Monday, January 03, 2005

Who should hit in front of Bonds?

Albert Pujols. Boy, that was easy!

If we are limiting the answer to current San Fransisco Giants, however, it isn't quite as easy. Each year debates arise as to the Giants batting order. In many cases, batting order doesn't matter quite as much as most people would like to believe, but in the case of the Giants, it actually does matter -- at least, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th spots in the order matter (I like to refer to those spots as the appetizer, main course, and leftovers, respectively).

I will make a few assumptions on two spots in the Giants batting order for 2005: 1) that Barry will again bat cleanup in the 4th position, and 2) that Moises Alou will be the one behind Bonds. Nevermind the fact that having Barry bat 3rd in the order will get him a chunk more plate appearances on the year and ensure that he will always hit in the 1st inning, and nevermind that it matters not one whit who bats behind Bonds to the opposing team -- they'll still be giving out just as many 4-finger salutes whenever 1st base is open, or whenever Barry represents the tying or winning run later in games. Barry bats cleanup, and M. Alou was brought in specifically for another big bat in the lineup to "protect" Bonds.

So, what does that leave us with? The 3rd spot, and a lot of candidates. It is pretty important to the Giants run production to have the right player hitting before Bonds -- with men on base, the 3rd hitter has three reponsibilities, especially with less than two outs: 1) don't blow it for Barry by hitting into a double play, 2) get on base for Barry, but don't blow it by getting picked off, and 3) drive the runners in if you can...but don't blow it for Barry. With nobody on base, the 3rd hitter is almost like a leadoff man -- he's essentially a tablesetter.

With that in mind, let's compare five candidates and their suitability to hit in the 3rd spot. These five have either hit in that spot before, or have been seriously suggested to hit there: Ray Durham, J.T. Snow, Pedro Feliz, Marquis Grissom, and Edgardo Alfonzo.

The criteria I'll use to judge the candidates are the following: walks per plate appearance, slugging percentage (SLG), and ground ball to fly ball ratio (g/f ratio). Why these stats, you ask? Well, I'm glad you asked that question!

  • Walks per plate appearance is very important. The higher the number of walks per plate appearance, the better. Walks are necessary in front of Bonds. A walk occupies 1st base, eliminating the opposing team's cop-out of walking Bonds whenever 1st base is open. If men are on base, a walk will also clog the bases more, meaning it less likely the opposing manager will want to either walk the bases loaded, or walk a runner in to score (with the notable exception of Buck Showalter, of course).
  • Slugging percentage (SLG) is pretty important as well. Assuming that on occasion, the hitter in the 3rd hole will try to actually get a hit himself instead of leaving it up to Barry (oh, blasphemy!), we'll obviously want a guy with some pop so they can drive in runners from anywhere, thus taking some of the onus off of Bonds.
  • Ground ball to flyball ratio (g/f ratio) is also critical. The lower the number, the better chance Barry will get to hit if the 3rd batter hits with less than two outs and there's runners on base. If there's a runner on first with the 3rd hitter up and one out, would you rather he hit a ground ball or fly ball with Bonds on deck? Personally, I became quite tired of watching A.J. Pierzynski both set the team record for and lead the league in double plays, so I'll go with a flyball, thank you very much.

So, without further ado (not that I was adoing anything in the first place), let's take a look at our probables. The first number will be their career stats, and the number in parentheses will be the same statistic, but only for 2004:

Ray Durham: 1 walk per 10.3 plate appearances (9.5), .435 SLG (.484), and a 1.32 g/f ratio (1.05)

J.T. Snow: 1 walk per 8.5 plate appearances (7.2), .433 SLG(.529), and a .93 g/f ratio (.92)

Edgardo Alfonzo: 1 walk per 10 plate appearances (12.5), .436 SLG (.407), and a .85 g/f ratio (.89)

Pedro Feliz: 1 walk per 24 plate appearances (23), .448 SLG (.485), and a 1.21 g/f ratio (1.26)

Marquis Grissom: 1 walk per 16.1 plate appearances (16.4), .417 SLG (.450), and a 1.40 g/f ratio (1.34)

So, what the heck does all that mean? First off, Marquis Grissom and Pedro Feliz are easily out of the equation. Too few walks, and too many ground balls. Alfonzo's walk rate and slugging were well below his career levels in 2004, taking him out of the running. Which leaves Ray Durham and J.T. Snow.

Ray Durham's name was bounced around for hitting in front of Bonds for much of last year (likely due to a small spike in his power numbers in 2004), and would not be a bad choice at all. However, I'll go with J.T. Snow.

Snow's beats out Durham in his walk rate for both his career and last season by a sizable amount, and generally has a greater tendency to hit flyballs than Durham (though Durham has done well making himself into a line drive hitter in recent years). The higher walk rate will help set the table for Barry, and Snow's better g/f ratio can help cut down on the inning-ending double plays that Marquis Grissom was so good at in the 3rd spot. Both Durham and Snow were well above their career SLG in 2004, but my observations lead me to believe Snow's resurgence last year (.958 OPS) was largely due to his placement in the 3rd spot after the All-Star Break. Snow later hit 2nd as well and did equally as well, but I don't think it's mere coincidence that Snow's season took off after being placed in front of Bonds in the order.

Snow does have one drawback, and that is a complete and utter lack of anything resembling footspeed (Snow and Andres Galaragga would be an entertaining, but lengthy footrace). However, when related to the game-changing offensive presence of Barry Bonds, this is actually not a bad thing. First off, Bonds is only average speed at best nowadays, so he won't exactly be running up Snow's back, and secondly, I don't really know if a fast guy in front of Bonds is always a good thing -- stretching a single into a double with Barry on-deck is a sure way to draw the boo-birds at SBC park.

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