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Fishtales Fact #3: Breaking BABIP

October 18th, 2013

 

 

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Mike Trout leads all of baseball the last two years with a .379 BABIP.

That’s kind of ridiculous. Let’s talk about it.

For the uninitiated, BABIP — pronounced “baa-bip” — stands for Batting Average on Balls in Play. It is a simple measure of how often a player reaches base safely when he makes contact into the field of play — i.e. where defenders have the opportunity to make an out. Essentially, it is regular batting average with strikeouts and home runs omitted.

BABIP tends to be a very fickle thing, which is why most people use it primarily as a measure of who’s having “lucky” or “unlucky” seasons at the plate (or on the mound). The league average in the current hitting environment hovers around .290, but 100 point swings year-to-year are not uncommon. Michael Cuddyer, for instance, had a .287 BABIP in 2012 and a .382 BABIP in 2013.

The reason for the huge variation is not because BABIP is a “bad” stat, but rather because it takes a long time (about two years)┬áto stabilize. (It’s almost as though 162 games is an arbitrary endpoint!) For this reason, many are hesitant to attribute skill to a player’s BABIP if it falls outside the norm.

Mike Trout may be an exception.

Two types* of hitters have demonstrated a general ability to best the BABIP dragons on a yearly basis: 1) high line-drive/no pop-up guys like Joey Votto and Joe Mauer; and 2) ground-ball speedsters like Michael Bourn and Austin Jackson.

So, then. Which group does Trout fall into? Uhh … well, BOTH.

Trout’s career line-drive (22.6%) and pop-up (4.1%) percentages haven’t quite reached Vottoan levels of mastery, but both figures are still among the league’s best — and they’re improving. Since his debut in 2011, Trout’s line drives have increased by 2.3 percentage points, while his pop-ups have gone down by 1.7.

In the ground-ball speedster category, Trout is already unrivaled. His 53 infield hits the last two years may not be the most in baseball, but counting numbers alone give an incomplete picture. Yes, guys like Norichika Aoki and Dustin Pedroia have more infield knocks than Trout, but they also hit many more ground balls overall.

In terms of ground balls per infield hit, no one can touch Trout. His infield-hit percentage of 16.2 this season not only led the league by nearly three points, it’s also the third-best mark since 1901. And, once again, it’s improving with time — jumping up from 8.3 percent in 2011.

I don’t want to raise expectations too high, but if those figures continue to get better, there’s a real chance that Trout could finish a season with a BABIP over .400. In the past 36 years, that’s been done just twice — Jose Hernandez (’02), Manny Ramirez (’00) — and just 26 times since 1901. It would be all-too-fitting if Trout were the 27th player to accomplish the feat.

Oh yeah, did I mention that his current career BABIP of .366 is second all-time to Ty Cobb? That seems kind of important. #FISHTALES

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*For now, I’m just going to ignore the high pop-up/low line-drive guys like Wilson Betemit, Carlos Gonzalez and Reed Johnson, who somehow have career BABIPs over .330. They make no sense to me.

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