Factors and Indicators of Luck vs. Skill

Posted on 09 May 2012 by Ryan Bohlen

With the first month of statistics under our belt, it is a good time to start looking at a few different factors and to understand three things: those who are lucky, those who are unlucky, and those who are just plain good.

I myself am a big fan of indicators of future performance for both pitchers and hitters.  For pitchers, I generally look at a pitcher xFIP. Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) is a regressed version of FIP, developed by Dave Studeman from The Hardball Times. It’s calculated in the same way as FIP, except it replaces a pitcher’s home run total with an estimate of how many home runs they should have allowed. This estimate is calculated by taking the league-average home run to fly ball rate (~9-10% depending on the year) and multiplying it by a pitcher’s fly ball rate.  I know, I know.  Scary stuff, I can hear you saying, “I just love to watch baseball, I don’t get this in depth.”  Or perhaps, “I just want to hear about what can help my fantasy team.” I hear you.  Let’s call xFIP a teaser for another time.  But trust me, it can help you predict future success and failure for both real life pitchers and your fantasy pitchers.  Nevertheless, on to hitting!

When it comes to hitters, there are three categories I find crucial to deciphering between those who are lucky and unlucky: BABIP, Contact% and Line drive %.

BABIP King

Let’s start with the basic concept of Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP). As each hitter puts a ball in play only two outcomes are going to occur; the player either reaches safely or is out.  Please note, home runs do NOT factor in. While it is true that batters can reach base via an error or fielder’s choice, but the simple fact is that he is still safe.

BABIP indicates the rate of success (reaching base) after putting the ball in play. Generally speaking a high BABIP (above .310) will lead to a higher batting average. In addition, guys with speed will tend to have even higher BABIP numbers on average.

Contact Percentage (contact%) is simply the rate at which a player makes contact with the ball. The higher the percentage of contact equals more at bats where balls are put in play (instead of striking out). Interesting to note, players with higher contact rates (above 80%) tend to have greater fluctuation in the batting average based on their BABIP.

Line Drive Percentage (LD%) indicates the number of line drives that are hit by a particular batter. Simple enough.

Once you mix BABIP with Line Drive Percentage (LD%) you can begin to gauge how lucky, or unlucky, a particular batter is. Sure, there are other factors to consider, but let’s keep this simple.

  • Unlucky Batter = Low BABIP with high LD%
  • Lucky Batter = High BABIP with low contact%

Which Players Have Been Lucky?

Here are the top 10 hitters (ranked by BABIP) with at least 50 at bats this year(as of May 1st):

Name

Team

BABIP

LD%

Contact%

Bryan LaHair, 1B Cubs

0.600

25.70%

65.90%

Jason Kubel, OF Diamondbacks

0.460

39.60%

80.40%

Ryan Sweeney, OF Red Sox

0.455

30.90%

88.30%

David Wright, 3B Mets

0.450

31.70%

82.10%

Matt Kemp,    OF Dodgers

0.444

21.20%

69.00%

Kirk Nieuwenhuis, OF Mets

0.436

28.10%

73.00%

Derek Jeter,   SS Yankees

0.424

19.30%

85.60%

Jose Altuve,   2B Astros

0.421

25.00%

93.50%

Jon Jay, OF Cardinals

0.415

29.60%

90.80%

 

Bryan LaHair, and his .600 BABIP is a big reason why he is currently posting a .390/.478/.779 line this season.  The .600 BABIP is absolutely unsustainable, and with a strikeout rate of 31.6%, it appears LaHair is getting ready to fall off considerably.  However, last year in AAA Iowa for the Cubs, LaHair did post a cool .361 BABIP, leading to a .331 batting average with 31 homers. It appears he may have turned his luck into a skill.

Fantasy spin: Though most websites and writers suggest sell, sell, sell on LaHair, even if his BABIP comes back to earth around .340 or .350 he should still be able to produce a .290-.300 batting average with 25-30 homeruns.  Not bad for a guy not drafted or drafted in the later rounds of most drafts.  Advice: Hold

This list also features a handful of stars who are obviously in the world of just being very good, no luck needed.  You know the Wrights, Kemps and Jeters of the world. The rest of this list strikes me as getting lucky with the exceptions of Jose Altuve and Jon Jay.  Both are making contact over 90% of the time and both have proven in the minors that making contact has not been a problem.  Fantasy wise, I would recommend Altuve in all leagues as he will absolutely play every day in a lineup that is desperate for production. Not to mention, a .351 batting average. He is for real kids.  As for Jay, my only concern is the return of Allen Craig and the impending return of Lance Berkman.  Playing time is my only quarrel here.

The Unlucky Ones..

The top 10 players currently with the lowest BABIP with at least 50 at bats (as of May 1st).

Name

Team

BABIP

LD%

Contact%

Eric Sogard,   3B Athletics

0.139

30.60%

90.90%

Casey Kotchman,      1B Indians

0.143

17.20%

86.70%

Geovany Soto, C Cubs

0.146

19.00%

71.70%

Xavier Nady,  OF Nationals

0.154

25.00%

72.30%

Eric Hosmer,  1B Royals

0.155

17.30%

79.10%

Clint Barmes, SS Pirates

0.157

17.30%

73.70%

Brendan Ryan, 2B Mariners

0.163

18.20%

78.50%

Jose Bautista, OF, Blue Jays

0.169

16.00%

81.60%

J.J. Hardy,     SS Orioles

0.173

13.00%

83.70%

 

For me, the two names that will stand out to most are Eric Hosmer and Jose Bautista.  Both players were expected to post strong numbers heading into this season and thus far it’s been ugly.  Hosmer is sporting a

Still trying to find his swing

.179/.252/.357 line after posting an impressive .293/.334/.465 line in 128 games last year for the Royals.  This year, his walk rate is up (8.9 compared to 6.0), while his strikeout rate is down (13.0 compared to 14.6) and his contact rate is right with all of his career averages.  So what gives?  Bottom line, Hosmer is getting extremely unlucky and a breakout is coming.

Fantasy spin: Hosmer is an extremely patient hitter who makes a lot of contact.  With a BABIP of .155 and a career BABIP (minors and majors) of .316, I fully expect Hosmer to return draft day value and finish with a batting average in the .280-.290 range with 25-30 homers.

Advice: Hold, buy low.

As for Bautista, he is a bit more concerning. Thus far, his walk rate has plummeted from 20.2% to 14.8%, showing that his patience has not there as compared to years past.  While he is making contact at a decent clip, he has been swinging at “pitcher’s pitches.” I do think Bautista will regain his patient eye and keep mashing homeruns, getting back to his .302 average from last year seems unreachable as it was inflated due to an inflated .309 BABIP. His previous three years, he never exceeded .275.  Look for the homers, not the average.

Think I’m crazy about a keeping LaHair or believing in a Hosmer turnaround?  Believe in the batting average side of Bautista? Feel free to comment.

 

4 Comments For This Post

  1. Miles Says:

    The other day, I traded LaHair and Mike Aviles for Hosmer and Ben Zobrist. The guy accepted it, and it looks like it’ll make it thru waivers tomorrow. I’m a bit scared about getting rid of LaHair though. Any thoughts? Did I do alright?

  2. Matty Ice Says:

    Nice article man. I think you are right on with Hosmer. It can only be a matter of time before he breaks out. One guy I think we really start to fall off is Altuve, so he has a great contact rate, and guess what so does Sogard. The only thing that separates these two is LUCK! They are both ground ball hitters and Altuve is just getting extremely lucky with all those hits getting through the infield.

  3. Ryan Bohlen Says:

    Miles,
    I think you did great with that trade. While I do believer in LaHair, he is unproven and his numbers show a regression is coming. Both Hosmer and Zobrist are far more proven than LaHair and Aviles. It may take time for the Zorilla and Hosmer to get it going but when they do, money in the bank for you. Nice work.

  4. Ryan Bohlen Says:

    Marty Ice,
    I appreciate you reading my work! As for Sogard and Altuve, I agree Altuve has been more lucky, but his minor league numbers also showed a high contact rate and high BABIP (due to his speed). Plus, much larger sample size this year with Altuve since he plays everyday. I’m driving the Altuve bandwagon and I think he’s going to get to 180-200 hits this year. .296/95/12/65/25

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