Chris Iannetta’s Peculiar Season

The BABIP gods are a most fickle bunch. They come and go as they please, gracing the bats of some while abandoning others altogether. Take Chris Johnson, for example. Aided by a .394 BABIP (roughly 10% greater than his career average), Johnson finished second to Michael Cuddyer in pursuit of the 2013 NL batting title. This season, however, Johnson’s batting average has dropped 58 points following a BABIP regression. Losing a portion of his hits has certainly hurt Johnson’s offensive production — this season, Johnson has produced runs at a rate 19% below league average.

BABIP is not entirely driven by luck, however. In fact, each hitter’s batted ball profile influences their BABIP. Generally speaking, players who hit more line drives and ground balls carry a higher BABIP than fly ball hitters. While it seems reasonable for Derek Jeter and Joe Mauer to carry career BABIPs in the neighborhood of .350, expecting Adam Dunn to sustain a similar BABIP would be folly.

Now, to Chris Iannetta. Sporting a career fly ball rate of 42.8%, the Angels’ backstop is a true fly ball hitter. Iannetta’s 2014 batted ball profile bears a striking resemblance to that of his 2013 campaign. Observe the table below:

Table 1: Batted Ball Profiles for Chris Iannetta, 2013 & 2014

Year

FB% League FB% LD% League LD% GB% League GB% BABIP

2013

43.4% 34.3% 19.3% 21.2% 37.3%

44.5%

.284

2014 42.5% 34.4% 20.3% 20.7% 37.2% 44.9%

?

 

Very similar. Although a hitter’s BABIP is not solely dependent on his batted ball profile, we might reasonably expect Iannetta’s 2014 BABIP to reside in the neighborhood of his 2013 mark. Well ladies and gentlemen, at the time of this writing, Chris Iannetta carries a 2014 BABIP of .330, a mark 16.6% above his career average of .283!

A peculiar development indeed. Let’s take a step back and examine Iannetta’s run production in a broader context:

Table 2: Offensive Production for Chris Iannetta, 2013 & 2014

Year

BABIP AVG BB% ISO wRC+

2013

.283 .225 17.0% .148

112

2014 .330 .252 14.7% .148

128

 

The BABIP gods have certainly smiled on Iannetta this season. Despite the same ability to hit for power and a minor dip in plate discipline, Iannetta’s BABIP spike has fueled a 16% increase in run production. Among catchers with a minimum of 350 plate appearances, Iannetta’s wRC+ currently ranks him the sixth-best hitting catcher in the league. Iannetta’s newfound singles are certainly helping the Angels’ cause.

Because of random variation and luck, it is hardly rare for a hitter to experience a jump in BABIP. What is truly remarkable, however, is that Iannetta’s BABIP has jumped 15% above his career average while he has produced fly balls at a rate 20% greater than league average. To experience such a spike in BABIP while hitting a high percentage of fly balls seems quite rare. But how rare?

In order to better appreciate the peculiarity of Iannetta’s season and look for possible comparisons, I searched the past five seasons for players who experienced a BABIP jump 15% greater than career average while producing fly balls at a rate 20% above league average. Consider the table below:

Table 3: From 2009-2013, Player Seasons with a BABIP 15% Greater than Career Average, Fly Ball Rate 20% Greater than League Average (Minimum 400 PA)

Year/Player Career BABIP BABIP Y1 BABIP Y2 AVG Y1 AVG Y2 BB% Y1 BB% Y2 ISO Y1 ISO Y2 wRC+ Y1 wRC+ Y2
2009 Mark Reynolds .293 .338 (’09) .257 (’10) .260 .198 11.5% 13.9% .284 .234 127 96
2010 Adam Dunn .286 .329 (’10) .240 (’11) .260 .159 11.9% 15.1% .276 .118 136 60
2010 Colby Rasmus .298 .354 (’10) .267 (’11) .276 .225 11.8% 9.5% .222 .166 130 90
2010 Nelson Cruz .299 .348 (’10) .288 (’11) .318 .263 8.5% 6.4% .258 .246 147 116
2010 Nick Swisher .290 .335 (’10) .295 (’11) .288 .260 9.1% 15.0% .223 .180 134 124
2013 Colby Rasmus .298 .356 (’13) .294 (’14) .276 .225 8.1% 7.7% .225 .223 129 102

 

That’s a motley crew. At first glance, one commonality emerges. Unsurprisingly, each hitter experienced significant BABIP regression the year after their jump. The BABIP gods hit some harder than others. Adam Dunn seems like an unfair comparison for what might happen to Iannetta — his remarkably terrible 2011 was fueled by more than BABIP regression. Similarly, Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds and 2011 Colby Rasmus each saw fairly significant erosion in their power numbers. Swisher retained a good portion his productivity by dramatically increasing his BB%, but I don’t think that’s a fair expectation for Iannetta.

Perhaps the best example of what might happen to Iannetta is 2013-14 Colby Rasmus. In the midst of a BABIP regression, Rasmus has maintained his power numbers and plate discipline. Nonetheless, he’s currently producing runs at a rate 27% lower than last year. Those extra outs sure do add up.

Ultimately, if Iannetta can sustain his ISO and BB%, he should remain valuable for the Angels. Although Iannetta is on the wrong side of the aging curve, a mild BABIP regression with minor skill erosion would forecast a wRC+ somewhere in the neighborhood of 105-115. The Angels will certainly take that from their catcher.

Interestingly enough, the only hitter besides Iannetta to fit the parameters of a BABIP 15% greater than career average and fly ball rate 20% greater than league average this season is Devin Mesoraco. Mesoraco, however, is currently enjoying a well-documented swing renaissance, rendering his career BABIP rate generally unreliable for the purposes of this study. Going forward, Mesoraco is much more likely to sustain his present success than Iannetta.



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Ben Cermak (UPenn '14) lives in Manhattan and spends far too much time thinking about baseball. You can reach him via email at bcermak14@gmail.com

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Matt
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Matt

I really loved the style of this piece, very enjoyable to read!