- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

Iannetta Battles the BABIP Gods

Chris Iannetta can’t catch a break.

First, the Rockies’ catcher had to compete for a starting spot in 2009 despite producing a .391 wOBA the year before. Since being named the starter, his supposed failure to record hits over the last couple of seasons has that status being called into question. Iannetta is one of the game’s most patient hitters, but the 28-year-old frequently strikes out, and his lack of success with balls in play has led to some truly wacky slash lines.

The latter two components of his 2009 slash line were solid at .344/.460, but a .228 batting average fueled by an ugly .245 BABIP dropped his overall production. Last season the trend continued, albeit with poorer results on balls in play: Iannetta hit .197/.318/.383, with a .212 BABIP in 223 plate appearances. Through 67 plate appearances this season the situation remains the same. Iannetta is hitting a strange, yet impressive, .163/.388/.388. Remove the batting average, and his numbers are solid for a starting catcher.

Regardless of his high on-base marks, we have to question why Iannetta has struggled in the BABIP department, and then research whether similar-profile players can improve in that area.

Why is his batting average on balls in play so low? The easy answer is to attribute everything to luck and randomness that will normalize over a larger sample of plate appearances. That answer works to an extent, but it leaves out the possibility that he’s not hitting the ball hard when he connects.

Since 2009, Iannetta has put 389 balls into play — just 57 of which went for line drives. That’s a 14.7% rate of lining the ball during his past 526 trips to the dish.

Since 2009, there are 322 batters who have tallied at least 500 plate appearances, and Iannetta’s 14.7 % is the tenth lowest liner rate of the group. His .231 BABIP ranks as the fourth lowest, behind Ken Griffey Jr., Rod Barajas, and Dioner Navarro. Moreover, he isn’t even having much success when he does line the ball. The league batting average on line drives is right around .720. Here are Iannetta’s LD-BAs since 2009: .735, .632, .667. Across the 57 liners that aggregates to a .697 LD-BA.

All told, Iannetta is struggling to make contact with such a high strikeout rate, struggling to connect soundly when he makes contact, and has been victimized by a poor success rate on the balls he has hit well.

How rare is this? And do players with similarly low BABIP marks over a three-year stretch turn things around? Are they even given the chance to improve? Granted, Iannetta has only tallied 526 PAs since 2009, and the current season is still in progress, but the questions remain valid from a broad perspective.

I rummaged through my database for three year spans since 1950 using these criteria:

– At least 50 PA in each season
– At least 500 PA across all three seasons
– .260 or lower BABIP in each season

There were 16,933 three-year spans that met the first criteria. Only 426 spans also met the second and third criteria, averaging respective BABIPs of .239, .239, and .238. That’s 2.5 percent of the player pool, speaking to the rarity of what Iannetta is currently experiencing. Further, that list only includes 245 unique players, since many players fit the criteria in multiple three-year spans.

With that information in tow I wanted to see how these players performed in the fourth season of the span. The overall sample shrunk before even applying filters, since it is apparently less common for a player to rack up 50 PAs in four straight seasons, regardless of his BIP attributes. Of the 426 player-spans that produced a .260 BABIP or lower in three straight seasons while totaling 500 PA in the span, only 324 recorded 50 PAs in the fourth season. The collective BABIP increased to .259.

The group does improve a bit, meaning hope might be on the horizon for Iannetta. But the group also increased its collective line drive rate, which makes sense. Hitting the ball hard increases the odds of recording a hit. A player can post a high BABIP without an exorbitant line drive rate, but it’s much tougher.

Iannetta’s patience and high OBP in spite of such a low BABIP should earn him some wiggle room in the starting lineup. Plate discipline like his doesn’t grow on trees. But if his line drive rates continue to spiral downward it is tough to see how he will ever come close to regressing toward the mean, meaning his potential will be limited and managers may seek alternatives despite his on base prowess.