BABIP and You: A User’s Guide, Part 2

This is Part 2 of a three part post. For Part 1, click here.

PJF: OKay, where were we . . . Pedro Martinez was a pretty good pitcher, right?

Flood: I would say so.

PJF: In 1999, when Martinez was in his prime, the season he won the AL Cy Young and pitching triple crown, the league batted .325 on balls put in play against him. That .325 mark was the fifth-highest BABIP against any pitcher in the AL that season. The next year, when he was still in his prime and won another Cy Young, the league batted .237 on balls put in play against him. No one had a lower mark in the AL that year. So Martinez went from fifth-highest to the lowest from one season to the next. This would be like someone stealing three bases one season and then 70 bases the next, or someone making 30 errors one season and then three the next, or like Rihanna dating Matt Kemp one year and then me the next. From the very best players to the very worst, BABIP varies like crazy and without a discernible pattern.

Flood: Because . . .

PJF: Because baseball is a mean game. Sometimes you hit a line drive right at someone; sometimes a bloop falls in for a hit. Sometimes 15 bloops and seeing-eye singles fall in over a season, and then they don’t the next year. If you’re a pitcher, you can have a great defense behind you one season, but then you trade your shortstop in the winter and you’re stuck watching a bunch of ground balls that were outs last season sneaking through the hole this season. Stuff happens, a lot of it things you, as a player, can’t control.

When we look at thinks like strikeouts, walks and home runs – those are pitcher-batter interactions. If the pitcher strikes out a batter, we give credit to the pitcher and subtract it from the batter. If the batter hits a home run, we award credit to him and take it away from the pitcher. It’s easy to figure out who did what for strikeouts, walks and home runs.

But if the batter gets jammed on a nasty cutter and floats one over the second baseman’s head, and the ball lands for a bloop single . . . who gets credit for that? Or if the pitcher hangs a slider, and the batter smokes a line drive right at the left fielder and it’s caught for an out . . . who should get credit for that? These are the things that drive batting average on balls in play, a whole lot of things outside of a hitter’s or pitcher’s control.

Flood: And this means?

If a player — pitcher or hitter – has a particularly high BABIP in a month, half-season, or a full season, it’s likely to come down. And if a player has a particularly lower BABIP over a period of time, it’s probably going to go up. This stuff happens all the time – in a single season, or over a couple of months, you’ll see some players with extremely high or low BABIP. When you’re looking at players, you want to know what’s indicative of their talent and what isn’t: In the short run, BABIP isn’t usually as indicative of talent as strikeouts, walks and home runs. This is how you can win your fantasy baseball league (or your real baseball league): Sell high on the pitchers with really low BABIP and otherwise bad numbers, and buy low on the pitchers with high BABIP and otherwise good numbers. And do the reverse for hitters.

Flood: Because it’s all luck?

PJF: Well, no, not really. Luck can be a misleading term in this context. More like, “It’s skill AND an enormous number of things outside of a hitter’s or pitcher’s control, things that tend to outshine skill in the short run.” Given enough time, the skill will win out and show itself. Fly ball pitchers have lower BABIP than ground ball pitchers (because it’s easier to turn fly balls into outs than ground balls), and knuckleball pitchers have lower BABIP because it’s so hard to square up a fluttering knuckleball. Johan Santana routinely gives up fewer hits than expected because he induces a lot of easily caught pop ups; Mike Pelfrey gives up more hits because he’s a ground ball pitcher with stuff that just isn’t that good. Gravity always wins. Eventually.

But one season isn’t eventually, and sometimes two seasons isn’t either; you really need a bunch of seasons to get a handle on how well a pitcher or hitter performs in terms of BABIP. And even then, things like fielders and the ballpark will have a noticeable effect, especially on the pitchers. Jim Palmer finished his career with a .251 batting average against on balls in play, a very, very low number for a career. How much of that was him inducing weak contact, and how much of that was the work of Mark Belanger and Brooks Robinson on the left side of the infield and Paul Blair in center field?

Flood: So what you’re saying is that it’s all luck.

PJF: No, I’m saying it’s harder for skill to demonstrate itself with BABIP. A pitcher’s strikeout, walk, and home runs skills are generally apparent right away. But the skill in BABIP isn’t. It takes a while to show up, and you shouldn’t trust two months of information. It doesn’t even out over a single year.

Flood: Because it’s totally just all luck.

PJF: I know most of the time . . . most of the time if you see a pitcher with a .210 BABIP and a good ERA, someone will write that’s he’s getting “lucky.” I don’t know if that’s true; maybe he is getting lucky, or maybe he’s just pitching extremely well during that stretch. Baseball is a streaky game. Why some pitchers are able to post a low BABIP for few months is tough to pin down. I don’t know why it happens. Maybe it’s luck, maybe it isn’t.

But the why doesn’t really matter here. People get too hung up on the why. What I do know is that a pitcher is unlikely to maintain a .210 BABIP because no one ever posts a batting average against on balls in play that low for the long haul. No one. In the last 50 years, there have been 574 pitchers to throw 1000 major league innings. Among those 574 pitchers, 406 (71%) have a BABIP against between .270 and .299. Expanding it further, 526 pitchers (92%) have a BABIP between .260 and .309. All but seven (99%) have a BABIP somewhere between .250 and .319. And every single pitcher with 1000 innings pitched over the last fifty years falls between .238 (knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm) and .331 (Mets legend Glendon Rusch). The spread of talent on BABIP for pitchers isn’t .190 and .340. It’s much smaller, between .240 and .330 at the extremes, and two-thirds of pitchers fall somewhere between .270-.300. Here it is in chart form:

Flood: Did you make that on a website aimed at children?

PJF: . . . yes.

Flood: Carry on.

PJF: But when you see a pitcher succeeding due to a low BABIP, something like a .210 BABIP — it’s not important how he’s doing it. Luck or no luck, just know that’s it’s overwhelmingly likely to stop. Even if a pitcher has a .256 BABIP . . . only 3% of pitchers over the last 50 years have been able to maintain that sort of performance over an extended period of time. It’s really, really difficult.

It’s like when someone it batting .500 after the second week of April. It’s not necessarily luck, and calling it luck may be shortchanging the player. You don’t want to dismiss anyone’s success immediately as just luck. But it is unlikely to continue, because no one ever hits .500 over the long haul.

Flood: But isn’t it true that some pitchers induce weak contact? And some hitters hit the ball harder than others? Especially the hitters — doesn’t that matter?

PJF: Yeah, and . . . oh, out of time again. We’ll cover hitters in part three, and look at some specific players on the Mets and how they’re likely to fare in the future. Check back later.

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