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April 27, 2011

Fantasy Beat

BABIP Bugaboos

by Craig Brown

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A pair of American Leaguer hitters are scuffling at the plate in the early going, particularly when it comes to batting average in balls in play. Nothing sets off the alarm bells like an old catcher, shifting to a new role and struggling at the plate. In Jorge Posada’s case, this isn’t just any alarm: this is a five alarm inferno.

In one of the stranger statistical lines I can remember, Posada has collected just nine hits—but six of them have left the yard.

In Posada’s case, it’s the curve that is giving him fits. Really, this isn’t big news… The curve has been his Kryptonite for the last several seasons. What is notable about his struggles with the curve ball this season is the depths to which he has sunk. From Texas Leaguers, here is how Posada performed against the curveball last season:

Strike

Swing

Whiff

Foul

In Play

54.2%

32.3%

12.7%

9.3%

10.2%

Last season, Posada saw a curve ball from an opposing pitcher in 13 percent of all pitches thrown. Keep that in mind as you see how Posada has performed this year against Uncle Charlie.

Strike

Swing

Whiff

Foul

In Play

70.6%

32.4%

17.6%

5.9%

8.8%

The word is out: pitchers are offering a curve in just over 16 percent of all pitches in the young season. An overwhelming majority of those are going for strikes, but Posada hasn’t changed his swing habits. At all. Then, when he does swing, he is having a heckuva time getting the bat on the ball. He is swinging and missing at more curve balls and he is fouling them off a lot less frequently.

As you would expect, the numbers back this up. Posada is hitting .218 against curves when he is hitting from the left side against right-handed pitchers and just .129 when left-handers go to work on him from the right.

Over the last 10 seasons, pitchers have thrown strikes about 63 percent of the time. It’s probably safe to assume they won’t continue to serve curve balls in the strike zone to Posada at their current rate of 70 percent. However, we can’t say the same about Posada’s whiff rate on the hook.

Because Posada is hitting so many home runs, his in play percentage is extremely low in the early going. Just 53 percent of all plate appearances end with Posada testing the opposition fielders. While that number can be expected to increase as his unsustainable spike in home runs subsides, it should be noted that there is a trend in his in play percentage:

2005 - 67%

2006 - 64%

2007 - 66%

2008 - 66%

2009 - 61%

2010 - 59%

2011 - 53%

Those numbers took a sudden turn to the south in the 2009 season when Posada’s strikeout numbers took a corresponding turn for the worse.

2005 - 17.2%

2006 - 17.8%

2007 - 16.6%

2008 - 19.5%

2009 - 23.1%

2010 - 22.0%

2011 - 27.1%

The large number of home runs–he is going yard once every 10.3 at bats compared to 21.8 AB/HR for his career—combined with the increasing rate of strikeouts have conspired to depress Posada’s BABIP. Among qualified players, his .081 BABIP in 70 plate appearances is the lowest in baseball. He is been able to provide a modicum of value via the home run, but his current .252 TAv would be the lowest rate of his career.

That BABIP certainly won’t stay that low, but his creeping strikeout rate, unsustainable power spike and his continuing struggles with the curve make him a risky play going forward. PECOTA projected a .256 BA with 16 home runs for Posada. Certainly, some of those hits will start falling, but he has dug himself quite the hole if he harbors any hope of reaching his projection.

Of course, it has to be noted that the switch-hitting Posada has collected all nine of his hits from the left side of the plate. He is 0-16 as a right-handed hitter with just three walks. Still, at this point it sure looks like the ghosts of catchers past have finally caught up with the former Yankee backstop. This year’s shift to designated hitter can’t forestall the footsteps of time. Maybe he can hang on as a platoon player, but if he doesn’t get his act together, he may find himself completely marginalized. If you’re one of the 59 percent that own him in ESPN leagues, you should cash in the home runs and start shopping for an alternative.

Across the country, another BABIP straggler is desperately trying to elevate his average. Seattle’s Chone Figgins currently owns a .169 BABIP, a mark well below his career rate of .334.

Once upon a time, the speedy Figgins was the prototypical hitter who could slash and burn his way to a high batting average on balls in play. For his career, a full eight percent of his base hits never left the infield. This year, he has legged out just two balls that stayed on the infield.

While Figgins is finding it difficult to reach base on ground balls, his batted ball profile has remained largely unchanged over the last several seasons:

Year

LD%

GB%

FB%

BABIP

2008

23.8%

46.4%

29.8%

.333

2009

23.9%

40.6%

35.5%

.356

2010

20.8%

46.9%

32.2%

.314

2011

20.6%

42.6%

36.8%

.169

There is nothing in the percentages that say Figgins should be scuffling this badly. He hasn’t experienced any strange fluctuations in any of his rates that would suggest a change in approach. Plus, Figgins is putting the ball in play this season at a rate of 81 percent. That is well above his career in play percentage of 73 percent.

The answer may lie in the lack of solid contact:

Year

O-Swing%

Z-Swing%

O-Contact%

Z-Contact%

2008

16.5%

57.8%

72.3%

92.3%

2009

15.1%

57.8%

68.0%

93.0%

2010

20.8%

58.1%

74.7%

93.0%

2011

23.1%

57.2%

85.7%

91.3%

Note the amount of contact Figgins is making when he is offering at pitches located outside the strike zone. Yes, he is expanding his zone a bit more this year, but his contact rate on those pitches is way above his performance from the last couple of seasons. Figgins has always been able to make contact with a pitch that should be called a ball, but this season his aggressive approach has caught up with him. While he is seeing 4.2 pitches per plate appearance (an exceptional number given the major league average is around 3.75 P/PA) he is not drawing the base on balls. After posting double-digit walk rates for each of the last four seasons, Figgins is walking in just 5.7 percent of his plate appearances… despite seeing more pitches per plate appearance than ever before in his career.

The inability to get on base has put the clamps on Figgins’ running game. Through the first month of the season, he has had only 16 stolen base opportunities. In 2009, when he owned a .395 OBP, Figgins had roughly 50 opportunities a month.

PECOTA was never bullish on Figgins, projecting a .254 BA and a .248 TAv. While it’s generally accepted that a low BABIP is the product of bad luck, in Figgins’ case, it appears there is something in his approach–and subsequent contact—that is hampering is results. Still, given the volume of plate appearances that are ending with balls in play, and his .319 xBABIP, it would a rebound of sorts is expected. He will need to adjust his contact profile if he is to maximize what is left of his potential.

Craig Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Craig's other articles. You can contact Craig by clicking here

Related Content:  Chone Figgins,  Jorge Posada

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