Two of the best baseball follows on twitter, Jonah Keri and D.J. Short, recently termed Luis Valbuena's season perfectly: weird.
Weirdest hitter of 2015 -- Luis Valbuena: .245 ISO .185 AVG .165 BABIP 17 HR— Jonah Keri (@jonahkeri) June 21, 2015
Luis Valbuena is having a deliciously-weird season.— D.J. Short (@djshort) June 24, 2015
Valbuena has hit 19 home runs with a .261 isolated slugging, but is only hitting .195 with a .171 BABIP. That's pretty bizarre. The lowest total BABIP from the last 5+ seasons (2010-present) among qualified hitters is .235, from Rod Barajas, an extremely slow catcher who wasn't exactly known as a productive hitter (he has a career wRC+ of 76).
I took a look at Valbuena's BABIP by batted ball type to try to get a clearer picture of what is going on. From what I understand, the average BABIP by batted ball type follows something like this:
Line drives: .700-.730
Ground balls: .200-.240
Fly balls: .120-.150
According to Baseball Savant, these are Valbuena's results this year:
Line drives: .410 BABIP
Ground balls: .177 BABIP
Fly balls: .023 BABIP
All of Valbuena's batted ball types are below the average BABIP, and what sticks out most is his result on line drives. Valbuena is hitting about .300 points below the average. That seems crazy low.
Quality of contact is important on BABIP; a rocket grounder through the infield grass at 95 mph will have a better chance at going through for a hit than a meekly hit 70 mph grounder. Inside Edge has video scouts that watch every at bat of every player and rate each batted ball as either well hit (hard), medium hit, or soft hit based on measures like exit velocity. If we include quality of contact into the mix on line drives, Valbuena's results are still incredibly low. The excellent Jeff Zimmerman over at FanGraphs posted some of Inside Edge's data and what the expected BABIP on those types of contact should be:
Line Drive- Weak: .622
Line Drive- Medium: .650
Line Drive- Well-hit (Hard): .719
Even if all of Valbuena's line drives were hit weakly, his BABIP on liners should be closer to .600 than .400. Some of that difference could be due to the subjective nature of differentiating line drives from fly balls, but it sure looks like a good deal of rotten luck is striking Valbuena on liners.
Not all of Valbuena's low total BABIP appears to be bad luck, though. According to Baseball Savant, Valbuena's average exit velocity on ground balls is a ridiculously low 82.89 mph, which ranks at 333rd overall (min. 20 BIP). The harder a ball is hit, the more likely it goes for a hit:
Here's an updated breakdown of batting average and HRs by exit velocity: pic.twitter.com/mMhClQsYQn— Daren Willman (@darenw) June 17, 2015
Compare this to Valbuena's average exit velocity on liners+fly balls, which is 94.4 mph, 75th overall. Based on the data, it looks like Valbuena's BABIP results appear to be something like this:
BABIP on line drives: very bad luck
BABIP on grounders: not so much bad luck, but bad contact
Valbuena the rest of the season
It's going to take someone a lot smarter than me, like a Dan Szymborski, to project what to expect from Valbuena going forward (ZiPS projects a .255 BABIP, FYI), but nobody finishes a qualified season with a BABIP where Valbuena's is now. It's going to rise, and that's stating the obvious. The more difficult question to answer is if Valbuena's power can continue to sustain something near what he's doing now. His home run to fly ball rate is well above average at 20%, and only the very best power hitters sustain HR/FB percentages that high long term. The issue is that Valbuena's HR/FB% is significantly above where it has been the last few years, and it's not clear whether that is because of an increase in skill level this season or just baseball randomness.
At only 25% ownership in Yahoo leagues, Valbuena is very available, and if he's available in your league, don't leave him on the free agent list. If he's actually figured something out power wise, he will be a very valuable piece the rest of the season, and the BABIP normalization provides some degree of floor to fall back on if his power turns into a pumpkin.
Playing Valbuena on FanDuel
For Daily Fantasy Baseball on FanDuel, Valbuena is best played against right handed pitchers. He's hit them to a 124 wRC+ with a strong .232 ISO in 630 PA over the last 2 seasons. Unfortunately, Valbuena has been hitting towards the bottom of the lineup recently (he hit 8th yesterday), so that will depress his value somewhat. But if the power is legit, that will play, even towards the bottom of the order.
You can follow me on twitter at @TimFinn521