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May 16, 2007

Prospectus Today

Making Contact

by Joe Sheehan

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Whether you’re running the Tampa Bay Devil Rays or the Inwood Landfills, discerning a short-term blip from a true change in talent level is a critical skill. Today, I want to take a look at two metrics you can use to separate the wheat from the chaff.

The first, which you’ll use for hitters, is batting average on contact. This is a different figure than batting average on balls in play; you don’t really want to penalize batters for hitting the ball over the fence, because in overhand hardball, that’s generally a Good Thing. Getting hits on contact is a skill for batters, something that carries over from year to year and generally separates good players from bad ones. For example, here is the BAC top ten for 2006 (with a minimum of 300 AB):

Player AB BAC

Ryan Howard       581     .455
Miguel Cabrera    576     .417
Manny Ramirez     449     .415
Jim Thome         490     .411
Derek Jeter       623     .411
Travis Hafner     454     .408
Jermaine Dye      539     .405
Matt Holliday     602     .398
Bobby Abreu       548     .398
Jason Bay         570     .394

That’s not a bad list to be on. Ryan Howard’s .455 BAC was well beyond the norm. It was, in fact, the second-highest single-season BAC in our database, going back to 1960 (again, using 300 AB as a minimum). Howard’s insanely high BAC last year is the primary reason he has little to no chance of repeating his 2006 performance.

Player YEAR AB BAC

Manny Ramirez      2000      439     .478
Ryan Howard        2006      581     .455
Reggie Jefferson   1996      386     .451
Jim Thome          2001      526     .449
Jose Hernandez     2002      525     .448
Sammy Sosa         2001      577     .446
Mo Vaughn          1997      527     .445
Manny Ramirez      1999      522     .445
Sammy Sosa         2000      604     .443
Larry Walker       2001      497     .442

The league typically hits around .320-.330 on contact, with the league leaders in most seasons in the .410-.420 range. Note that a number of the hitters who show up on these lists are among the highest-strikeout batters in the game. This makes sense; if a hitter strikes out prodigiously and doesn’t sustain a high BAC, he doesn’t last long in the major leagues. A high batting average on contact reflects a skill, which is why with the exceptions of Jefferson and Hernandez, you have some great hitters with their best seasons represented above.

The upper bounds of BAC are pretty clearly laid out by those charts, which is why pinpointing the biggest fluke in baseball right now is fairly easy. When he doesn’t strike out—and he does in 39 percent of his at-bats— B.J. Upton is batting .547. Suffice to say that there’s no precedent in major-league history for that kind of batting average on contact. It is likely that Upton possesses some skill in this area, as he hit .339 on contact in his first two major-league seasons at very young ages.

The combination of a high strikeout-to-walk ratio and a high BAC is likely a lethal one for a hitter who might be riding high in the early going. Upton’s contact rate is very low, and once his BAC returns even to a league-leading level, he’s going to see his batting average and OBP plummet. For example, if he had a .418 BAC, which would have been good for second in MLB last year, he would sport a .252 BA and a .325 OBP, neither figure worthy of much attention. Upton is going to have to improve his contact rate, which is atrocious, or his overall numbers are going to head straight downward.

Upton isn’t the only player likely to see his numbers fall. Here’s the top ten in BAC this year (using 100 AB as a minimum), along with their strikeout rates and K/BB:

Player AB BAC K% K/BB

B.J. Upton        123     .547    39%    48/12
Derrek Lee        141     .478    18%    26/17
Matt Holliday     154     .452    21%    33/9
Adam Dunn         130     .437    38%    53/21
Jorge Posada      115     .434    16%    19/12
Alex Rodriguez    140     .422    21%    31/14
Hanley Ramirez    148     .421    18%    27/19
Mark Teahen       135     .417    29%    39/20
Joe Mauer         102     .414    15%    15/16
Derek Jeter       144     .412     9%    13/16
Todd Helton       131     .408     8%    11/30

I’m listing 11 guys here to include Helton, who illustrates a point. The players to worry about are the ones with poor plate discipline--high strikeout rates and strikeout-to-walk ratios. Jeter and Helton have good or great plate discipline, and will be putting the ball in play 90 percent of the time. Coupled with high BACs, these guys are unlikely to fall off dramatically. Players such as Upton, Holliday, Dunn, and Teahen, however, are striking out much more, and it's their numbers that are being supported by unusually high BACs, and are prone to slippage.

The takeaway here is to pay attention to BAC, along with the usual plate discipline indicators. If a player is hitting for an unusually high batting average, you want to see if it’s being driven by his BAC, and act accordingly.

The pitching version of this is BABIP. Pitchers exert most of their control on walk rate, strikeout rate, and home run rate, with the latter being a product of their groundball/flyball ratio. To identify pitching flukes, you’d look for those pitchers with extremely low BABIPs coupled with peripheral stats—strikeout rate and K/BB, primarily—that don’t support a low ERA. Here are the starting pitchers with the lowest BABIPs (with a 30 IP minimum), along with some additional stats:

Pitcher BABIP ERA K/9 K/BB

Jason Bergmann      .183   2.76    7.7     2.0
Jason Marquis       .196   2.22    4.3     1.6
Jon Garland         .210   3.44    3.3     1.5
Rich Hill           .212   2.51    7.7     2.7
Orlando Hernandez   .218   2.53    7.0     1.9
Tim Wakefield       .226   2.41    5.2     1.5
James Shields       .226   3.13    8.1     5.4
Mark Hendrickson    .232   2.61    6.9     2.4
Jarrod Washburn     .234   2.64    4.9     2.2
Matt Cain           .236   3.18    6.2     1.4

Cain is an interesting name, as he’s appeared dominant at times but doesn’t have the kind of peripherals we associate with dominance. For him to have a .236 BABIP in front of a defense that is generously described as "immobile" is unusual. The Matt Cain versus Ben Sheets debate, which started in Monday’s chat session and continues in my inbox (results of poll coming to Unfiltered soon), looks a bit different in this context.

Mostly, though, every one of these guys is a ticking bomb to one degree or another. The league-average BABIP hovers around .300, and most pitchers should have a number that more or less is the inverse of their team’s defensive efficiency rating. All of the pitchers in that top ten are going to see their ERAs rise as their hit rate does; the ones with very low strikeout rates, such as Marquis, Garland, and Washburn, are going to be the most susceptible to more balls in play, more hits, and more runs. Bergmann and Hill, even with good peripherals, are almost certainly going to have higher ERAs the rest of the way as their absurdly low BABIPs slide back to normal levels. A knuckleballer such as Wakefield may be an exception to this notion.

For hitters, doing well on contact is a skill. For pitchers, what happens on balls they allow to be put in play is all but disconnected from their skill. If you can isolate performance from the bounce of the ball, you can go a long way towards identifying the flukes in time to trade them off of your fantasy team… or, if you’re a real manager, bench them before they do too much damage.

Almost all of the stats in this piece were researched by BP’s Jason Pare, without whom I couldn’t have written today’s column.—JS

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

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