 49% and Trout who saw 47.4%. It seems pretty obvious, in retrospect, that pitchers always pitch with the intent of preventing a hitter from reaching base; that is after all the key to preventing runs from being scored.

So, with these two primary theories seemingly nullified what can we say helped Torii do so well in the two-hole? We all know that Torii had a career year in BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) with a .389 in 2012. His career BABIP is .307 and his next highest full season BABIP was .330 in 2009 (also his second highest season BA.) It is commonly anticipated that a hitter with a track record like Torii should be expected to hit at or near his career BABIP each year and any outliers usually signify that he was lucky that year with bloopers falling in for hits instead of being caught or  other circumstances going his way. But is that all; is that the only explanation to his exceptional year? Luck? Luck may have had a part to play but I also wondered if there wasn’t something more to it than that, so I dug deeper.

In interviews at the end of last year Torii mentioned that he had changed his approach in the two-hole. He said he stopped trying to hit homeruns, and instead he tried to hit more line drives going gap to gap.  Do the facts support this? According to FanGraphs Torii’s career LD% is 17.8%. In 2012 Torii increased his LD% to 22.6%, so it does initially seem to be true. But it is also true that Torii’s LD% was 21% in 2011 and his BA did not greatly improve nor was he anything like the hitter he was in 2012. Looking further we can see Torii also reduced his infield fly rate considerably in 2012 from his career mark of 11.9% to 5% last year. Since infield flys are usually guaranteed outs this would be seen to help his BABIP considerably. It could also be argued that anyone trying to hit homeruns would invariably miss just slightly under the ball and produce an infield fly instead of the desired lift for a homerun. Torii also reduced his fly ball percentage from a career 34.4% to 25.4% in 2012. Again, attempting to hit a homerun and missing ‘less slightly’ would produce a fly ball that could more easily be an out than a hard line drive would be. Finally, Torii’s groundball percentage increased from a career 47.8% to 52% in 2012. Trying to square up a line drive and missing up on the ball would easily produce more hard groundball contact. My conclusion from the FanGraphs’ facts is that Torii told the truth in his interviews. Torii changed his approach from trying to hit homeruns to aiming for the gaps. This seemed to work for him in 2012 and maybe was something he should’ve been doing his whole career instead of trying to do something he isn’t truly great at, hitting for power.

I truly doubt Torii can sustain last year’s numbers going forward, especially since some of his production was a factor of luck as shown by his extremely high BABIP, but I also think Torii is capable of producing good results in the role of a two-hole hitter going forward (as long as his bat speed remains and he maintains the same approach.) What is most interesting to me is what all of this tells us about what our future two-hole hitter will face. One, whoever hits there, will not get a steady diet of fastballs unless pitchers believe he won’t be able to hit them. Two, whoever hits there, will not get a lot of strikes unless pitchers believe they will not be swung at or will not be hit. Finally, if this ‘player to be named later’ is to be like Hunter, then someone who hits line drives or hard ground balls could be a good fit and certainly someone who can put the ball in play, advance the runner, hit to his natural ability (not try to be something he isn’t,) and get on base without producing unnecessary outs (i.e. double plays) would be valuable.  Part two of this article will look at our two-hole candidates and see which player could help us have the most dynamic offense in 2013.
Love to hear what you think!

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