BABIP: How it works and what it means for the Indians
By Jeff Ellis
March 22, 2012
In baseball we often talk in the world of absolutes. We define hitters and pitchers by stats that show how they produced over a season. This is a great way to quantify what a player has done.
Sometimes people talk about the ideas of clutch hitting, grittiness, and toughness. While these terms are interesting they are impossible to prove or define; however, there is one abstract idea that can be figured out thanks to stats, and that is luck.
BABIP is the batting average on balls in play. The average hitter tends to have a BABIP in the .290 to .315 range with faster players tending to have higher career rates. This allows a fan to see the idea of a player being lucky. For instance, in his rookie year Austin Jackson’s BABIP was .396, which is an unsustainable level, but the next year he dropped to a .340 BABIP and saw his average drop a similar 50 points. Anyone who knew about BABIP would have known that Austin Jackson was not going to be a near .300 hitter; he just got lucky.
For pitchers BABIP is also typically around .300, and it’s the same idea that pitchers who might have come out of nowhere might have just been lucky instead of good. If you are following the news you might have heard Jeremy Hellickson say he didn’t believe in BABIP, though the reason might have to do with his career .224 BABIP which led many people to say he might be in for a regression this year.
BABIP is how we can judge luck and find players that are candidates to recover. Since this is a rather easy stat, I thought it might be fun to look at what projected starters did last year and see who is up for a better or worse season this year. So let’s look at the veterans on the Indians' roster and see who was lucky and who was good.
Shin-Soo Choo had a career worst BABIP last year of .317. If you add in last year’s low he has a career BABIP of .353, so this tells Indians fans that part of Choo’s problems were that he was extremely unlucky. He should be a major bounce back candidate for the team this year.
Casey Kotchman has been a pretty popular signing because he hit well last year and provides a major upgrade defensively. He talked about getting the laser eye surgery and how it helped him as a hitter last year, but according to BABIP his jump last year was a matter of luck not skill. I would also not expect a full regression but instead of a .300 hitter look for something more like .270. That is still an upgrade but if he does hit .300 again then I guess the laser eye surgery did have a major effect.
Asdrubal Cabrera was the break out hitter last year for the Tribe, so you would expect he had to catch some luck last year. BABIP actually tells us he was unlucky as a hitter last year, so his numbers could improve even more this season. His average was actually 20 points lower than normal, so if he can keep his power up, then you’re looking at the third best shortstop in terms of fantasy this year.
Jack Hannahan was a surprise starter for the Tribe last year when Jason Donald got hurt. The reason he had never stuck in the majors was because his bat was subpar. He has a career BABIP of .295, right about the typical average, and last year's was .308. It is over a ten point jump, and pretty much explains his jump in average. I know people love his defense but it is best for the Tribe if Chisenhall can nail this job down and bring a legit bat to the lineup.
So of the four veteran hitters are this team, half should expect regression, but frankly the more important pieces should expect even greater success. Now let’s turn to the pitchers, since there is more of a set range let’s just do a quick fire on the rotation.
- Justin Masteron had a breakout year, but it was skill not luck as his BABIP was right at his career norms at .307, so expect another great year.
- Ubaldo Jiminez last year had a BABIP 25 points higher than his career average, so there was a degree of unluckiness, so expect a bounce back this year.
- Josh Tomlin never walks people, but he did have homerun trouble. Add in the fact he had a .264 BABIP and things look a bit grim for Tomlin.
- Last season Derek Lowe had a BABIP 33 points higher than his career average, but his averages have been up the last three years, so I would expect more of the same from him.
- The 5th spot is up for grabs, but Kevin Slowey’s numbers are basically telling the same story as Lowe, higher than his average but has been on the rise for a few years so expect more of the same.
So there is an explanation of BABIP, a useful tool for not just understanding players, but for finding those sleeper and bounce back candidates in your fantasy leagues. This leads to one more thing I wanted to mention. I am proud to announce that I will be partnering with fellow IPI writer Andrew Zajac for a weekly fantasy podcast on the IPI Radio Network, so keep your eyes and ears pealed as more information will soon follow.
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A lot of things changed for Hannhan last year. His BA improved. But, that was just the beginning. His HR/FB rate was 10.3% compared to his career average of 7.2%. Also, his "batted ball" profile changed quite a bit. His line drive% was 16.1%, a 3.1% drop from his career average. And his GB-rate increased to 51.7%, compared to a career average of 42%.
With so many aspects of his batting profile, I think it's hard to project what will happen this year, including whether his BABIP will regress to his average. But, even if it does, a drop of .013 in BABIP doesn't mean a lot in the scheme of things. I'd be more concerned with his HR/FB ratio regressing to norm.
24.8% of the balls in play off of Austin Jackson's bat in 2010 were line drives. Last year, only 16.8%, and he had a corresponding rise in fly balls, while his ground ball rate remained about the same. Around 70% of line drives fall in for hits, while only 21% of fly balls do.
With Jackson, there's a sample size issue. That high line drive rate may have been an aberration. It's not so much that he was "lucky", just that he hit line drives at an unsustainable rate in 2010. With Choo, he's consistently hit more line drives than your average major leaguer for 4 years, including last year, so that's why all projections have him coming in with a .300-345 BABIP this coming year.
At this point, it looks pretty safe to assume that 2011 was an outlier in Choo's career. Think about it. He was battling injuries and off the field problems all year. Prior to 2011, his BABIP in the majors were: .367, .370, .347.
.317 (2011) is not abnormally low for most players, but Choo is not most players. Talk to any scouts, coaches, etc. around the league, the ball simply sounds different coming off his bat than it does coming off the bat of your average major league hitter. Players that consistently hit the ball harder than others are more likely to have a higher BABIP than average. And even though he's not a burner, Choo runs decently and is a smart base-runner. It's likely that there was some luck involved from 2008 to 2010, but until he posts a few consecutive years of a BABIP around .300, I don't think there's any reason to think he wont rebound.
As for Hanahan, he had only one good month in the second half, for the most part he was extremely unproductive with his bat. Maybe the bats helps, but much like Kotchman and his eyes time will tell
Why shouldn't we consider that Choo was lucky in his good years and last year was the norm?