March 3, 2010

Behind the Numbers: BABIP

I was going into high school at the time the World Series of Poker became a phenomenon, so needless to say the majority of my allowance went to poker nights with the guys (I wasn't exactly the best player in the neighborhood). But what I came to decide after watching the WSOP and sitting at the table, is that poker is a game of luck that can be helped by skill. On the other hand, baseball is a game of skill, which you can occasionally get lucky in. As Jimmy Fallon said in the masterpiece that is Fever Pitch, "you can either hit a curveball or you can't... you can have a lucky day, sure, but you can't have a lucky career". That's where BABIP comes in, we can help to decide when a player will even out and stop foolin' everyone.
For those who are new to this stat that doesn't show up on the back of baseball cards (if those still exit that is) BABIP stands for Batting Average on Balls in Play. It is usually considered to be the rating of a player's luck, as it shows how often he got to first after making contact, no matter where it went. So, if a player has an unusually high BABIP, with .300 being the average, then you can expect the player to be a little less "lucky" and get out on a few more of those balls in the long run. On the opposite end, a very low BABIP player can expect a bump up in total average, since he will get more hits on the pitches he puts in play. The exception to this rule, is that speedy players can expect a slightly higher BABIP, since he can beat out slow rollers, so I won't really focus on these exceptions in this article.

Ian Kinsler 2B, Texas Rangers (2009: .241 BABIP, .253 BA)
The Rangers' 2B saw a major dropoff in average last season, and it wasn't exactly unforeseen. After hitting .319 in his 121 MLB games in 08, Kinsler fell, largely in part to an absurdly high BABIP of .334.  While he may never hit .319 for a full season, Ian should be expected to make a U-Turn after the 2009 campaign and if he evens out to a .300 BABIP, could hit .280 to go along with his great power and speed numbers for a second basemen.

Jimmy Rollins SS, Philadelphia Phillies (2009: .251 BABIP, .250 BA)
For a guy who swipes 30+ bases every season, a .250 BABIP really stands out. Rollins is not exactly young, and is a career .270 hitter, but thats not why you pick him. Like Kinsler, Jimmy gives you great production in HRs, SBs and Runs from a position where all three of those are rare to see. The Philly SS should be able to see a small increase in his BABIP and, maybe move back up towards his career .274 mark. If that happens, he will be a quality player, which is a lot better than a lot of sites are projecting him to be.

David Wright 3B, New York Mets (2009: .394 BABIP, .307 BA)
For a guy who had one of the highest BABIP in the league, Wright really didn't have that unbelievable of a season. For those who took him in the first round last year were left dissapointed, despite the fact that he hit over .300. It was assumed that his power would follow and he would put up another potential 30/30 season, especially if he could it .300. However, Wright's power numbers fell far behind his batting average, and his BABIP makes it seem as though he might not make a complete turnaround. Wright has some speed, but nothing that garners this type of a number. If the Mets' 3B shows any slide in his BABIP, which is extremely likely, he would need to bring down his strikeout rate. If he does and finds his power, it could be a great season, but if he doesn't, 2010 could be a big disappointment. That's why Wright is one of the biggest boom/bust plays of the year and is only suitable for those who like to gamble.

Kevin Youkilis 1B/3B, Boston Red Sox (2009: .359 BABIP, .305 BA)
Youk is probably the strangest case when studying BABIP. When you think speed, the goateed Red Sox hitter doesn't exactly come to mind, but he has put up a career .334 mark in that category. So, from a quick glance at his BABIP number, it would be easy to assume that a decline in average is in store for 2010. That's not to say that his average has to drop, but it is not as likely as the numbers make it seem. Even if Youkilis drops to hitting in his career .290 range, that is still a good contributor to your team batting average number. Whether it is his pure hitting ability, or knack for finding a hole in the defense, Youkilis will certainly hit for a high average despite what his BABIP might say.

The BABIP number is like any other statistic; it is interesting on its own, but only helpful when you look deeper into the player. While the 2009 Kinsler showed us how it can help predict the future, guys like Youkilis show that sometimes the hitter isn't just "lucky" whenever more that 30% of their balls in play become hits.