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September 17, 2010

Ahead in the Count

High BABIPs and True Skill Level

by Matt Swartz

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Last week, I discussed several pitchers who were pitching well in front of or well behind their peripherals using SIERA. This week, I will discuss several hitters who have particularly high BABIPs, and how much of that performance is skill versus luck.

It has been well-documented that BABIP is mostly luck for pitchers, though hitters have a solid mixture of luck and skill that goes into their BABIPs. Although the highest BABIPs in the league almost always will be comprised partly of good luck, there are a few guys that have shown significant BABIP skill. Last year, I wrote about The BABIP Superstars, the players most likely to produce high BABIPs according to my E-BABIP metric in 2009, and then showed how good their BABIPs actually were in 2009.

This year, I will take a different approach and look at the top five hitters in BABIP in 2010, and then work backward to figure out how much luck or skill was involved.

Since these are the five highest-ranked guys in BABIP for 2010, they are unsurprisingly both lucky and good at getting hits on balls in play. There are always a handful of players who are lucky and a handful of guys who are good, so the guys at the top of the list are statistically very likely to be in both groups.

Austin Jackson: .416
When I do my E-BABIP projections each year, I rarely predict hitters higher than .350 or so, and this past year was no exception. So, if a guy comes in with a BABIP north of .400, chances are that he was very lucky since the skill distribution across the league does not suggest that anyone can reach more than 40 percent of the time they hit the ball. Jackson actually shows pretty much all of the skills the best BABIP hitters in the league show, though, with the exception of major power, so he is not going to fall as far as some might suggest.

Jackson has a 51.5 percent ground ball rate, above the league average of 45.6. Many of the best BABIP hitters in the last several years, such as Joe Mauer, Derek Jeter, and Ichiro Suzuki, have ground ball tendencies. Additionally, many of those elite BABIP hitters are fast as well, and can turn those ground balls into infield hits. Jackson has nearly doubled the league average of infield hits per ground ball, checking in at 15.4 percent, quite impressive when compared with the league average of 8.1 percent. His 10 triples are another indicator that speed helps him reach base. Some hitters have high BABIPs because a disproportionate share of their ground balls reach the outfield, but Jackson’s 17.4 percent is only slightly above the 15.3 percent league average, and it is quite plausible that he can maintain this, because defenses need to play in to account for his speed. Jackson’s .328 BABIP on ground balls overall is on the high side of what we would expect, since he may not have as many infield hits next year, but infield hits are more persistent than outfield ground-ball hits, so he should maintain this aspect of his BABIP pretty well.

Jackson has a high BABIP on outfield flies as well, .207, a full 68 points above the league average of .139. Russell Carleton explained in last year’s Roundtable on BABIP and Line Drives that extra-base hits on fly balls in play were more persistent than getting fly ball singles to drop in. Jackson has 16.7 percent of outfield flies in play go for extra bases, solidly above 11.2 percent league average. His 5.5 percent of outfield flies in play going for singles is actually dead on the league average. Jackson is probably not going to maintain such a high BABIP on line drives next year, because even extra-base hits falling in is due to luck sometimes, but he should be above average at this skill as well. His lack of overall home run prowess would suggest that he has been lucky at getting fly balls to drop in for extra bases, but he certainly has gap power.

A frequent indicator of high BABIP due to luck is line-drive BABIP, where Jackson is actually only around league average (.722 for Jackson, .717 for league average). That Jackson has maintained such a high BABIP without a high line-drive BABIP is a good sign going forward.

However, where Jackson has had a lot of luck is his actual line-drive rate of 27.1 percent, well above the 18.9 percent league average. A myth that has been perpetuated about BABIP is that line drives are the skill portion of BABIP and that getting other kinds of hits on balls in play is luck. This is not true. A hitter’s line-drive rate moves around considerably from year to year, and if he guesses right on a few pitches, it can spike, while if he gets fooled, it can drop. However, hitters with line-drive rates 8.2 percent above league average one year often see this number fall to around three or four percent of league average the next. This is where Jackson will probably see the biggest drop in BABIP in 2011.

Jackson never had a .400 BABIP in the minors, checking in with .346 in Double-A in 2008 and .384 in Triple-A in 2009. He certainly can sprinkle hits around, but his days of 40 percent of balls in play falling in are almost definitely going to end with 2010.

My formula for E-BABIP for hitters who have one year of 300 plate appearances or more is based on line-drive rate, ground ball rate, infield flies per all flies, rate of reaching base on infield ground balls (hit or error), home run rate, triples rate, and outfield fly ball hits per ball in play. Jackson’s 2011 E-BABIP (if I do not update the formula in any way) would be .348 if his 2010 season ended now.

Josh Hamilton: .396
Hamilton is another surprise hitter with a BABIP of nearly .400. This is particularly surprising considering his BABIPs from 2007-09 were .315, .333, and .319. His E-BABIP for 2010 is .321, but he has topped that by 75 points. Hamilton’s batted-ball rates are right around his career norms. He has 42.3 percent ground balls, 34.9 percent outfield flies, 20.0 percent line drives, and only 2.9 percent pop-ups. The only number that is markedly different from league average is pop-ups, which actually are about 7.4 percent of all balls in play across the league. Hamilton’s historical tendency to drive the ball and avoid infield pop-ups is part of the reason that his BABIP has been above average in his career, but 2010 has been a whole new animal.

Right away, as we know that BABIP on line drives is much more luck-based than BABIP on outfield flies or ground balls, we are concerned that Hamilton is at .795 in 2010, above his career average of .743 and the league average of .717. Considering Russell’s discovery about extra-base hits on line drives and outfield flies being more persistent than singles rate on line drives and outfield flies, we next see that the big difference for Hamilton in 2010 has been singles. He has 59 percent of line drives landing for one-base hits, above the league average of 52.7 and above his career 54.3 rate. His extra-base hit rate on line drives is 20.5 percent, just slightly above the 19.0 percent league average. However, Hamilton has a good number of extra-base hits on outfield fly balls, with 18.3 percent of them in play falling for doubles or triples, compared to 11.2 percent league average. This is higher than his career 12.4 rate, however. Hamilton has been normal with respect to infield hits as well, right around the league average of 8 percent. However, he has 20.0 percent of ground balls going through the hole for hits, above the 15.3 percent league average. This suggests that his ground-ball BABIP should drop as well.

My E-BABIP formula for hitters with three straight years of 300 PA or more uses several factors and is slightly different than my formula for hitters with one year of 300 PA. The factors it includes are line-drive rate, ground- all rate, pop-up rate, ground ball BABIP, infield ground ball reach rate, home runs per at bat, and contact per swing. Using all of this, Hamilton would appear to be aimed at .339 for 2011, 18 points above his E-BABIP projection for 2010. Hamilton certainly has shown some good signs this year, but he too is unlikely to sniff a BABIP anywhere near his 2010 rate.

Carlos Gonzalez: .387
After a .318 BABIP on 217 balls in play in 2008 and a .333 BABIP on 198 balls in play in 2009, I only projected CarGo to check in with a .301 BABIP in 2010. Instead, he has significantly dwarfed my expectation for him for a number of reasons. Many of those are luck, though he has shown a lot of skills this year that he had not shown before, and this will be reflected in his 2011 E-BABIP.

His line-drive rate was above league average the previous two years with 19.7 and 22.7 in 2008 and 2009, respectively. However, his line-drive rate has soared to 26.8 in 2010. This is as unlikely to persist as Jackson’s high rate, but it still makes a stronger suggestion that Gonzalez at least has a propensity for line drives.

His BABIP on line drives themselves is actually relatively mild at .745, which is not all that abnormal considering he plays in Coors Field. The Rockies as a team have a .740 BABIP on line drives. His outfield fly ball BABIP is .231, a full 50 points above the league average and 79 points above the Rockies’ team average. Gonzalez gets a considerable number of extra-base hits on line drives, with 23.6 percent (league average is 19.0 percent). Chances are that there are some park factors, either scorer- or altitude-related that are making some of these numbers awkward, but they do paint a picture of the Carlos Gonzalez that drives the ball so well that we have seen this year. Gonzalez has seen 21.9 percent of his ground balls find the outfield, definitely above the league average of 15.3. Chances are that is coming down as well.

E-BABIP sees CarGo slowing to a respectable .332 BABIP for 2011.

Joey Votto: .355
After a .328 BABIP in 2008 and a .357 BABIP in 2009, E-BABIP foresaw a .335 BABIP for Votto in 2010. His .355 BABIP seems less extreme given that fact. Votto shares something with many BABIP Superstars in that he has a low pop-up rate. His 2.0 percent pop-up rate on balls in play is among the lowest in the league. Votto’s outfield fly ball BABIP is .202, only slightly above the .181 league average, and it is quite likely to persist considering his .216 and .292 outfield fly ball BABIPs of the previous two years. His ground-ball BABIP of .235 is just one point above the league average, too. His line-drive rate is 23.0, which is high, but given his 24.7 and 24.6 rates of the previous two years, it is also quite within reason that he could maintain this rate. His line-drive BABIP is .782, and it exceeds the .753 and .667 numbers of the previous two years and the .717 league average, but it is not all that much higher than one would expect for a power hitter. However, the fact that it has coming from being 7.1 percentage points above the league average on line-drive singles and 0.6 percentage points below the league average on line-drive extra-base hits on balls in play, suggests that it is coming down.

Votto’s E-BABIP for 2011 at this point would be .341, meaning that most of what he has shown is skill level. He has probably had some luck, as few hitters with average ground-ball rates can manage BABIPs nearly .350, but he is not so implausibly high that he can be marked for a major decline next season.

Jayson Werth: .353
Werth’s BABIP had declined from .389 on 175 balls in play in 2007, down to .324 on 278 balls in play in 2008, and .304 on 385 balls in play in 2009. However, it has spiked to among the league leaders in 2010 instead of landing around the .315 that E-BABIP projected. This is particularly surprising considering Werth’s ground ball rate is only 37.6 percent and his line-drive rate is 20.0 percent. His pop-up rate is good, but not great, at 6.1 percent.

The source of his high BABIP is on individual batted-ball types. Some of this is maintainable, but much is not. He has repeatedly shown a skill at hitting hard ground balls through the hole, with 20.6 percent in 2008 and 16.9 percent in 2009 (league average is 15.3). In 2010, he has smashed 24.8 percent of ground balls through the hole, which is the primary reason for his enormous .326 ground ball BABIP despite an average infield hit rate. This is unlikely to continue, but he should at least have above-average ground ball BABIP going forward.

Power hitters do tend to have high line-drive BABIPs, and Werth is not an exception. His .761 BABIP on line drives in 2010 is actually pretty close to his .754 line-drive BABIP in 2009. It has come on the heels of a lot of extra-base hits on line drives—almost double the league average of 19.0, with 33.8 percent. This is not all that likely to persist, but it should dismiss concerns raised by his 14.0 rate from 2009. Werth also has a lot of extra-base hits on outfield flies, too, with 13.4 percent, 2.2 percentage points above the league average. This again reiterates Werth’s tendency to drive the ball, which helps hitters put up high BABIPs.

E-BABIP sees Werth landing at .319 in 2011. He is definitely not a BABIP Superstar, but he should at least be able to reach on balls in play more than the majority of players. This should be an interesting fact to consider for teams expecting a .290 hitter when they see him on the free agent market. He will probably maintain his power and patience, but the batting average might not be as high as 2010 numbers would suggest.

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

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