Every year, there are guys we didn't see coming. They sneak up on you. They sit there on the waiver wire tantalizing you with the first week of good hitting, but no, you don't trust it so you leave them there. After week two, you start to trust them, but you still aren't sold and aren't ready to give up that second catcher or low-end starting pitcher to pick them up. Then, if you are me (I know, it's a stretch, but go with me on this), you are finally ready to pick him up and head to the waiver wire only to find him snatched up by a more risk-taking owner. I was just minutes away from getting Corey Dickerson in May and I just missed Danny Santana, Josh Harrison, and J.D. Martinez. "Not this year," I say, but it keeps happening. Identifying breakouts can be tough, even if you have all manner of advanced metrics at your disposal.
Now, this post isn't really about identifying breakouts for 2015. I'll leave that for another post. This post is actually about the opposite: identifying breakouts from 2014 that will likely take a step back in 2015. Remember Matt Carpenter's breakout in 2013? How about Domonic Brown, Chris Johnson, or Everth Cabrera? How'd that group do in 2014? Often, these one-hit wonders are driven by a sudden surge in power (Brown), BABIP (batting average on balls in play), or something else that doesn't fit their history in the minor or major leagues.
So, what is this post actually about? I'm glad you asked. BABIP generally normalizes for all players to the league average, which hovers around .300 and varies from year to year. When a player has a BABIP significantly higher than .300, one of two things is true: he truly has the ability to hit for a high BABIP, or he got lucky for one season. There are two main ways to tell between these two types of players: look at their career BABIPs and look at their batted ball data. If a player has a long history of high BABIPs, it is likely a skill and they can legitimately carry that high BABIP. Watch out for minor league BABIP values, though, since poor defense in the minors can lead to inflated BABIPs, not to mention there are some crazy hitters parks like Las Vegas that skew the numbers even further. High BABIPs in AA and AAA do not translate well to MLB.
Batted ball data (groundballs, flyballs, line drives) can help us sort luck from skill further. Line drives have a BABIP north of .690, while grounders are around .230-.240 and flyballs lag behind at .210-.220 or so, depending on the year. So, a player with lots of liners will have an inflated BABIP, but that doesn't mean he was lucky; he might just hit the ball really hard.
Let's look at the BABIP leaders from 2014, take out the guys we already know are good and sort out the lucky from the good. The table below shows the top 47 BABIP guys (why 47? Because I went until I hit Hechavarria, that's why).
By now you've figured out that the guys highlighted in green are the ones we are going to look at further. Let's look at each of their BABIPs compared to their own career averages and throw in their line drive rates from 2014.
As the table shows, some of these guys got lucky and you should expect them to regress next year and see a drop off in average, runs, RBI, and OBP. Three of the "luck" guys deserve a little more explanation here.
Josh Harrison, everyone's favorite utility breakout hitter this year did have a stellar line drive rate to prop up his BABIP. However, he also had an above average line drive rate in 2012 with a poor BABIP. On the other hand, he did cut down his pop-up rate by a whopping 16%! from 2013. This definitely helped his BABIP. So, for 2015 I'm mixed on Harrison. His positional versatility is great, but he is a huge risk for regression in average, RBI, and runs next year. He doesn't walk much either, so he's shaky, but could still be helpful if the price is right.
Lonnie Chisenhall, another breakout third baseman, looks like he's got plenty of four-leaf clovers. He had a solid line drive rate but he's had a better liner rate in 2012 with a .300 BABIP, so it really can't be trusted. Don't count on much from ol' Lonnie next year. I don't care how shallow third base is, he will disappoint you.
Alcides Escobar's season was also lucky because his high line drive rate was very similar to last year's rate, but he had bad luck last year and only posted a .264 BABIP despite all those frozen ropes.
The "skill" guys (whose 2014 BABIPs match well with their career BABIPs, highlighted in green for your convenience in the table) should continue to put up high BABIP values, so you can expect them to put up numbers similar to this year's in 2015, if not even better. Looking at line drive rates, career average BABIPs and seasonal BABIPs are good ways to identify if hitters got lucky in their breakout season or if they are for real. Let me know in the comments if there are any other hitters you would like me to play "Luck or Skill?" with as you look at keepers and prep for 2015. As always, Tschus!