Earlier this season I looked at the ten lowest BABIPs since 1945, investigating what, exactly, this statistic can teach us about hitters. The conclusions ranged from clear to not-so-much: your batting average on balls in play will be lower if you’re too slow to beat out infield grounders, if you hit an unusually low number of line drives, if you’re getting poor contact by swinging at bad pitches, and if you’re just plain unlucky. Sometimes players saw their power numbers drop along with their BABIPs, most likely because of an inferior approach at the plate which caused weak hits, but sometimes players saw their power numbers rise sharply: one of the ten lowest BABIPs ever belongs to Roger Maris, because he put 61 balls out of play and over the outfield fences.
Will our high scorers clear things up?
What is BABIP? (Copied from the First Post)
Batting average on balls in play is exactly that: when you hit the ball and it’s not a home run, what’s your batting average? Imagine you’d only ever batted twice; first you hit a single and then you struck out. Your BABIP would be 1.000. If a single and a groundout, .500. After seven games of the 2013 season, Rick Ankiel had two home runs but no singles, doubles, or triples, so his BABIP was .000.
Across any given season, the average BABIP tends to be about .300. All this means is that, when you hit the ball at professional defenders, there’s a 70% chance they’ll get you out.
The Ten Highest BABIPs Since 1945
10. Willie McGee, 1985 (.395). McGee’s presence here isn’t surprising, since his hallmarks, aside from excellent hitting skills (and not much power), were speedy outfield defense and quality baserunning. It’s easy to imagine McGee beating infield grounders, hustling out hits, or being above average at driving the ball, even though some of those statistics weren’t tracked at the time.
9. Derek Jeter, 1999 (.396). Jeter’s 2006 ranks 17th on the list, too. Jeter’s 266 infield hits since 2002, when batted-ball data started being counted, ranks second among all hitters in that decade-plus. First place? You’ll find out who that is in a minute (if you don’t know already).
8. Wade Boggs, 1985 (.396). Hey look, two top-ten BABIP seasons in the exact same year! Boggs edges McGee and the whole league with 240 hits in 161 games, 187 (77.9%) of them singles. During all his batting-title years, his BABIP was high, bottoming out at .361. Lucky? No: more like extremely good contact skills.
7. Austin Jackson, 2010 (.396). Jackson’s breakout season in center field for Detroit (that .396 BABIP led him to a .293 average) was followed by a breakup 2011 when his BABIP dropped 56 points (still above average!) and his batting average and on-base percentage fell 54 and 28 points, respectively. So far in 2013 Jackson’s at a career low on balls in play, but he’s also dramatically reduced his previously ugly strikeout rate, which has bolstered his return to the ranks of the truly outstanding.
6. Andres Galarraga, 1993 (.399). Before Galarraga cranked out 47 home runs at the age of 35, he had an also highly improbable 1993. Triple slash, 1989-1992 (509 games): .246/.301/.399. Home runs in those 509 games: 62. Triple slash in 1993: .370/.403/.602.
Three observations. First, Galarraga’s batting average never came within fifty (!) points of that again. Second, this was his first season in Colorado, although it wasn’t a full one, as he only played 120 games. The Coors boost to his power was minimal, at first. Third, the guy could not take a walk.
5. Ichiro Suzuki, 2004 (.399). Will anyone be surprised to see Ichiro here? Speedy, with a near-mythical gift for hitting, Ichiro also has a gift for avoiding fly balls (23.8% flyballs, fourteenth-lowest in baseball since we started counting in 2002). And another thing we’ve been counting since 2002: Ichiro has 463 infield hits, 40% more than second-place Derek Jeter. In 2004, Ichiro had 57 infield hits in 161 games, or about one every series. Since 2002, Mark Sweeney has 12 infield hits in 690 games.
4. Roberto Clemente, 1967 (.403). Clemente was in the middle of a run of six consecutive 6.0+ WAR years. His high batting average on balls in play made this one his most valuable of all (7.7), 40 points above his career average (which was identical to his BABIP the year before). Clemente hit six fewer homers and five fewer doubles but 19 more singles, explaining the paradox that his slugging percentage rose while his power actually dropped.
3. Manny Ramirez, 2000 (.403). This is one of seven seasons in which Manny posted a BABIP above .350. I looked at batted ball data, available from 2002 onward, and found that Manny’s 22.6% line drives ranked 31st among the 481 hitters who’ve racked up more than 1,500 plate appearances since. Of course, Manny was inconsistent in that stretch. His .373 BABIP in 2002 coincided (or not!) with a line-drive rate of 25.3%. (Mark Loretta sits at first since ’02, 26.0%, while at second with 25.2% is Joey Votto, more on whom shortly.)
2. Jose Hernandez, 2002 (.404). I was alive and watching baseball in 2002 and I had never heard of Jose Hernandez. The Brewers shortstop had four pretty good seasons (1998-99, 2001, 2004), three terrible ones (1996, 2000, 2003), and a rather miraculous 2002 which found Hernandez riding a tidal wave of good luck on balls in play. His average rose 39 points, and dropped by 63 the next season; he struck out in literally one-third of his at-bats (188 Ks); his power numbers were unchanged. But, aside from luck, there was another big change. This was the first year batted-ball data is available, and the only year where Hernandez’ flyball rate was below 30%. Between Hernandez, Ichiro, and Jeter, flyball rate is a significant predictor of BABIP.
1. Rod Carew, 1977 (.408). What does it take to have the highest career BABIP of any finished career since 1945? (“Hang on,” you say, “what’s with this ‘finished career’ business?” “Ah,” I say, “Austin Jackson and Joey Votto are in the lead.”) Carew’s career BABIP is .359. Carew’s 1974 ranks 19th on this list (.391). So the guy was a great hitter: but his 1977 was extraordinary. An 8.5 WAR season, it saw a dramatic spike in singles, plus career highs in doubles, triples, and (tied with 1975) home runs. There was also an MVP award.
Again, some of the things we learned are unsurprising: speed is good; being an all-time great contact hitter is good. But there’s a twist: Jose Hernandez benefited from a whole lot of luck, and Rod Carew had the year of his life, but most of the guys here are obviously disposed to high BABIPs based on their skills. We were able to blame a lot of the bottom-ten seasons on hard times and bad breaks, but most of these guys are exceptional hitters with speed and contact ability.
And there’s a new factor begging for our attention.
When we looked at the ten lowest BABIPs, we were unwittingly at a disadvantage, because only one of those low seasons took place while batted-ball data was documented. Three of our ten highest have happened since 2002, though, as well as #13, 14, and 17, which means we have evidence of a new factor.
Hit more line drives, and your batting average on balls in play goes up.
Hit more fly balls, and it goes down–fast.
As a Community Research writer, I can’t insert a chart here; as a lazy person, I don’t have a chart to insert. But the next step in our inquiry is very, very clear. Does fly ball hitting suppress BABIP? Is it because of the increase in home runs, the ease with which defenders catch the ball, both, or neither?
Even More Pertinent Conclusion
We live in the golden age of BABIP. If I had done this “Ten Highest” post including 2013, the present season would have accounted for 40% of the list.
Among the top 20 BABIP guys with more than 700 games played in their careers, there are some retirees: Rod Carew (#2), Ron LeFlore (#7), Wade Boggs, Roberto Clemente, Kirby Puckett, Tony Gwynn, Willie McGee, and John Kruk. But 12 of the top 20 guys are currently active: Joey Votto (#1), Derek Jeter (#3), Shin-Soo Choo (#4), Matt Kemp (#5), Joe Mauer, Miguel Cabrera, Ichiro Suzuki, Matt Holliday, Michael Bourn, Ryan Braun, Wilson Betemit, David Wright.
As commenter Ferd pointed out last time, the league average BABIP was .260 in 1968; when I started the series, I relied on research which assured me that BABIP was consistent over time, but this is clearly not true. This means that there are two more lines of inquiry we should follow.
1. Why are so many BABIP leaders currently active? Is it a change in hitting style? Is it a change in pitching style? Is it a change in the data being used or the calculations being made? Or is it simply because most of them haven’t gotten older, slower, and less talented at the plate, and once they all age and retire order will be restored?
2. Wilson Betemit? How did that happen?