This is my first post as a contributor for Full Spectrum Baseball, so what better way to start off my weekly column than to write about my favorite topic, BABIP. For those of you unfamiliar with BABIP, it is short for Batting Average on Balls In Play. Simply put, BABIP equals a player’s batting average when the player makes contact with the ball minus home runs. To a point, it is a measure of luck, since a player has no control of the ball once they make contact. The league average floats around 0.300. Players with a BABIP much higher that 0.300 tend to be considered lucky and the players with a much lower BABIP tend to be considered unlucky. With that being said, there are a lot of factors that could affect the BABIP for the positive and negative. Line drive, ground ball, and fly ball rates, opponent’s defensive skills, hard/weak hit balls, etc.
BABIP greatly affects a player’s batting average. A great example of a player who had incredible luck, but eventually came back down to Earth is Bryan LaHair. In the first month of the season, LaHair had a batting average of 0.390 in 59 at-bats. However, he also had a BABIP of 0.600, twice the average of the MLB… meaning that LaHair got a hit 60% of the time that he connected with the ball. So, how is LaHair doing now? He now has batting average of 0.267 with a 0.370 BABIP. His BABIP is still rather high, but that is mostly due to the fact that he had such an incredible April. As you can see, as his luck diminished, his batting average came down to a normal level for a player of his caliber.
In this article, I am going to take a look at both the top 5 highest and lowest BABIPs in the current season. I will discuss if the BABIP is the real deal, if the layer is victim to good or bad luck, or if there are other factors playing a role.
Top 5 BABIPs in the MLB
#5 - Melky Cabrera – 0.386 BABIP
I will be the first to admit that I said that Melky will be a bust this year. I will also admit that because of it, I believe he has waged a personal vendetta against me to prove me wrong. Melky has been on an absolute tear this season, especially in the months of May and July where he hit for 0.429 and 0.355 averages, respectively. This season Melky has had high line drive and ground ball rates, and a low fly ball rate. Combine that with his low strikeout rate and this is what you get. At 27 years old, Melky is showing everyone that he is the real deal and that last season was no fluke. Melky won’t be able to keep up at this pace every season that follows, but don’t be surprised to see him fall somewhere between this season’s and last season’s numbers.
Verdict: Pure skill, with a pinch of luck
#4 - Austin Jackson – 0.396 BABIP
Austin Jackson is turning into something really special for the Detroit Tigers. In fact, Jackson has a 4.5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), higher than both Price Fielder (2.4) and Miguel Cabrera (4.3). Last season, Jackson posted a 0.249 AVG with a BABIP of 0.340. A few big changes have occurred between this season and last season. This season, Jackson is walking more and striking out less. Not only has he made changes to his swing, he has also become more patient at the plate and is swinging at better pitches. This has led to a nice increase in his line drive rate and a slight decrease in both his ground ball and fly ball rates. At only 25 years old, this kid could get better in the years to come. He could end up becoming one of the best leadoff hitters in the game. In his three seasons, Jackson has a career BABIP of 0.375 and a batting average of 0.281. He probably won’t be able to maintain the 0.375 BABIP, but with his skills he could end up somewhere in the 0.350 – 0.360 range. However, don’t let the lower BABIP scare you… as he matures he should begin to lower his strikeout rate, which will raise his batting average. He could easily become a career 0.300 – 0.310 hitter.
Verdict: Great skill, with a pinch of luck, and great potential to get better
#3 – Mike Trout – 0.397 BABIP
I love me some Trout, and who doesn’t? Mike Trout is arguably the most exciting player in baseball. Not only is he batting 0.342, but he also has 19 HRs and 33 stolen bases in 387 plate appearances. At only 20 years old and only 522 plate appearances in his career, it is hard to get a truly accurate reading on him. However, the one thing I can say about Trout is that this kid is a beast… and the scary thing is that he could end up getting better.
Trout’s 0.397 BABIP, which recently dipped below 0.400, is extremely high. In the past 75 years, only 4 players finished a season of a BABIP over 0.400 (with a minimum of 500 PAs):
Rod Carew (1977) – 0.408
Jose Hernandez (2002) – 0.404
Manny Ramirez (2000) – 0.403
Roberto Clemente (1967) – 0.403
It would be truly amazing if Trout could finish the season with a BABIP above 0.400, considering his age and the fact that he is a rookie. I personally don’t see him doing it, but Mike Trout will be a force for years to come. Trout could put up several seasons with a BABIP close to 0.400, but he should find himself hovering around 0.360 for most of his career, especially if he cuts down on the strikeouts (2012: 20%).
Verdict: He might be a T-800 – Cyborg with human flesh, AKA The Terminator
#2 – Joey Votto – 0.398 BABIP
Prior to getting injured, Joey Votto was on pace to rival his 2010 MVP season. He had posted his highest BABIP (0.398) and batting average (0.342) of his career. He had also posted the 2nd highest line drive, rate of 30.2%, in the MLB (also highest of his career). There is little or no luck involved in his BABIP, Votto was just simply seeing the ball well and hitting it hard. Will Votto do this every season? No… but he could easily do this again and do it often. It will be interesting to see how he does when he comes back from his knee surgery, but as for now we are calling him the real deal.
Verdict: Part human, part machine
#1 – Andrew McCutchen – 0.423 BABIP
With all the attention Mike Trout has received, Andrew McCutchen has been somewhat overlooked. McCutchen has been having the most impressive hitting season since Larry Walker’s batting average of 0.379 in 1999. McCutchen is hitting 0.373 this season, and there is no doubt luck has a lot to do with it. The greatest BABIP in history was in 1923 when Babe Ruth had a 0.423 BABIP (same as McCutchen’s current BABIP).
This season Andrew McCutchen has a slightly high strikeout rate (18.5%) and a slightly low walk rate (9.5 %). He does have nice line drive, ground ball, and fly ball rates, but not good enough to explain his BABIP. Not to slam McCutchen’s amazing season, but luck is playing a big part of it. He will most likely see his BABIP and AVG drop a bit before the end of the season. However, while Trout’s BABIP has been dropping over the last few weeks, McCutchen’s hasn’t and could easily find himself becoming the 5th player in the last 75 years to post a BABIP over 0.400.
Verdict: Pure talent with a ton of luck
Bottom 5 BABIPs in the MLB
#5 – Ike Davis – 0.230 BABIP
Throughout Ike’s career in both the majors and minors, he has never posted a BABIP under 0.318. This season he has posted a BABIP of 0.230 and a batting average of 0.209. So what happened? Last season ended very early for Ike due to injury and he hasn’t been the same man since he has come back. Ike is walking less (8.6%) and striking out more (26.3%) than he has ever in his career. However, Ike is hitting more line drives and ground balls, and less fly balls, which is all good. You have to wonder if last season’s ankle injury is still causing problems for Ike, both physically and mentally.
Ike Davis is too good of a player for this season to define him. He has shown flashes of improvement, like his 9 HRs in the month of July, but I don’t expect him to save this season. I do, however, expect him to make a nice return, in 2013, to the man he really is.
Verdict: Good player who is experiencing a bit of bad luck, mixed in with physical and mental struggles.
#3 (tied) – Brian McCann – 0.227 BABIP
Brian McCann is having an abnormal season based on his standards. He is a career 0.282 hitter and is batting 0.242 this season. He is floating around his career average in walk, strike out, line drive, ground ball, and fly ball rates. McCann seems like the perfect example of a player that is flat out having bad luck. Expect to see him recover a bit and hopefully salvage this forgettable season.
Verdict: Great offensive catcher with a truck load of bad luck
#3 (tied) – Casey Kotchman – 0.227 BABIP
Casey Kotchman has never really been known for his offense. In fact, his career BABIP is a low 0.275. In his nine seasons in the MLB, Casey has posted a BABIP under 0.250 four times. He has a career isolated power rating of 0.130, so he rarely hits the ball very hard. He doesn’t walk much, but he doesn’t strikeout much either. Almost 60% of his batted balls are ground balls. When you hit a lot of soft ground balls, you’re going to find yourself getting out a lot.
Casey is a great defensive first baseman, although he’s had some issues this season. He will never be the normal power hitting first basemen that most of us are so used to.
Verdict: Let’s just say, he’s not in the MLB for his offense, and leave it at that
#2 – Jose Bautista – 0.217 BABIP
Yes… the 2010 and 2011 homerun leader finds himself with the 2nd lowest BABIP in the league. Why and how, you ask? Simply put, he has fallen in love with the homerun ball. 50% of his batted balls are fly balls and only 14% of his batted balls are line drives. He is literally trying to hit a homerun every time he comes up to bat. The 0.217 BABIP doesn’t come as much as a surprise as you would think. In 2010, when he hit 54 homeruns, he had a BABIP of 0.233. In fact, last season’s BABIP of 0.309 and 0.302 average could be considered “lucky”. Bautista will more than likely post a BABIP in the 0.220 – 0.240 range for the rest of his career. And why not? “Chicks love the long ball”.
The interesting thing with Bautista is that his career could end up being cut short. He is turning 32 years old in October. If and when his strength starts to fade, he will see the homerun totals start to fall. At that point he could be in trouble, because all he knows how to do is skyrocket a ball into the seats. When his strength does diminish, we’ll probably see the pre-2010 Bautista that we all knew before.
Verdict: No bad luck, just a man who loves his homeruns
#1 Justin Smoak – 0.211 BABIP
With a BABIP of 0.211 and a batting average of 0.189, it’s easy to understand why the Mariners sent Justin Smoak back down to AAA. He has posted his lowest walk rate (7.7%) in his professional career, including in the minors. He has also posted his 2nd highest strikeout rate (22.7%) and lowest isolated power (0.131). He has a pathetically low line drive rate of 15% and a high fly ball rate of 43.8%. Combine all this together and you can see that back luck has little to do with his struggles. He is impatient at the plate, swings at bad pitches, and is not making good contact with the ball. In 2010, MLB listed Smoak as the #9 in their top prospects list. He has yet to live up to his potential, so hopefully he will be able to figure things out with a little more conditioning in the minors.
Verdict: Not MLB material right now, but could be at some point
Check out my other writing at JoeBlowBaseball.com, too.