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Evaluating Players by BABIP

Matt Kemp running

LUCKY?: Matt Kemp's speed certainly helps his BABIP numbers, but is he due for a correction in 2012?

Sometimes it’s difficult to understand some of the many sabermetrics stats used to evaluate baseball players today.  One that is not too difficult to understand for the casual fantasy baseball manager, however, is BABIP, or “batting average per balls in play.”

BABIP measures how many batted balls go for hits.  It therefore removes strikeouts from a player’s batting average equation.  It also removed home runs from the equation, because home runs are not balls put in play.  Walks, of course, are already removed from the calculation.

Hence the formula for calculating BABIP is:  Hits minus home runs, divided by at-bats minus home runs minus strikeouts plus sacrifice flies (H – HR)/(AB – HR – K + SF).

Over the past several years, one could use the common threshold of .300 as an average for a MLB player’s BABIP, although last year, that total dropped to its lowest point in several years at .295–the lowest in six seasons in the new era of the pitcher.  In the 21st century, BABIP over the entire league has ranged from .293 to .303 so a little below the .300 mark is a good threshold of an average BABIP.

Of course, just like with traditional batting averages, BABIP will vary greatly from player to player.  A player who hits the ball hard and doesn’t hit a lot of lazy fly balls will have a better BABIP.  Moreover, a speedy player who puts pressure on a defense will show a higher BABIP most years.

The strength of a defense that you are playing will also have an impact on a player’s BABIP.

And, then there’s luck.  Luck is the calculation that makes fantasy baseball managers concerned about a wildly varying BABIP.  The theory being that a one-year high in BABIP will result in a player’s regression the following year.  He simply can’t keep up with the good luck that allowed all of those bleeders to get through the infield last season.

Matt Kemp’s season last year was off the charts.  Kemp came within one home run of having a 40/40 season.  When comparing Kemp’s stats to the preeminent players in fantasy baseball this year, one would think that Kemp would receive serious consideration as the #1 pick in all of fantasy baseball, but to most people, that reward goes to Ryan Braun, Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols, or Troy Tulowitzki.

Why is that?  Well, the argument could be that Kemp doesn’t have several years of history of those kinds of numbers to warrant the top pick.  It also might be that he isn’t exactly surrounded by a bunch of bashers on the Dodgers as Cabrera is now that the Tigers have added Prince Fielder. 

But, it may also be because of Kemp’s BABIP last year.  Kemp’s BABIP last year was a whopping .380!  Only Adrian Gonzalez had a higher BABIP.  To demonstrate how wildly the BABIP stat can vary, Kemp’s BABIP was a very ordinary .295 during the 2010 season and it is .352 over his career–a number you’d expect from a speedy player like Kemp.  Not surprisingly, Kemp’s traditional batting average rose dramatically from 2010 to 2011 as well, from .239 to .324.

Evan Longoria BABIP

UNLUCKY?: Evan Longoria's .239 BABIP in 2011 makes him an attractive 2012 pick for increased production.

So, who are the breakout players for 2012 when analyzing the BABIP statistic?  One guy you may want to consider is the Rays’ Evan Longoria.  Longoria’s BABIP in 2011 was .239 compared to .301 for Longoria’s career.  That may in part explain Longoria’s very pedestrian .244 batting average from last season.

Of course, when it comes to BABIP, nothing takes the place of a hitter who hits frozen ropes.  In the Major Leagues last year, 45.6% of all hits were ground balls, 35.9% were fly balls, and 18.5% were line drives.

  • Ground Balls (45.6%) — .233 batting average
  • Fly Balls (35.9%) — .152
  • Line Drives (18.5%) — .707

So, keep hitting the batting cages.  There’s nothing like a line drive to help your BABIP and your batting average.


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