July 21, 2008

Pujols' protection must come from the front side, too (two)

Most discussions relative to the protection of Albert Pujols seem to take on a backwards approach, meaning the biggest concern is always the cleanup hitter. Suffice it to say, the Cards have plenty of those types; for instance, Troy Glaus, Ryan Ludwick, Rick Ankiel, and even Chris Duncan with an improved swing.

The number two spot in the lineup, however, is just as critical, if not more. If a strong three-hole hitter is to see pitches good enough to drive all over the ballpark, there must be men on base when he steps into the batters' box. Otherwise, pitchers will simply "pitch around" him, not giving him an intentional walk, but not giving him anything good to hit. In such a scenario, a batter such as Pujols can only take a ready stance in wait of a "mistake" pitch.

Pick any Cardinal you want to bat behind Pujols and you're still going to see him get pitched around. That's because pitchers would still rather face the other big hitters than Pujols, even if they are on a hot streak. This pool of power-hitters have enjoyed a lot of good pitches with which to play longball this season, evidenced by the fact that there are two Cards with more round-trippers than Pujols and one that is catching up fast due to a recent hot streak. Not to say these hitters are nothing without Pujols, but rather, just saying they may be getting "better stuff" to hit with Pujols around.

So far, Pujols has been protecting the four-five-six hitters rather than the other way around. And it's not the fault of this "power core," either. It just so happens that Pujols is a sort of victim of circumstance. And it's not like anybody from Cardinal Nation should have any complaints about this sector of power in the middle of the lineup, either.

The situation does reveal, however, the need for the best number two hitter you (La Russa, actually) can find. There are surely many camps regarding this issue. Only one guy gets to vote. But that doesn't mean we can't campaign.

Submitted for the number two lineup position: Aaron Miles.

Not because he has just hammered a walk-off grand slam, though. In fact, his occasional power barely factors in at all.

The Miles choice is based upon two factors: 1) the number two batter should be more of a contact hitter than a power hitter; 2) Miles best suits the requirements of #1.

Simply put, the school of thought dictates a contact hitter, and a good one, be inserted after the leadoff hitter, and it doesn't matter that you have a similar hitting type in the "pitcher doesn't bat here" spot. What does matter is that your best, most dangerous hitter, Pujols, is hitting in the three-hole and needs front-side protection in the form of a minimum of one base runner.

La Russa doesn't seem to subscribe to this basehit type of swinger batting second (enough for this article to stay in the drawer, anyway), but let's advance this theory anyway. And let's base it on the idea that, since the usage of the "pitcher bats eighth" strategy is in play, you may as well take advantage of that strategy and give your team three bonafide shots at getting a base runner aboard in preparation of Pujols' at-bat instead of just two.

There are three reasonable choices for this second lineup position: Miles, Cesar Izturis, and Skip Schumaker. Miles is the best choice, basically, because he is a switch-hitter with the best hitting skills. More so, because of the hitting skills. Being a switch-hitter is a bonus. Favorable match-ups versus particular pitchers could, of course, factor in to a particular day's lineup, as Adam Kennedy has a decent sampling of at-bats versus a variety of hurlers, including American League moundsmen.

The two-spot could change, as well, if indeed, any of the aforementioned candidates proves themselves worthy, including Brendan Ryan and Brian Barton, but not hitters like Yadier Molina or Jason LaRue, for instance, who, while accomplished, simply do not possess the foot speed. Putting anyone on base that isn't going to outrun Pujols isn't going to benefit the extra-basehit side of his stroke.

But whatever the number two protection, batting hitters like Ryan Ludwick or Chris Duncan just doesn't bear out the proposed or the strategy currently in practice. These latter hitters are, or have the potential to be, good hitters in a different way. The strikeout ratio to at-bats that comes with the strengths of most power hitters, however, just isn't going to help protect Pujols, and doesn't do a whole lot for the four-five-six hitting positions, either. We've even seen Ankiel in the two hole, which at first, seems like an excellent choice, with his foot speed. But Ankiel has developed into a feast or famine type, great for power, but with plenty of K's to go with it, the type of production not as well suited for the two-hole.

Like it or not, this traditional number two batter is in order, mainly, because Pujols is so good at the plate. If Pujols was anybody but Pujols, a less traditional two-hole batter might just work. But as long as Number 5 is batting in the number Three, the Cards will need to protect with the number Two.

Pujols photo by Barbara Moore
Miles photo by Iscan