Since Eric Byrnes was designated for assignment last week, a variety of writers have noticed that his offensive downturn the last couple of years is entirely driven by tremendously low BABIPs – .226 in 2008 and .229 last year. His performance in the numbers that are usually more indicative of talent level (BB%, K%, ISO) are basically in line with his career marks. And while BABIP is certainly more in the control of a hitter than the pitcher, it still can vary significantly from year to year. So, if the core skills are still in place and BABIP can be driven by luck, it’s feasible that Byrnes could bounce back and become a solid offensive contributor again.
Maybe. But he is an example of why you can’t just look at a hitters BABIP and regress to a league average mean, because Byrnes has one particular skill that destroys his ability to get hits on balls in play; he is the master of the infield fly.
Since 2002, Byrnes has hit 244 infield flies, more than anyone else in baseball. Vernon Wells is second on the list with 222, but he has 1,300 more plate appearances than Byrnes over that time frame. Steve Finley is third on the list with 161, almost 100 pop-ups behind Byrnes in only 200 fewer trips to the plate.
7.67% of all of Byrnes’ plate appearances since 2002 have ended with an infield fly. Tony Batista is the only other player in that span with greater than seven percent of his PAs resulting in a pop-up. Not surprisingly, his BABIP since 2002 was just .244.
In fact, these numbers actually understate how pop-up crazy Byrnes has been of late. In 2002 and 2003, just 15% of his total fly balls stayed on the infield. His final full season in Oakland in 2004 saw the rate jump to 20 percent, finishing with the 3rd highest rate in baseball that year (behind Batista and Juan Uribe). But after leaving the A’s, he took it to another level.
2005 – 23.9% infield fly percentage – #3 in baseball.
2006 – 24.8% infield fly percentage – #1 in baseball.
2007 – 26.7% infield fly percentage – #1 in baseball.
2008 – 22.2% infield fly percentage – #3 in baseball.
2009 – 25.3% infield fly percentage – #1 in baseball.
Over the last three years, among players with at least 500 PA (total, not per season), Byrnes is #1 in IFFB% by a mile. His 25.6% mark is followed by Jeff Mathis at 21.1%. Eric Chavez and Chris Burke are just over 20%, and then there’s Mark Ellis at 18.4%. No one else in baseball is over over 18%.
We cannot look at Byrnes’ low BABIP and conclude that he’s gotten unlucky. His BABIP is a reflection of the fact that he is constantly hitting 100 foot flies that are easily grabbed by an infielder and have no real possibility of becoming a hit. He’s not hitting lasers at people. This isn’t bad luck. This is bad hitting.
Byrnes may have another good year or two left in him if he can get healthy again, but do not project him back to anything close to a league average BABIP. Given his proclivity for the pop fly, he’d be lucky to crack .260 or .270.