Before I was a FanGraphs writer, I was a FanGraphs reader. And if there’s one thing FanGraphs readers know how to do, it’s cite BABIP to describe why a hitter has been lucky/not lucky. BABIP is a useful peripheral, but it doesn’t stand on its own. There are peripherals to the peripheral if you will. Specifically, I’m referencing a player’s batted ball profile, which affects both his BABIP and ISO.
We know a few things about batted ball profiles. Line drives are very good. They convert to hits around 75 percent of the time. Infield fly balls are the same as strikeouts. Outfield fly balls have the second highest out rate, but they’re the also the source of most power. Ground balls convert to hits a little under a quarter of the time, but they almost never go for extra bases. As fantasy owners, we want to target hitters with plenty of line drives and outfield fly balls. With that in mind, here’s the top 20 list of ground ball leaders. Or you can view the entire leaderboard.
So I promised to highlight six hitters in the headline. Of the 20 batters above, 12 to 14 fit pretty neatly into a single profile – slappy hitters without much power. The guys I’m unsure of are Jean Segura and Dexter Fowler. They look like slappy hitters, but they’ve flashed power potential too. Before we dive into those six hitters, let’s look at the list collectively. These ground ball hitters generally feature an ISO below .100. The majority have a pitiful wOBA of .300 or less. Clearly, extreme ground balls are not correlating with what we consider success.
Let’s start from high to low. Domonic Brown is mostly known for a mashtastic May last season. He’s been below fantasy replacement level throughout the rest of his major league career. If you watch his pregame batting practice, Brown displays impressive power. When it comes time for games, he’s putting way too many balls on the ground. His current ground ball rate is 12 percent above last season’s. Meanwhile, his line drive and fly ball rates are down. His average fly ball distance is just 262 feet which puts him 202nd out of 230 players listed.
Ian Desmond is off to a whifftastic start to the season. In addition to missing more pitches than ever before, he’s reverted from Desmond the Stud to Desmond the Dud. His fly ball rate has remained consistent, but he’s lost 11 points off his line drive rate from last season, and he’s hitting way more grounders and infield flies. With an average fly ball distance of 279 feet, he’s hitting the ball reasonably hard when he gets under it. If Desmond were a Brave, he’d be going in for an eye exam.
Poor Billy Butler. A contender for slowest man in baseball, Butler keeps hitting more and more balls on the ground. It’s easy to forget he’s only 28-years-old. If anybody is the poster child for old player skills, it’s Butler. His few fly balls have averaged 282 feet, which is rather impressive. The bigger problem is the pure frequency of ground balls. Unlike with Brown and Desmond, there really isn’t much scope to expect regression. He could easily hit close to .300 with his batted ball profile, but he’ll struggle with power numbers.
We’re getting close to the guys who have hit ground balls a ridiculous 60 percent of the time. Allen Craig is just under that rate, but a 59 percent rate is still silly. Craig has never been much for hitting fly balls, but he usually makes up for it with line drives. He’s still hitting the ball very hard, with an average fly ball distance of 310 feet (ninth best in baseball). Expect more line drives and better outcomes in the near future.
Christian Yelich is too new and shiny to draw strong conclusions, but he’s doing exactly what he did last season. It’s kind of a shame because he has way too much pop in his swing to waste on grounders. His average fly ball has gone 281 feet – he just never hits flies. My guess is he’s been indoctrinated into the “leadoff batters slap grounders” school of hitting. He needs to spend some quality time with Carlos Gomez.
“Batting Champion” Howie Kendrick always hits a lot of ground balls, which is probably the price of his line drive oriented approach. Like so of the others on the list, he has good power when it flies, with an average of 287 feet. Fantasy owners should be happy he’s frequently penciled in as the Angels cleanup hitter, but it may be time to sell high before Josh Hamilton and C.J. Cron oust him from the middle of the order.
It’s hard to offer strong advice about any of these players because the relevant data is still fluky. What I do know is I’d like to see all of them hit more fly balls. They have power in their profile and they’ll never tap into it with all these worm burners. Save the worms!
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