-The K Zone-
July 6th, 2016
A Look At Luck: Hitter Edition by Ian Joffe
Today is June 6th. It’s an arbitrary day – I chose it because today I happened to be bored – but this time always proves to be fascinating for player evaluation. With a couple of months and change under most players’ belts, we both have a large enough sample size to start judging which breakout stars are for real, but also have a small enough sample size that a ton of luck is still involved.
As in all statistics, a larger sample size means more accuracy. In baseball, that sample size generally applies to plate appearances (at-bats excludes walks and such) and innings pitched. The inverse of this is that a smaller sample size creates more randomness, or luck. In baseball, luck can refer to a multitude of factors, from ballpark dimensions to weather, but the most important factor to luck is opposing defense. Defensive luck is a critical component to early and current sabermetrics, as statistical studies by early SABR experts have suggested that the outcome of all balls in play are almost entirely up to the defense, rather than the hitter. This is not to suggest that balls in play and entirely random, but rather that most are, and the very hard hit balls tend to even out with the very soft hit balls. Based on this, we can conclude that most hitters should have a similar BABIP, or Batting Average on Balls in Play, because the defenses they face over a large sample will be similar to one another. That BABIP is expected to be around .300. There are certainly exceptions, including incredibly speedy hitters and power hitters, but even the exceptions shouldn’t have a BABIP over .330, and even Hall of Fame level exceptions will not achieve a BABIP over .350. Thus, if a player has a BABIP far over the 300-330 range, they have experienced high defensive luck, and we can expect that luck to even out over a larger sample size, as the luck of a coin flip would, causing their numbers to regress. Similarly, a batter who has encountered great defense may have a BABIP far below the 270-300 range, meaning their stats will likely improve, or experience positive regression (I know, it’s an oxymoron, but that’s the proper term). In this article, I will examine the highest and lowest BABIPs in the league, and attempt to determine how sustainable that makes their current statistics. Whose hot starts can you trust, and whose will wash away?
Hitting BABIP Leaders:
- Miguel Sano (.465)
- Ryan Zimmerman (.411)
- Aaron Judge (.408)
- Avisail Garcia (.396)
- Jean Segura (.395)
- Zach Cozart (.393)
- Xander Bogearts (.387)
- Corey Dickerson (.387)
- Keon Broxton (.385)
- Matt Kemp (.379)
Miguel Sano has amazing peripherals so far. His soft hit rate is 7%, with a hard hit rate over 50% and league leading 96.6 average exit velocity to accompany it. It is those peripherals that make his BABIP somewhat believable for the time being, but they are also what makes his numbers unsustainable. He won’t finish the season with those kinds of batted ball metrics, and considering he is currently hitting barely over .300, his batting average could turn out dismal. But, if he continues his three-outcomes approach, I would not be surprised if his massive power continues, along with big walks and really big strikeouts.
Ryan Zimmerman is perhaps the most exciting player on this list. His 2016 return from/return to injury was disappointing on the surface, but deeper Statcast analysis told a more complex story. Zimmerman was killing the baseball, but hitting it on the ground almost 50% of the time, with one of the worst average launch angles in baseball. This year, however, he has embraced the new, league wide ball-elevation mentality, and has had terrific results as the potential league MVP so far. Thanks to his high current BABIP, Zimmerman will not maintain his current, ridiculous 1.111 OPS, but should maintain good numbers throughout the season thanks to his new alchemy of velocity and launch angle. I would expect to see a batting average around .300 with good power.
Avisail Garcia is the most unfortunately standout of the group. After falling from top prospect status years ago, he has disappointed scouts and fans alike. Yet, this 2017, he went off to a fiery start, all on the heels of a nearly .500 BABIP. And, he did all of that despite hitting 50% ground balls with normal exit velocities. In May, the BABIP slowly began to regress, and so has the batting average along with it. The two will continue to decrease together until Garcia reaches a more natural .300 BABIP, which should, for him, match a low average (I’m talking .220 or so) with few walks.
Aaron Judge is one of the greatest success stories of the year, getting off to an incredibly hot start after largely failing in last year’s small sample. He hit nearly .400 in April and continues to lead the league in home runs, but his batting average has since fallen to the low .300s. That batting average will continue to fall, even if his good batted ball numbers allow him to maintain a somewhat higher BABIP. He may hit .250 at the end of the year, but with good on-base instincts and continued power (maybe not to the extent he has hit so far, but he could go deep 45 times total), expect Judge to keep high value and be a Rookie of the Year favorite.
Jean Segura had similar BABIP issues last year, when he hit well over .300 in April, but he somehow managed to maintain a strong, .319 batting average throughout the season. Segura has the speed to maintain an above average BABIP, but Usain Bolt wouldn’t get close to .400 over a large sample, and neither will Segura. I would estimate his current .341 batting average at the end of the year to drop significantly below .290, unless, like last year, he can manage to defy the odds. If he does continue to hit, it would throw an interesting punch in the face of DIPS theory.
Zack Cozart might be a pleasant surprise in terms of walk rate, but like Garcia, his batting average seems doomed. He has shown us nothing to prove that his BABIP can even remain above average, telling me it should fall about 100 points, bringing his batting average to the mid-200s. That would make sense, considering it would match his career mean.
Xander Bogaerts’ high batting average may have canceled out some Boston fans’ fears over the lack of power, but I would worry about both hitting tools. Xander has not hit the ball hard, in fact he is hitting it particularly soft, and has only good speed. Like last year, he could go on a massive cold spell at any moment, and his batting average may drop below .280, dare I say .270.
Corey Dickerson seemed like half of a terrible trade for both teams, when the Rockies dealt him to Tampa Bay for Jake McGee a couple years back. Critics blamed park factors for his miserable 2015, when his OBP dipped below .300, but he seems to have adjusted at this point. Much of his .330 batting average is BABIP fueled, but he has shown us the ability to hit for a moderately high BABIP and average before, and may end the year hitting a very productive .280 or so.
Keon Broxton may need a demotion after the BABIP regresses, making his story one of the more disappointing ones on this list. After a hot start last year (although that may have been BABIP-fueled as well). He’s hitting only .240 despite the luck, and may be batting somewhere in the .100’s without the inflated BABIP. Additionally, he has struck out out 40% of the time. Broxton should not be expected to hit for power either. He will steal his 30 bases, but he’s not fast enough to sustain such a high BABIP. If I were a fantasy owner, I would try to trade him while I still could.
Matt Kemp, the former MVP candidate, was traded to San Diego and later Atlanta after falling from stardom through numerous injuries, but seems to be putting up respectable production once again. His average could fall to .275 or so, but like Dickerson, Kemp has shown the ability to put up an above average BABIP before. Kemp’s days of speed and defense are over, but he could still be a middle-of-the-order bat for the rebuilding Braves, with good power.
Along with looking at BABIP to see who will regress (and who may keep a reasonably high average), one could also use the stat to encourage people to not give up on certain players who have had really bad luck. Rizzo (.216) and Machado (.229) immediately come to mind. Don’t worry Cubs and Orioles fans, they will bounce back to All-Star production when their BABIP improves. The young Kyle Schwarber and Dansby Swanson also have BABIPs under .230. Matt Carpenter will get better, as his BABIP is .238. I also want to say that fantasy owners and White Sox fans shouldn’t worry about the ToddFather — his BABIP is under .200 — but the fact that he managed to keep a .200 BABIP all last year, and continues to do so this year, makes him appear to be a candidate to be a reverse Segura-type. Only time will tell. Padres hitter Ryan Schimpf, who has the worst BABIP in the league, is little-known among everyday fans, but to communities that embrace the three true outcomes approach and launch angle strategy (Schmipf proudly owns a 64.6% launch angle), he may be the face of the movements. His batting average is in the mid-.100s despite 14 home runs so far. He has far too many strikeouts and fly balls for the batting average to improve very much, but it should rise at least above .210 by the end of the season.
If you liked this, you may want to check out my look at the WAR statistic, or you can look at any of Mike’s player interviews. Follows on Twitter and Instagram are greatly appreciated, and you’ll be the first to know when new content comes out!