keyboard_arrow_uptop

Batting average is the benchmark by which hitters have been judged for a century. It remains an integral statistical component of traditional fantasy leagues. Perhaps I’m just too much of a sabermetric fantasy hipster (with my flannel shirt, on-base percentage format, and NPR coffee mug) to accept it as an adequate metric for evaluating a hitter’s total offensive performance. Among the troika of triple-slash stats, batting average reveals the least information about a batters profile. In addition to being utterly devoid of contextual factors (like park factors, BABIP, and quality of opposing defense) that have a direct impact, it also fails to take into account that not all hits are equal in value.

Despite its inherent flaws, fantasy owners can’t just ignore the impact of a hitter’s batting average entirely, and still expect to field a championship caliber roster. The prevailing theme of this categorical breakdown series centers on the idea that understanding offense requires context. The process of player evaluation, projection, and building auction values, begins with an assessment of the overall landscape as it relates to batting average.

Batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage (2002-2016)

Major-league batters slugged the second-most home runs in a single season in 2016, helping to fuel a substantial increase in slugging percentage over the past two seasons. In tandem with a considerable decline in stolen bases, the recent power surge (and the strong likelihood that both trends will continue unabated) has forced fantasy owners to recalibrate their approach to roster construction entering the 2017 campaign.

While it hasn’t experienced profound league-wide shift like some of the other categories we’ve analyzed so far, batting average has dipped slightly over the last decade. Collectively, major-league batters hit .269 in 2006. Last season, they batted just .255, their highest average since 2012. Despite an explosion in power, hitters continue to strike out at prodigious rates, effectively putting a lid on a potential batting average rebound in the near future.

The Contemporary Cyclops

As Erasmus once wrote, “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” In a league in which the average player posts a .255 average, a revered slugger boasting a career .321 average over 14 seasons deserves to be crowned. Surely, the late Dennis Green would agree. Over the last five years, Miguel Cabrera is the only batter to hit .300 every season. There’s a reason Miggy is considered by scouts as the modern era’s example of a prototypical 80-grade hit tool.

Despite battling a myriad of minor injuries, the 33-year-old slugger struck out in just 17 percent of his 679 plate appearances and posted a batting average over .300 for the ninth consecutive season in 2016. A model of consistency and the preeminent example of a hitter who posts consistently high BABIP’s by generating hard contact. Cabrera is an extreme outlier. He’s also the most reliable source of batting average in the game and that designation carries considerable weight from a fantasy perspective.

Hitters with multiple .300-plus batting average seasons (2012-2016)

Player

Years

Range

Age

Miguel Cabrera

5

2012-2016

29-33

Adrian Beltre

4

2012-2016

33-37

Jose Altuve

3

2014-2016

24-26

Joey Votto

3

2013-2016

29-32

Mike Trout

3

2012-2016

20-24

Yadier Molina

3

2012-2016

29-33

Buster Posey

3

2012-2015

25-28

Robinson Cano

3

2012-2014

29-31

Andrew McCutchen

3

2012-2014

25-27

Per the Baseball-Reference play index, only a small handful of everyday hitters (minimum 500 plate appearances) have eclipsed the lofty .300 batting average plateau three or more times in the past five years. Only 25 batters, with an additional 15 posting a .290-plus average, accomplished the feat in 2016. Of that select group, 12 reached those lofty heights for the first time in their careers. Veteran infielders DJ LeMahieu and Yunel Escobar didn’t fit into either category, but have met those requirements in each of the last two seasons, despite never doing so previously in their respective careers.

On the other end of the spectrum, 39 everyday hitters (minimum 500 plate appearances) finished with sub .255 averages last season. The notable fantasy options on that list include: Troy Tulowitzki (.254), Jake Lamb (.249), Justin Upton (.246), Bryce Harper (.243), Jose Bautista (.234), Jason Heyward (.230), Todd Frazier (.225), and Chris Carter (.222).

Batting average is arguably the most antiquated metric fantasy owners are forced to take into account when evaluating a hitter’s fantasy potential. Yet, it remains synonymous with fantasy baseballs traditional roots, and is so ingrained in our consciousness that it’s hard to imagine it going away anytime soon. That’s the cold reality. Over the next few days, my colleagues Mike Gianella and Matt Collins will examine over and underachievers from last season, and take a deeper dive into the category to find some under the radar assets capable of buoying a teams average.