December 13, 2011
Whose Batting Average Could Spike?
We now have less than 70 days until pitchers and catchers report, so our long national past-time nightmare will not last as long as it already feels. That also means that drafts are even closer, both the local drafts that all of us do and the national competitions that others add on top of the spring mix each year. For me, that means a return to New York City in late March for a sixth run at a Tout Wars title, a big bar tab at Foley’s, and more time with some of the brightest baseball people I know who let me tag along and soak in the knowledge.
The best part of that entire experience is getting to know the names behind the research that all of us have benefitted from over the years and the books they have helped put together. Upon my return from vacation, my second-favorite off-season book was waiting for me in my mailbox—The 2012 Baseball Forecaster from Ron Shandler and his team at BaseballHQ.com. True story—the shelving unit I had in my closet that housed my copies of it and the Prospectus books throughout the years actually collapsed last April from the weight. That unit contained both books dating back 10-plus years as well as Baseball Between the Numbers, and every issue of the Baseball America Prospect Handbook as well as John Sickels’ Minor League Handbook. Some people pass the offseason watching the NFL; I pass it reading a lot of baseball material.
What I enjoy most about these materials is finding research or player opinions within the books that lead to more self-reflection and investigation. Even after all of these seasons writing about baseball, I learn many new things each offseason. For example, if I were to ask you the correlation between pitches per plate appearance and batting average, you would likely postulate that the more pitches a batter sees, the higher their batting average likely is. Thanks to the work by ToutWars colleague Paul Petera, we know the opposite is true. His work has shown that the groups with the lowest pitches per plate appearance (P/PA) have the highest batting average. What was more interesting about Petera’s research is the following season, those batters that had a low P/PA total and a low batting average in year one showed a very strong likelihood of rebounding batting average while those with high P/PA and batting average showed a slightly stronger chance of a declining average in year two.
Using our own statistical search engine, I pulled the P/PA totals and batting averages for all hitters since 1988 that have had at least 300 plate appearances in a single season. Here are the total counts of each grouping of P/PA as well as the mean batting average for that group:
The 2011 league average for P/PA has been right at 3.8 for each of the past three seasons. Knowing that low P/PA totals and low averages are a strong indicator of batting average surges, here are the hitters in 2011 who had a batting average below .270 and less than 3.6 pitches per plate appearances with had at least 300 plate appearances: Mike Aviles, Yuniesky Betancourt, Orlando Cabrera, Coco Crisp, Rajai Davis, Alex Gonzalez, Adam Lind, Magglio Ordonez, Corey Patterson, Miguel Tejada, Wilson Valdez, Vernon Wells, Delmon Young. Crisp was the most profitable of that group, and any jilted Lind or Wells owner would love to see a batting average improvement from either player. Aviles was an intriguing end-game option in AL-only leagues after a very cold start, so a batting average spike could make him a nice end-game sleeper with positional flexibility and the ability to hit double-digit home runs and steal double-digit bases.
Conversely, here are the players who saw at least four pitches per plate appearances and hit .290 or higher: Alex Avila, Jose Bautista, Emilio Bonifacio, Lucas Duda, David Freese, Todd Helton, Mike Napoli, David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia. In between some of the bigger power hitters in baseball, we find one of its weakest in Bonifacio coming off a career year. He should be valuable in that he will qualify a few places for the Marlins, but banking on a repeat batting average over .290 appears to be rather unlikely. Napoli hitting .320 for the Rangers was great after watching him hit no higher than .273 in a previous season, but the odds are very much against him in returning to that level.
The quick habit many have fallen into is to look at a hitter’s batting average on balls in play to see if a batting average is for real or unsustainable. Let’s compare the aforementioned hitters in regards to their batting average on balls in play and their overall pitches per plate appearances:
Looking at both BABIP and P/PA could potentially guide us to see which batter could see a stronger spike in batting average. We know that BABIP can regress toward career norms and when you couple that with Petera’s research that shows how batters with low p/pa totals and low batting average improve their average more than 75 percent of time can show which hitters have the best overall odds.