Determining how balls in play affected hitting, pitching performances
January 4, 2016
The new year is upon us and so much lies ahead, including the Florida and Arizona arrivals of pitchers and catchers in a little more than a month's time. That said, let us begin 2016 with ... one last statistical look at 2015.
This offseason, we've covered advanced offensive (ISO, Spd) and pitching (FIP) stats for top-100 prospects. Today we turn our attention to one that affects position players and pitchers alike: BABIP, or Batting Average on Balls in Play. The definition is pretty self-explanatory, but not necessarily the formula behind it. Because BABIP only measures balls that stay in the yard, home runs and strikeouts are removed from the equation, while sacrifice flies are factored in:
BABIP = (H-HR) / (AB-K-HR+SF)
The most popular use of BABIP is to determine the "luck" of a hitter or pitcher, since not all hits are created equal. There are plenty of balls that squeak past a diving glove or skim the left-field chalk line or, conversely, are hit squarely but right at a defender. The higher BABIP an offensive player has, the luckier we think they are or, said another way, the less earned we believe their batting average to be. For pitchers, we sometimes think of a higher BABIP as a reflection of poor luck and a sign that perhaps their ERA is somewhat inflated.
Of course, such an evaluation is a bit simplistic as there is some talent behind BABIP, specifically for hitters, who can turn a potential out into a hit with impressive speed or create higher BABIPs by making consistently loud contact because, think about it, a hard-hit ball is tougher for the defense to react to. Because they're reliant on their defenses, pitcher BABIPs usually are considered a little less talent-based, but outside of luck, pitchers can affect their BABIPs by inducing weaker contact.
What follows is a look at the highest and lowest BABIPs among top-100 hitting and pitching prospects. (You can find the BABIPs for each of MLB.com's top 100 prospects in these two tables.)
HIGHEST BABIPs for Batters among MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects
Back when we looked at prospect BABIPs for 2014, the top five BABIPs were all above .400. This past season, we saw only one such number, and that came from Rockies No. 5 prospect Ryan McMahon.
There's a lot going on in McMahon's BABIP, starting with the fact that he played in the hitter-friendly California League all summer, but like 2014 BABIP leader Corey Seager, the 21-year-old third baseman was a doubles machine in 2015. But with 153 strikeouts, it's obvious McMahon had plenty of swing-and-miss in his game, though those likely came from his focus on making lots of noise when he did make contact -- the type of contact that typically leads to higher BABIPs. Though .401 is an outlier, McMahon put up .396 and .360 over his first two seasons, so this is still very much part of his game. Regression could come when he faces more advanced pitching higher up the ladder, but for now, BABIP is just another reason for Colorado fans to be excited about the potential of the young left-handed-hitting third baseman, who for now will have to live in the shadow of Nolan Arenado.
The inclusion of our remaining four in that group can all be explained by speed, speed and more speed. Brinson (60), Alford (70), Anderson (70) and Turner (75) all grade out well-above-average on the 20-80 scale, according to MLB.com, when it comes to their run tools, so it's no surprise that they turned their wheels into high BABIPs. Brinson's .393 is the result of what might be the best combination of speed and pop on that list, as evidenced by his 59 extra-base hits and 18 steals at three levels in 2015.
Turner is the only repeat top-fiver from a year ago after seeing his BABIP "dip" from .409 in his first Minor League season to .390 in his second. The 2014 first-rounder is expected to enter the spring as a candidate to be the Nationals' Opening Day shortstop.
Lowest BABIPs for Batters among MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects
Before we get too deep into these numbers, it's necessary to put out the "SMALL SAMPLE" warning, given that there are two 2015 draftees and a player who was mostly in short-season ball.
That said, we can still offer some context. Whitley, the 13th overall pick in this year's Draft, didn't exactly hit the ground running as an 18-year-old in the Gulf Coast and New York-Penn Leagues, but if the luck factor of BABIP is to be believed, that wasn't entirely his fault. Given more time, there's a good chance his BABIP and batting average would have risen. But in any case, the low numbers shouldn't concern Rays fans hoping for big things out of the teenager who is considered to have average to above-average hit, power and run tools. The same could be said on for the Astros' Tucker, the fifth pick in the 2015 Draft who also came out of high school.
For Jackson, it was a tale of two BABIPs. The Mariners' 2014 first-rounder had plenty of promise entering his first full season but struggled in his first month at Class A Clinton, producing just a .157/.240/.213 line in 28 games. However, he was done no favors by a .230 BABIP over that same span. Following a demotion to Class A Short Season Everett, his numbers normalized (.239/.365/.466) as did his BABIP (.326). It could have been as simple as a turnaround in luck, but Jackson's ISO also improved from .056 to .227 between the two stops, indicating he was putting more thump into the ball at the lower level. That turnaround is a cause for optimism as he'll attempt to tackle full-season ball once again in 2016.
As spray hitters out to make contact, it's perhaps no surprise that Almora and Margot find themselves on this list. Consider it the opposite approach to McMahon's in that if your goal is to simply put the ball in play, you're less likely to pack punch, leading to fewer strikeouts but also more outs in the field. That said, you'd think the speed of Margot, who stole 81 bases over the last two seasons, would have a BABIP higher than .297, even if it is fairly close to what's considered average.
Lowest Babips for Pitchers among MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects
Carl Edwards Jr.
Once again, Carl Edwards Jr. has produced the lowest BABIP among top-100 pitchers. (Note: Dillon Tate's .105 BABIP was the lowest among top-100 prospects but wasn't included in the above table because it came over just nine innings pitched.) The Cubs right-hander made the move to the bullpen this season and, armed with an impressive fastball-curve combo, was difficult to touch even in his new role. The thing with Edwards is most Triple-A and Double-A hitters knew that their best chance to reach base was via a walk as he averaged 6.7 BB/9. If he can iron out those control issues, he'll get plenty of looks at the Majors after making his debut last September.
Staying in the Cubs system, combine Underwood's incredibly low .227 BABIP with his fairly high 4.16 FIP in 14 starts at Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach, and you can see why his low ERA might have been helped a bit by a pretty good Pelicans defense.
As we covered in FIP, Toussaint's year was tough by any stretch, and you can add BABIP to the list of stats that do him no favors. While we want to give him credit for causing those low BABIPs at Class A Rome and Kane County, we also shudder to think what would have happened to his ERA had his BABIP been closer to .300.
Highest Babips for Pitchers among MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects
We're going with seven players in this table since three were 2015 Draft picks with limited innings and a fourth spent significant time on the disabled list.
Nikorak, Harris and Jay are the Draft picks, and Bundy was injured. But then things get interesting. Giolito, the game's top pitching prospect, was good by most measures (3.15 ERA, 2.63 FIP, 10.1 K/9) at Class A Advanced Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg, but if BABIP is to be believed, his ERA could have looked even better had he played in front of some better defenses/been a little luckier in 2015. The 21-year-old Nationals righty is somewhat reliant on his teammates as a pitcher who likes to keep the ball on the ground, but if you weren't blown away by his 3.15 ERA, allow yourself to be a little more amazed now.
Gray looks a bit like this year's version of 2014 Noah Syndergaard, given that his BABIP and ERA suffered from the hitter-friendly parks in the Pacific Coast League. Unlike Syndergaard, who could escape to Citi Field, Gray has no such luxury, given that he's trying to make his home at Coors. He had a .384 BABIP-against in nine Major League starts last season, so there's no real rest for the weary.
We talked in FIP about how Reyes looks even better than his 2.49 ERA, and that was based mostly on his high strikeout totals and ability to keep the ball in the yard. BABIP gives us something else to consider, given how high it was relatively in 2015. At Class A Advanced Palm Beach alone, his BABIP-against was .371 while his ERA was still just 2.26 in 63 2/3 innings. Reyes' BABIP was .295 at Class A Peoria in 2014, leaving us to wonder just how eye-popping his ERA would have been had his 2015 BABIP been closer to average.
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.