MLB Bounce-Back Candidates Based on BABIP and Batted Ball Numbers
As I type this sentence, it is currently -13 degrees Farenheit in my place of residence, Albert Lea, Minnesota. Let's talk baseball, dang it.
Like the insides of my nostrils will inevitably be the second I step outdoors, many batters were frozen in cold streaks last year that unfairly slaughtered their numbers. Some of this was because of skill, but that's not always the case in baseball.
One guy hits a line drive and it finds a gap. Another guy can come to the plate and replicate the trajectory, but it may find the glove of the shortstop on a leaping play. One gets two bases, the other gets an out. Does that make the second guy a worse hitter than the first?
Let's try to undo this wrong by looking at the batted ball statistics of various batters from the 2014 season. Using these, we can see which players hit the ball better than their final statistics would indicate.
The main things I looked at were a batter's line-drive percentage (LD%) and his batting average on balls in play (BABIP). These two stats, among batters with at least 400 plate appearances in 2014, had a correlation coefficient of 0.411, meaning there was a positive correlation between the two. This was the jumping off point for the analysis.
After that, I shifted focus to the player's ground-ball percentage (GB%) and fly-ball percentage (FB%). Fly-ball percentage had an correlation coefficient value of -0.431 with BABIP, meaning that there was a negative correlation between the two. In other words, if your sole purpose is to have a high BABIP, you should hit only line drives and no fly balls.
I tried to find the guys that had relatively low BABIP's compared to their line-drive percentages. If this was a trend they had exhibited previously, I disregarded them, as there was most likely a reason behind the low BABIP. If this was an outlier from their norm, though, then they were up for further consideration. You could also just use a straight expected BABIP calculator like the ones Derek Carty breaks down in a Hardball Times piece.
Let's get to the list of guys that could be in store for an uptick in production in 2015. In the headings, when I reference LD%, that is line-drive percentage. Ground-ball percentage is GB%, and fly-ball percentage is FB%. For reference, the league averages are 20.8 percent for line-drive percentage, 44.8 percent for ground-ball percentage and 34.4 percent for fly-ball percentage while the league-average BABIP is .299.
Chase Headley, 3B, New York Yankees
BABIP: .301 | LD%: 27.4 | GB%: 40.6 | FB%: 32.0
Among batters with at least 400 plate appearances last year, Headley had the fifth-highest line-drive percentage. Despite this, he ranked 115th in BABIP (out of 209 batters). He done ticked off the wrong baseball deities.
Prior to 2014, Headley had recorded at least 400 plate appearances in five seasons. His BABIP had never been lower than .319 in those five seasons, topping out at .368 in 2011.
The strange thing about this was that he had the highest line-drive percentage of his career in 2014. Considering there is a positive relationship between line-drive percentage and BABIP, why would this happen?
A big part of this was that fewer of Headley's groundballs found holes. In 2013, Headley had a .229 batting average on grounders; that decreased to .170 in 2014.
The same can be said for his flies. Excluding home runs, Headley hit .143 on fly balls in 2014, down from a .208 mark in 2013. If both of these categories were to normalize, Headley's batting average would most likely be on the rise. That, coupled with his filthy defense at the hot corner, should make Yankees fans salivate.
Chris Davis, 1B, Baltimore Orioles
BABIP: .242 | LD%: 24.6% | GB%: 34.5% | FB%: 40.9
The inclusion of Chris Davis on this list is a bit different than Headley's. Headley had some redeeming qualities about him last year. Davis had none.
On top of losing over 100 points off of his wOBA, which was down to just .308 from .421 in 2013, Davis received a 25-game suspension for not getting his Adderral subscription cleared. He now has a medical exemption for that, but still has one additional game on his suspension to be served in 2015.
It's almost difficult to be as bad as Davis was last year. Sure, he still managed to hit 26 home runs, but he also struck out in one-third of his plate appearances and had a batting average beneath the Mendoza line. These numbers would indicate that this wasn't totally due to his own ineffectiveness.
Below is a chart that shows Davis's BABIP in each of the three main batted-ball categories. Some variation and drop off in these is totally normal, but Davis is other-worldly.
|Season||LD BABIP||GB BABIP||FB BABIP|
If the Orioles don't have a priest on staff, they need to change that because the devil plays the outfield against Chris Davis.
While part of Davis's drop in BABIP (which was .335 in 2012 and .336 in 2013) can be attributed to luck, that may not tell the whole story. Mike Podhorzer of Fangraphs wrote a luscious piece on how often teams deployed the shift against Davis and the effect said shifts had on his BABIP. A bounce back for Davis is not guaranteed.
Aaron Hill, 2B, Arizona Diamondbacks
BABIP: .276 | LD%: 24.5 | GB%: 34.4 | FB%: 41.1
I was initially hesitant to put Aaron Hill on this list because of his age (he will be 33 on Opening Day) and his complete unpredictability. However, his BABIP has generally tracked along with his batted ball numbers with the exception of 2014, so we'll plop him in the discussion.
Hill's line-drive percentage hovered in the 21-percent range each year from 2011-2013. His fly-ball percentage didn't fluctuate much, nor did his ground-ball percentage. As volatile as his raw stats were, his batted ball stats were very much the opposite.
That didn't change in 2014. He saw a minor uptick in his line-drive and fly-ball percentage and a decrease in his ground-ball percentage. Additionally, his infield fly ball percentage fell to 9.9 percent from 16.2 percent. This, you would assume, would either keep his BABIP stagnant or increase it slightly. Not the case.
Although his BABIP sat at .317 and .312 in 2012 and 2013, respectively, it shot down to .276 last year. This helped bring his wOBA down to .289 from .358 in 2013. Obviously, this wasn't responsible for the entire drop-off as his strikeout percentage increased while his walk percentage decreased, but it was still significant.
I would assume that this would indicate a slight bounce back for Hill in 2015. His Steamer projection does see his wOBA going back up to .311, which is still significantly worse than 2013, but it isn't the pit of despair that was 2014.
Mike Moustakas, 3B, Kansas City Royals
BABIP: .220 | LD%: 20.2 | GB%: 38.6% | FB%: 41.2
Hill's bounce-back potential is capped because of his age. The same is not true for Mike Moustakas, who is entering his age-26 season. But, man alive, does the dude need a comeback badly.
Moustakas finished 2014 with a slash of .212/.271/.361 and a .281 wOBA. This earned him a brief trip to Triple-A so the team could give Danny Valencia a shot. Rock Bottom: reservation for one, please.
Obviously, Moustakas's BABIP was bad; it was the second-worst in the league among players with 400 plate appearances. But this isn't uncharacteristic for Moustakas, who had seen his BABIP drop to .257 in 2013 from .296 his rookie season. It's the batted ball stats that make you think this will bounce back up in 2015.
Even though his BABIP plummeted 37 points from 2013 to 2014, he increased his line-drive percentage and decreased his fly-ball and infield-fly-ball percentages in the latter year. That shouldn't happen, yet it did, leaving Moustakas bowing to baseball's greater powers, asking what a brudduh had to do to buy a base hit.
A return to his career BABIP of .260, which is still well below the league average, would be beyond beneficial for Moustakas. His defense isn't bad, but it's not enough to justify starting him at such an offensive position if he can't get his wOBA up.
Steamer projections do see this happening as Moustakas is projected to have a .266 BABIP with a .317 wOBA. I wouldn't be shocked if his BABIP is lower than that, but I would be shocked if it stays as low as it was last year.
Jedd Gyorko, 2B, San Diego Padres
BABIP: .253 | LD%: 21.8 | GB%: 43.6 | FB%: 34.7
After his rookie season, expectations were high for Jedd Gyorko. He blasted 23 home runs a year after he hit 30 in the minors. He even hit 13 of those home runs at Petco Park, so he's basically not human.
Then 2014 happened. Gyorko's home run total dipped to 10, his wOBA fell to .275 from .325, and his BABIP plummeted to .253 from .287. Something has to have happened to his batted ball stats, right? Well, yes and no.
His line drive percentage did decrease a bit, but less than one percentage point. His infield fly ball percentage went up a bit, but it was still below the league average.
Accounting for the drop off in homers, Gyorko became more of a ground ball hitter. His ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio shot up to 1.26 from 0.94, and his home-run-to-fly-ball ratio went down to 9.5 from 15.9. That explains the decrease in power, but what about his BABIP?
Almost the entire drop-off can be attributed to one thing: his batting average on ground balls. In 2013, it was .270. In 2014, it was .136. When your ground ball percentage increases and that number decreases, bad things will happen, y'all. And unless you've got your certified dad-runner membership card pinned to your chest, your batting average on ground balls should not be that low.
Gyorko's home run numbers might not get back to where they were in his rookie season, but his production should at least go back up a bit. It would be hard for it not to. And if the Padres plan to contend in 2015, as they seem to think they will, they're going to need the good Gyorko back in a bad way.