Jose Bautista is once again performing at a very high level after a slow start to the season. He has produced 2.4 WAR in 72 games, and ranks 11th in the American League with a .381 wOBA. He is tied for the league lead with 23 home runs and is currently on pace to pass the 40 HR plateau for the third straight year. Despite his homer-happy ways, however, Bautista only ranks ninth in the league in slugging percentage at .533.
The major culprit is his batting average on balls in play. At a ridiculously low .201, Bautista has not had much success turning balls in play into hits. A greater percentage of his hits are home runs, which are excluded from the BABIP calculation, and his rate of singles and doubles is below the norm. In other words, while a .381 wOBA is fine for anyone to hang his head on, Bautista has actually been held back this season.
It seems strange for someone to produce so effectively with such a low BABIP, which got me thinking: has anyone ever finished a season with a wOBA as strong as Bautista’s current .381 mark with as extremely suppressed a batting average on balls in play?
After perusing the historical records, it seems that Bautista could potentially finish the season in some rare company. Among players with at least 400 plate appearances in a season since 1900, there are only five batters with a .380+ wOBA and a .225- BABIP:
Roger Maris (1961): .424 wOBA, .209 BABIP
Ralph Kiner (1952): .409 wOBA, .221 BABIP
Roy Cullenbine (1947): .391 wOBA, .206 BABIP
Norm Cash (1962): .389 wOBA, .215 BABIP
Andy Pafko (1951): .381 wOBA, .222 BABIP
The first thought that pops to mind is that their ISOs must be off the charts. After all, the only way to really succeed this way is to have a high percentage of hits that aren’t included in the BABIP calculation — home runs — and to have a greater percentage of extra-base hits on the relatively rare occasions a ball put in play turns into a hit.
Respectively, the five players above posted the following ISOs: .351, .256, .198, .270, .246. Maris set the then-HR record with 61 longballs in 1961. Kiner hit 37 home runs and led the league. Cullenbine hit a career-high 24 home runs in just 464 at-bats, as he walked 22.6% of the time. Cash finished second in the American League with 39 home runs in 1962. Pafko hit 30 home runs in just 133 games and 455 at-bats.
One season that came close, but ultimately missed the cut, was Bautista’s 2010 campaign. Two years ago, he hit .260/.378/.617, with a .422 wOBA and a .233 BABIP. He bopped 54 home runs and had 56 singles.
Players have produced at an all-star level like this with substandard BABIP rates, but it’s incredibly rare throughout baseball history.
Similarly interesting is that Bautista entered this past weekend with a .197 BABIP. It wasn’t just low, it was below .200, which seems even rarer. Throughout history, only seven players with 400+ PA from 1900-now have finished a season with a sub-.200 BABIP. The highest wOBA was Gus Triandos‘s .336 back in 1959. At almost 50 points above Triandos before weekend action got underway, Bautista was bound to regress. Otherwise, he would have found himself on pace to absolutely shatter a completely meaningless record.
Players either improve their BABIP in this regard, or cease to produce as effectively. Bautista had a .171 BABIP in April, a .247 mark in May, and is back down to a .176 rate now. However, his monthly wOBA splits have improved almost exponentially, from .288 to .382 to .478. With an incredibly low BABIP it’s going to be very tough for him to finish the season with the .420-.440 wOBAs he posted the last two seasons. But although historical precedent exists — and he, himself, is almost part of that precedent with his 2010 season — the odds are against him finishing the season with a .200ish BABIP.
One of two outcomes is bound to occur: either he stops producing at this high of a level and his wOBA drops, or balls in play start falling in for hits, his BABIP increases, and his overall batting line beautifies. Given his performance over the last month and a half and the high level of production he established in 2010-11, the latter scenario is far more likely.