Baseball BeatJuly 19, 2007
Batting Average on Balls in Play: Leaders and Laggards (Part Two)
By Rich Lederer

In Part One of this series on Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), we focused on the laggards. Today, we will take a close look at the leaders.

As I pointed out in the previous article, "there are many factors that affect BABIP, including batted ball types, ballparks, team defense, foot speed, and, yes, luck or randomness. As with any stat, sample size is also an important consideration here." Hitting for a high BABIP — especially over a long period — is more of a skill than not. That said, it is still enlightening to measure a player's BABIP, in conjunction with batted ball stats, vs. his career norms to determine the sustainability of one's AVG/OBP/SLG.

Interestingly, all ten leaders have career BABIP above the league-wide average (which tends to run at or near .300 most years).

Top Ten in BABIP Through 7/17/07

PLAYER          TEAM    2007     CAREER
Derrek Lee       CHC    .406      .326
Jorge Posada     NYY    .393      .320
Hunter Pence     HOU    .385      .385
Ichiro Suzuki    SEA    .383      .357
Dmitri Young     WAS    .382      .328
Matt Holliday    COL    .382      .352
Magglio Ordonez  DET    .380      .314
Willy Taveras    COL    .379      .348
Chase Utley      PHI    .373      .329
Reggie Willits   LAA    .371      .367

From a batted ball perspective, the only thing that is really different with Derrek Lee this season is his HR/FB%. At 8.1%, it's well under half of his average for the past five years (17.7%). Not surprisingly, Lee's ISO (.166) is lower than it's ever been for a season in which he has played at least 100 games. His AVG (.337) and OBP (.422) are almost identical to his MVP season in 2005 (.335 AVG, .418 OBP). (Tell me again how Lee missed out on that award? You say he won the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove but lost out to another first baseman? Hmmm. I know, I know. Alex Rodriguez lost out to Miguel Tejada under the same circumstances in 2002. Well, that doesn't make the snub any better in my mind. Oh well, it was close and Albert Pujols wasn't a bad choice by any means. It was just a strange one.)

Lee dropped his appeal and began serving a five-game suspension Wednesday for his part in a fight with the Padres on June 16. How convenient. Lee fouled a ball off his left ankle Tuesday night and, in his words, will be "limping for a few days." Baseball needs to re-examine its policies with respect to appealing and serving suspensions to prevent players and teams from picking their spots. Now.

Jorge Posada turns 36 next month, yet is putting together one of his best seasons ever. His home run power is down a bit but he's swatting doubles like they are going out of style. Thanks to a career high BABIP, his .332 AVG is 45 points higher than his previous best. The switch-hitting catcher is doing his job from both sides of the plate.


                  AVG    OBP    SLG    OPS   BABIP
vs RHP as LHB    .322   .407   .507   .914   .365   
vs LHP as RHB    .354   .418   .542   .960   .448

Although Posada's .448 BABIP from the right side is unsustainably high, he has always hit lefties better — be it AVG, OBP, SLG, or BABIP.


                  AVG    OBP    SLG    OPS   BABIP
vs RHP as LHB    .263   .375   .464   .839   .302   
vs LHP as RHB    .301   .383   .502   .885   .348   

Hunter Pence may be the front runner for the NL Rookie of the Year although I sense that Ryan Braun is going to blow by him, if he hasn't already. I'm also partial toward Troy Tulowitzki, who is leading the majors in clutch hitting and all shortstops in John Dewan's Plus/Minus fielding system. In any event, Pence is off to a great start (.334/.360/.578) despite owning the seventh-lowest walk rate (3.6%) in the majors.

Let's compare Pence's rookie season vs. Jeff Francoeur's inaugural campaign in 2005:

              G   AB   R   H  2B 3B  HR  RBI  SB CS  BB  SO   AVG   OBP   SLG  OPS+  
Pence        69  296  42  99  24  6  12   44   8  4  11  58  .334  .360  .578  141  
Francoeur    70  257  41  77  20  1  14   45   3  2  11  58  .300  .336  .549  124

Pretty scary, huh? I mean, check out those BB and SO totals. It seems to me that Francoeur drew a lot more criticism for his lack of patience and failure to walk than Pence, yet the latter is actually drawing fewer bases on balls as a percentage of his plate appearances. As much as I like Pence (full disclosure: he's on my fantasy team), I'm highly skeptical of his success thus far. He's a good player but probably not on par with Francoeur. Sure, Pence plays the more difficult position (for now), but he's putting the above numbers up at the age of 24 whereas Francoeur was just 21 when he was a rookie. Oh, did I mention that both players are 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds?

I hesitate to mention Willy Taveras and Reggie Willits in the same sentence as Ichiro Suzuki, but there are some similarities in their styles. All three outfielders are among the fastest runners in the game and they hit a lot of balls on the ground. Ichiro is the poster child in this regard. Only a quarter of his balls in play are flies. Ground balls and line drives, coupled with being fleet of foot, mean lots of hits and a high BABIP and AVG. Don't ever think his average is flukish. Instead, recognize that it is a formula. And Ichiro does it better than anyone. Granted, the two-time batting champion is a singles hitter, but he has produced more than 200 hits every season and a .332 average over his MLB career.

Although Dmitri Young has been a pretty consistent hitter since his breakout season in 1998, very few baseball people saw him rebounding after putting up career lows in AVG, OBP, and SLG last year. Give Jim Bowden, the GM of the Washington Nationals, credit for giving Young one more chance. The 33-year-old first baseman has responded in kind, hitting .341/.389/.523 as a replacement for the injured Nick Johnson.

Matt Holliday has been hitting ever since he broke in as a rookie in 2004. He took his numbers up nicely in 2005 and 2006 and has leveled off a bit in 2007. However, it would be disingenuous to suggest that his production has not benefited by playing his home games at Coors Field.

           AVG    OBP    SLG    OPS   BABIP
Home      .362   .422   .642  1.064   .388   
Away      .268   .321   .439   .760   .310       

The 27-year-old outfielder has been a superstar at home and nothing more than an ordinary hitter on the road. His walk and strikeout rates, as well as his batted ball stats, have been steady throughout his four-year career. Holliday is what he is and should continue to put up big numbers as long as he calls Colorado his home.

What can you say about Magglio Ordonez? The 33-year-old outfielder is having a career year and is a prime candidate to earn his first MVP award. Ordonez (.357/.435/.589) is leading the AL in AVG, OBP, and doubles. He is in the top five in SLG, OPS, OPS+, H, XBH, TOB, TB, R, and RBI. Maggs doubled and homered against Johan Santana yesterday while driving in all three runs in Detroit's 3-2 victory over Minnesota. Voters will be partial toward Ordonez if he keeps it up and the Tigers win the AL Central.

Speaking of MVPs, nobody is having a better season in the NL than Chase Utley (.338/.408/.589). He is unquestionably the premier second baseman in the game and his margin over the next best is arguably wider than the #1 and #2 at any other position. Utley hits like a first baseman or corner outfielder and is a Gold Glove caliber second baseman, ranking first in Dewan's Plus/Minus system at his position. The $85M contract he signed in January for seven years is looking smarter from the Phillies' perspective every day.


I'm glad I traded Pence before you came out with this article and completely destroyed his value.

Wow, I'm shocked Jorge's career BABIP is .320. I know Jeter has a fairly high career number, and that makes sense. He's fast and he hits a fair number of grounders. Jorge is a patience & power guy who has never hit for high average and he's slow. Odd. I'm loving it, though!

Re: Pence vs. Francoeur - Pence showed more selectivity in the minors than Francoeur did. Pence never had a K/BB ratio over 2 in three minor league stops (30/23, 53/28, and 109/60 in 2004-2006). Francoeur was over 3:1 K/BB in 2005 (76/21 at AA) and 2004 (70/22 at A). Granted, Pence is older, but there's some reason to believe he'll get more selective after he spends some time in the majors.

Coming from a Cubs fan, here's why Pujols was the MVP over Lee in 2005: Pujols had been a serious MVP candidate in Bonds' shadow for several years before 2005, a year where Bonds only played in 14 games due to injuries. Voters probably thought that Pujols was due. Also, Pujols had 10 more RBI, which while a bad criterion, is still a traditional metric in MVP voting. Lee only had 107 that year since he had such "awesome" table-setters in Neifi Perez (.298 OBP in '05) and Corey Patterson (.254 OBP! in '05). With even league average 1-2 hitters, how many more could he have gotten? The Cubs weren't really in the pennant race that year, finishing a little below .500, so that probably also worked againt Lee in garnering MVP votes. Not that I necessarily agree with any of this, but this is the case one could make.

Most of these players are professional hitters. They are able to hit to all fields, which is why they have high BABIP. Interestingly enough, it looks as if speed isn't much of a factor with players like Pence, Derek Lee, and Dmitri Young up there. Very nice stats. Keep it up.


Going down the line of comments...

In stock market parlance, Pence is a "short." He is a good, young player but not nearly as good as his popular stats might suggest.

With respect to Posada's BABIP, he struck out more than 20% of the time and over 25% of his official at-bats in his first five full seasons. The high strikeout rate reduces the number of balls in play and accounts for his surprisingly high BABIP.

Yes, I am aware that Pence's minor league record paints a different picture when it comes to his BB and SO rates. I have no doubt that he will improve this ratio with experience. However, I believe it is being overlooked now because of his gaudy batting and slugging averages.

Re Lee and Pujols, I agree with your take completely. Pujols won the hearts of the voters for the three reasons you mentioned.

Lastly, as it relates to speed, Pence runs well. Like the rest of his game, he may not be the most fluid runner. But he combines above-average speed with an aggressive style that turns singles into doubles and doubles into triples as well as a decent number of stolen bases.

Thank you.

Heh, I thought of Posada's k rate after I posted here... when he hits the ball, he tends to hit it pretty hard. Otherwise he strikes out or walks. Makes sense.

"nobody in the NL is having a better season than Chase Utley, (.338/.408/.589)"

Chutley is great, but how about another NL east player. Chipper Jones: (.341/.434/.588)

Just because Chipper is not 27 anymore does not mean he is not relevant. He is still a legitimate superstar, but does not get the attention or respect he deserves. And what is with the all-star snub?

I am a big fan of Chipper Jones and have been driving his bandwagon publicly for nearly four years now. Check this article out for proof.

That said, I don't think his season is on par with Utley's. As you pointed out, their rate stats are about the same (with a slight edge to Jones for his superior OBP) but there is a big difference in playing time. Utley has played in 22 more games and had about 110 additional plate appearances. Those are pretty significant factors in his favor. Furthermore, Chase is playing second base at a Gold Glove caliber and would get the nod defensively as well.

The bottom line is that Jones has been great (as usual) but not quite as valuable as Utley to this point.