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March 6, 2007

Fantasy Focus

Deciphering BABIP

by Alex Carnevale

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Every year, picking from the mélange of thirty or so hitters for your first two draft picks is an inexact science. Using injury risk to balance your decisions should be a major factor, as should consistency of high-level performance, but try not to stop there. You need to know everything. For example, if you took Andrei Kirilenko early in fantasy basketball drafts, how unhappy his wife was living in Salt Lake City should have clearly been a key element in your thinking.

One stat some of your leaguemates will ignore at their own peril is Batting Average on Balls in Play. BABIP for hitters isn't a complicated statistic, and just a basic understanding can be a fantasy boon. (Rumor has it that if it weren't for the efforts of the Dharma Initiative, it would have occupied baseball box scores when they first appeared in newspapers.) The "formula" breaks down like this:

BABIP = (H-HR)/(AB-HR-SO)

Kevin Goldstein on Fantasy

Rookie performances can be the key to fantasy baseball success, but early looks at this year's rookie class reveal a mixed bag. There are plenty of position player rookies already penciled in for a starting job, and plenty of reasons to expect solid performances. On the mound, it's a different story: the talent is there, but with few guaranteed roles. Here are five position players who should produce for your team from Opening Day on, and five pitchers who might be in the minors on Opening Day, but could give your staff a major boost once they come up.

Hitters

1. Alex Gordon, 3B, Royals
PECOTA thinks the Next Big Thing will hit .282 with 26 home runs and 89 RBI. That might not be optimistic enough.

2. Delmon Young, RF, Devil Rays
Should hit .300 with double-digit totals in home runs and stolen bases immediately--and that's just scratching the surface.

3. Chris Young, CF, Diamondbacks
Think Mike Cameron with the consistent ability to hit in the .270-.290 range and you have Young. One of those guys who is very good in the real world, but even more valuable in fantasy.

4. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies
Humidor or no, Coors Field should help Tulo pop out 15-20 home runs annually to go with a solid batting average. Be warned; despite being a middle infielder, he's not a speedster.

5. Kevin Kouzmanoff, 3B, Padres
He's a hitting machine who could easily push 20+ home runs and a .300 batting average…if his body holds up.

Pitchers

1. Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox
One of the few rookies with a known job, PECOTA sees 13 wins, 162 strikeouts and a 3.83 ERA. Expect much more.

2. Philip Hughes, Yankees
Few doubt his ability to succeed in the majors right now, but the Yankees remain cautious. Then again, he could be up by May once the team realizes how much he can help compared to their existing No. 5 starter possibilities.

3. Homer Bailey, Reds
Like Hughes, Bailey is nearly ready, but the Reds don't want to rush him. He should show up in the second half of the season and be an immediate help to your team's strikeout total.

4. Matt Garza, Twins
You really think the Twins are going to go all year with guys like Sidney Ponson, Ramon Ortiz, and Carlos Silva in the rotation? We don't either. The chance he doesn't break camp with the big club is near zero.

5. Tim Lincecum, Giants
He'll start the year in Double-A, but there's no reason he won't cruise there and reach the big leagues by the All-Star break. Most think he can get big league hitters out immediately, but team needs might force a temporary move to the bullpen.

--Kevin Goldstein

BABIP for hitters is more consistent than BABIP for pitchers, but regression to the mean is still the most useful idea to keep in mind when viewing a particular player's major league BABIP. Marc Normandin's profiles of high level hitters-Derrek Lee, Vernon Wells, Alfonso Soriano, and Carlos Guillen-are a great starting point for investigating the particular value of those players in regular leagues and keeper leagues alike.

Dan Fox has expounded about hitter BABIP trends on his tremendous blog:

[H]itters whose hits include higher percentages of home runs and a modicum of strikeouts will tend to have a large difference from year to year, thereby increasing the correlation. By the same token, hitters who hit few home runs and don't strike out much will tend to have similar AVG and BABIP and consequently will have consistently small differences in the two. At the other end of the spectrum hitters who tend to strike out a lot will consistently have higher BABIP than they do AVG, since strikeouts make up a larger percentage of their at bats.

For our fantasy purposes, there are those who have shown a consistent ability to hit for average-Miguel Cabrera, Bobby Abreu, Jeter-as with many in this top ten for last season. There are also those who show a consistent ability to...not hit for average. The rest of the league lies somewhere around the mean. Here I focused on full-time players:

Best BABIP, 2006:          Worst BABIP, 2006:
 1. Derek Jeter     .394    1. Clint Barmes   .246
 2. Miguel Cabrera  .382    2. Jason Giambi   .251
 3. Bobby Abreu     .375    3. Frank Thomas   .251
 4. Freddy Sanchez  .370    4. Craig Biggio   .257
 5. Joe Mauer       .370    5. Eric Chavez    .262
 6. Reed Johnson    .367    6. Troy Glaus     .266
 7. Robinson Cano   .363    7. Pedro Feliz    .267
 8. Ryan Howard     .363    8. Carlos Beltran .268
 9. Carlos Guillen  .355    9. Adam Everett   .268
10. Matt Holliday  .354    10. Andruw Jones  .270

The presence of a high line-drive rate often drives a higher BABIP, as in the case of Freddy Sanchez. There is reason to believe both extremes will regress to the mean somewhat. Even the great Jeter had a BABIP of .317 as recently as 2004, an unfortunate event that resulted in a .292/.352/.471 line on the season, and a series of broken fantasy-minded hearts in the New York metropolitan area.

Let's make a brief review of players with low BABIP numbers in 2006, and one slugger with a preternaturally high BABIP. Again, I focused on full seasons, or close to full seasons.

Andruw Jones:

Year    BABIP   EqA
1997    .270    .259
1998    .301    .282
1999    .296    .280
2000    .313    .295
2001    .274    .262
2002    .290    .298
2003    .297    .285
2004    .305    .277
2005    .243    .302
2006    .270    .302

To a certain extent, low BABIPs are part of his package, but Jones has hit for impressive power in his last two seasons, posting back-to-back career high Equivalent Averages. It's possible a change in approach lowered Jones' BABIP over these past two seasons, and/or that adding strength gave back in other areas. Going into his contract year, a lucky BABIP season combined with his prodigious power could make Jones one of the best fantasy bargains out there.

Aramis Ramirez:

Year    BABIP   EqA
2001    .313    .291
2002    .254    .233
2003    .287    .268
2004    .307    .306
2005    .293    .303
2006    .274    .299

Ramirez's power makes him a fantasy standout, even at a deep position, and a healthy Derrek Lee and newly-arrived Alfonso Soriano are only going to help his performance at the plate. As a player who depends on his average to be classified as a superstar, his 2007 has a chance of developing into an MVP candidacy, possibly a greater chance than the player receiving his throws from third.

Jimmy Rollins:

Year    BABIP   EqA
2001    .311    .266
2002    .277    .251
2003    .310    .253
2004    .309    .272
2005    .310    .271
2006    .284    .279

Rollins started off slow after finishing 2005 with a hitting streak. It would be weird to alter your approach the next year after raking for .402/.455/.648 in September. After a career's worth of inconsistency against lefties, the switch-hitting Rollins slugged .500 from the right side in 2006, and there's not much reason he can't do that again in a division with plenty of homer-prone lefties to spare.

Carlos Beltran:

Year    BABIP   EqA
2000    .287    .236
2001    .349    .296
2002    .307    .286
2003    .324    .311
2004    .265    .305/.310
2005    .296    .265
2006    .268    .325

His best-ever season at the plate combined with a very low BABIP is a strange combination, but his walks and power were what made him a fantasy standout. Health woes plagued his 2005 season-if he stays healthy, he'll be productive in fantasy.

Carlos Delgado:

Year    BABIP    EqA
1996    .330     .286
1997    .298     .298
1998    .331     .329
1999    .289     .310
2000    .366     .364
2001    .303     .321
2002    .309     .325
2003    .332     .339
2004    .293     .304
2005    .338     .334
2006    .276     .307

Delgado's long swing means that when he slumps, he slumps, as evidenced by a .208/.300/.406 May. That the Marlins expertly backloaded his contract isn't much concern for fantasy players, who just want what they pay for. What you need to know about Carlos is that he wasn't just a great hitter before his still-very-good 2006, at times he was an unbelievable hitter. His BABIP is a full major league season career-low; he should rebound.

Eric Chavez:

Year     BABIP    EqA
1999     .261     .264
2000     .297     .288
2001     .302     .298
2002     .294     .295
2003     .291     .295
2004     .294     .311
2005     .301     .284
2006     .262     .281

Chavez didn't suffer a serious setback at the plate, and he was healthy enough to play 136 games. He's another major bounceback candidate, one that Marc Normandin covered on Wednesday.

Troy Glaus:

Year     BABIP    EqA
1999     .272     .267
2000     .320     .321
2001     .272     .305
2002     .284     .286
2003     .274     .285
2005     .287     .294
2006     .266     .293

Although granted shortstop eligibility in many leagues, Glaus' health history isn't great, and he's never hit for average since hitting over .300 in his last full season in the minors. A low-average, high-power guy like Glaus has a history of low BABIPs, and if he can stay healthy, a future chock full of them.

Carlos Lee:

Year     BABIP    EqA
1999     .317     .262
2000     .326     .277
2001     .281     .270
2002     .265     .290
2003     .299     .283
2004     .314     .300
2005     .265     .276
2006     .287     .300/.306

In 2004, a high BABIP fueled a particularly good batting average season for Lee; he hit .305/.366/.525 that year. Not much changed with his K/BB ratio the next year in Milwaukee, but a .265 BABIP lowered his average, bringing his on-base percentage down to .324. Not good. You can bet that Kenny Williams had seen enough of Lee by 2004 to know he wasn't likely to repeat that kind of a season, but if he didn't, the BABIP numbers would have told him the same thing as a decade of observation.

Ryan Howard:

Minor leagues BABIP are usually all through the roof, and aren't very telling, but I wanted to see Howard's BABIP history (using the level at which he had the most number of at bats during a given year):

Year   Lvl   AB    BABIP   AVG/OBP/SLG (untranslated)
2002   A     493   .361    .280/.367/.460
2003   A+    490   .398    .304/.374/.514
2004   AA    374   .355    .297/.386/.647
2005   MLB   312   .358    .288/.356/.567
2006   MLB   581   .363    .313/.425/.659

Any 58-homer season is to some extent a fluke season, but Howard's mashing has only gotten more profound. He hits in a forgiving home park, but even if he hovers around a .290 average with a normal BABIP regression, he's hitting so many homers, it hardly matters if his BABIP comes down as pitchers figure him out a little bit more. Keeper league owners, take note of this sneak preview of Baseball Prospectus 2007:

Ryan Howard is a big, really big, reason why the Phillies need to go for broke in the short term. Historically, players like Howard, big-bodied guys with limited defensive skills such as Mo Vaughn and Boog Powell, tended to have high but brief peak periods. Their legs just couldn't carry that much mass for very long, and around 30 their defense plummeted, their playing time dropped due to nagging injuries, and their singles dried up and disappeared. The Phillies should have a three-year window in which they can expect this kind of production from Howard, but should not plan beyond that. He'll be fun to watch in the meantime.

Alex Carnevale is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Alex by clicking here. You can also find his Football Outsiders work here.

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Premium Article Hope and Faith: How th... (03/05)
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