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May 2, 2013

Overthinking It

Three Months in Marco Scutaro's BABIP

by Ben Lindbergh

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Some players’ stat pages are interesting for any number of reasons. Others are nondescript, save for a single defining stat that stands out so much more than all the others that you quickly come to associate the player with that particular category. Marco Scutaro is a “single stat” guy.

Scutaro’s defining characteristic is that he makes more contact than anyone else. When someone says “Marco Scutaro” 10 years from now, you won’t think about that one time he led the league in sac flies, which his black ink would have us believe was the only time he led the league in anything. You might remember his unusual career arc: a utility guy throughout his 20s who “clearly was put on Earth to be a reserve,” according to Baseball Prospectus 2006, Scutaro bloomed late and became an above-average starter at shortstop in his early- to mid-30s. But mostly you’ll remember that his bat touched the ball on roughly 95 percent of his swings, and that he cut down on his K’s as his career went on while the rest of the league’s strikeout rate rose.

Scutaro’s incredible contact ability doesn’t really bleed over into any other aspect of his game. He doesn’t walk especially often or hit for much power, he doesn’t have great speed, and at this point he’s probably no better than an average defender at second base. So his ability to impress people depends on where and when his batted balls fall.

Assuming that Scutaro has no particular talent for placing his hits in fielder-free spots, he’s more at the mercy of the BABIP gods than most other players. Not in the sense that his BABIP is more subject to wild swings than the typical player—just the opposite, in fact, since the more balls a batter puts in play, the more stable from season to season his BABIP should be. But if his BABIP does take a dive, his stats can crater quickly. On the bright side, if his BABIP gets a boost, he can briefly look like a star.

After Scutaro’s deadline trade to San Francisco last season, every ball his bat touched seemed to find empty field. He hit .362/.385/.473 in 268 plate appearances, powered by a .366 BABIP, then posted a .344 BABIP in 70 postseason plate appearances. Scutaro entered last season with a .293 career mark, and he hadn’t been bitten by a radioactive Austin Jackson on his way to San Francisco, so there was no reason to think that would last. But while all those extra hits didn’t change Scutaro’s true talent, they did change his career. Those hits helped the Giants win the World Series, made Scutaro a fan favorite in San Francisco, and helped him land a three-year contract that won’t expire until he turns 40.

This season, the contact hasn’t led to nearly as much success. Scutaro is hitting the ball about as often as ever, but he’s batting only .240/.287/.300 in 110 plate appearances, and his BABIP is .294. We have a tendency, sometimes, to attribute both high and low BABIPs to “luck,” which would imply that someone like Scutaro did everything the same in both his hot streak and his slump, but had better results in one than the other. The reality seems more nuanced than that.

To get some sense of the difference between the high-BABIP and low-BABIP models of Scutaro, I watched every ball he put in play with the Giants last regular season, keeping a tally of the ones I considered “unlucky” and “lucky.” Then I did the same for his batted balls in 2013. Basically, I counted balls hit hard but right at someone as “unlucky,” and balls hit weakly that found a hole as “lucky.” Since batted-ball luck is more of a spectrum than a binary choice between lucky and not lucky, I also kept track of balls that I felt were lucky and unlucky to a lesser degree. Ideally, I would have based this on some sort of objective criteria, like speed and angle off the bat, but since Sportvision hasn’t seen fit to make HITf/x free just for me, I settled for my eyes and experience.* As studies go, this one was pretty low on the scientific soundness scale. If he’s reading this, Colin Wyers is cringing and possibly considering resigning from the site.

*Don’t try this at home, unless you want to wake up in a cold sweat hours later wondering whether you classified something incorrectly. I feel for stat stringers and video scouts. Question I kept asking myself: Is every groundball that isn’t hit that hard but finds a hole a little lucky? I don’t mean true 10-hoppers/seeing-eye singles, just your average everyday grounder. If the batter isn’t pushing the ball toward the hole on purpose, should he get any more credit for where it ends up than he would if it were hit a few feet away?

I expected to see a lot of slow rollers and perfectly placed pop-ups propping up that .366 BABIP. And I did see some. But to my surprise, I saw just as many hard line drives that found a glove or caromed off a pitcher in time for another fielder to throw to first for the out. Not that the precise numbers mean much, but I counted seven no-doubt “lucky” batted balls and nine no-doubt “unlucky” batted balls, with 10 of each type in the “a little lucky” and “a little unlucky” buckets.

Here are the lucky ones:

And here are the ones that went against Scutaro:

Glancing at Scutaro’s low BABIP this season, you’d expect the opposite of what you would have expected (but that turned out not to be true) of 2012: a bunch of balls hanging up just a little too long, or not quite long enough. But the same semi-arbitrary (but consistently semi-arbitrary!) method suggests that that hasn’t been the case, either. I couldn’t come up with a single legitimately unlucky ball hit by Scutaro this season, just a few almost-unlucky ones. But there were three that looked to me like legitimately lucky ones,

plus three almost-lucky ones and a bunt single, which wasn’t really “lucky”—it deserved to be a single—but also isn’t evidence that he’s been hitting the ball hard.

I probably could have saved myself some time and just looked at the stats, since they tell the same story that the video did. Scutaro’s line-drive rate for the Giants last season was 23.7 percent. This season, it’s down to 14.0 percent. Batted-ball classifications are subjective, but having watched every one of Scutaro’s regular-season BIP since the end of last July, I don’t disagree that he’s been hitting the ball less often on a line and more often on the ground, without any oomph, this season.

We can’t trace the change in batted-ball profile back to Scutaro’s approach at the plate:

Year

ZONE

SWING

CONTACT

Z_SWING

O_SWING

Z_CONTACT

O_CONTACT

SW_STRK

2012

56.0

40.9

95.0

56.3

21.0

96.7

89.2

4.7

2013

56.2

39.3

93.9

53.1

20.5

97.4

82.4

6.1

The only notable difference since last season is that he’s making contact less often on balls outside the zone—which, if anything, you’d expect to lead to fewer weakly hit balls. So there’s nothing that suggests this slump will last any longer than last year’s hot streak, aside from Scutaro’s age. (As baseball players get older, Joe Posnanski once wrote, “the hot side loses some of its heat, and the cool side gets a little colder.”)

There are times when a hot streak really is the result of a few swings coming up sevens. But sometimes a high BABIP by a guy who hasn’t had one historically is just a batter being better than he usually is. In the end, it’s more of a descriptive distinction than a predictive one. Scutaro can’t sustain a .360-something BABIP, whether he’s doing it with line drives or bloopers and bleeders, so what we call it might not matter (except to Scutaro). Either way, the extremes rarely last for long. But it’s worth remembering that not all hot streaks and slumps are created the same. “Luck,” in baseball, is a tricky term, and it doesn't always apply as neatly as we want it to.

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

Related Content:  Giants,  Marco Scutaro,  Babip,  Hot Streak,  Slump

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