Welcome to week two of Sabermetrics Saturday, in which I pick a stat and analyze how it relates to the Mariners at that point in time. For last week’s debut on strikeout rate, you can click here.
This week, I’m going to discuss batting average on balls in play, better known as BABIP. BABIP is a very simple, yet helpful stat that tells you just what the name suggests: how often balls in play (AB-HR-SO) fall in for a hit. The most common word associated with BABIP is “luck,” and for some good reason. We can all recall times when a guy smokes one right at a defender, while another hits a duck that somehow falls in. BABIP can help give insight into how often a hitter is aided or harmed by these kinds of hits.
However, talent level is also involved, as players who hit more line drives are likely to have a higher BABIP. Liners go for hits more often than pop-ups or grounders, and players with speed tend to be able to carry a higher BABIP as well. Don’t automatically assume a high BABIP is bound to regress because a player has been lucky, as they may have the skill-set to carry said BABIP. And vice versa: some players who make weak contact or don’t run well may struggle to keep their BABIP up around the league average of .300 (+/- .10 in any given year).
Before we dig in, I need to preface that BABIP is far from stable this early in the season. According to Fangraphs, BABIP takes around 820 balls in play before it can be considered stable. In fact, the whole purpose behind this edition is to outline some players who have BABIPs that look too extreme to be true, either on the high or low end.
The first player I’d like to mention is Abraham Almonte, and no, it isn’t good news. It has been sufficiently documented that he has been pretty awful to this point in the year. He doesn’t make enough contact, watches too many pitches go by, and ends up striking out far too often.
One would hope that some of his struggles could be attributed to some unlucky outcomes at the plate. Nope. He currently leads the team in BABIP among the regular players, at .327. Because of his speed, a high BABIP seems appropriate, so there might not be a ton of regression there, so that’s a plus. But this is just another piece of information that suggest if he can get his contact problems ironed out, he could be serviceable at least, and that’s what hurts. It’s a big if, and it doesn’t matter how often your hits are going to fall if you can’t even put the ball in play.
On a more inspiring note, Corey Hart currently holds a .283 BABIP, giving more credence to his early success (team high 134 wRC+). One may assume on the surface that Hart has been on the lucky side this year, but that isn’t the case. His career BABIP is roughly 30 points higher at .312, so that should instill even more confidence, possibly even suggesting more hits will start to fall as the season progresses.
Of course, he has likely lost a step so that could play into a lower BABIP going forward. On top of that, his current line drive rate is 16%, about 2.5% lower than his career mark. If he doesn’t hit the ball quite as hard as he used to, it could also contribute to some sad-regression. It’s far too early to know for sure, but it should at least be encouraging that he has been successful without being terribly lucky, or even hitting the ball all that well, etc.
From there we can look at Kyle Seager, who’s slow start, unlike Almonte, can be partially contributed to a low BABIP. Kyle currently holds a .208 BABIP on the year, which…wow, that’s tough. Like many others, his low line drive rate of 10% plays a big role. He clearly isn’t hitting the ball hard enough to “earn” a good BABIP, but that should also start to climb, assuming Seager isn’t perma-broken for some reason. Soon enough, Seager will get some to fall in, and continue to build on his two-homer, walk off game against Houston.
As a team, the Mariners have been on the low end of this metric, with a .273 on the season, good for 27th in the league. This should happily regress as the sample grows, as only two teams finished last season with a BABIP below .280. One of them was the M’s at .279, but still. If/when Seager gets out of the cellar with his .208 BABIP, and Miller, Cano, etc. figure it out, there doesn’t seem to be reason to expect that low of a BABIP from them going forward.
Obviously, some of that is from their 24th ranking 20.4% line drive rate, but teams like the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Mets trail them in the line drive department, but lead them in the BABIP department. It isn’t quite that simple, but for our purposes, this early in the year, I think some assumptions like this are okay.
BABIP can either be fun, or absolutely deadening depending on what end of the spectrum you are on. Remember, more data is necessary before we can make any long term conclusions. But it is one of the rare stats that can really clue you in on things that are likely unsustainable, by virtue of being unsustainable itself.
Stats are fun.