It’s easy to spot a hitter that’s just being insanely lucky. They are usually carrying a BABIP north of 0.400 for a few weeks and have no previous track record of being a great hitter. Remember this year when Jorge Polanco could not make an out? Or how about Avisail Garcia suddenly hitting 0.330 for a season after never topping 0.257 in a mostly full season before. Yeah, Garcia benefited a smidge from his 0.392(!) BABIP.
What is less obvious and easier to forget are the hitters with low BABIPs. They get ignored because they usually fall out of fantasy relevance because their batting averages plummet. Jose Bautista this year is a great example of that. Once his power started to decline, his value dropped with it and his BABIP. Todd Frazier is another. Joey Gallo relies entirely on his massive power for value, since BABIP and average are never going to be assets for him.
Those guys I just mentioned carry low BABIPs most years because they are dead pull hitters when it comes to grounders, so they can be shifted on easily, and they hit lots of fly balls which are easy outs when they stay in the park. Ok, but what about when you are scrolling through the list of worst BABIPs in 2017 and you come across two names that simply do not fit?
Tell me what names jump out at you on this list: Todd Frazier, Curtis Granderson, Maikel Franco, Jose Bautista, Manny Machado, Albert Pujols, Joey Gallo, Mookie Betts
Those are 8 of the 18 worst BABIPs of 2017. I left out some other names, of course, but I think my point is made. Those two names, Machado and Betts, stick out. They are not like the slow, plodding, dead-pull sluggers around them. Yet, they find themselves with some of the worst BABIPs in baseball.
Machado and Betts are nearly-automatic first round picks in fantasy baseball because they offer such a well-rounded package. Or at least they did. Machado hit 37 home runs with 105 runs, 96 RBI, and a 0.294 average in 2016. His BABIP that year was a normal 0.309. This year, he still hit 33 homers and produced 95 RBI, but his runs dropped to 80 and his average fell to 0.259 thanks to a 0.265 BABIP. He stole 9 bases in 2017 versus 0 in 2016, so I guess that was nice of him.
Betts had a near-MVP season in 2016 with 31 HR, 26 SB, 122 R, 113 RBI, and a 0.318 average. That is true five category production only surpassed by Mike Trout himself. This year: 0.264 average, 24 HR, 26 SB, 101 R, 102 RBI. Still a fantasy all-star, but not quite what he was. His BABIP fell from 0.322 to 0.268. That’s a huge drop.
What makes the BABIP drops for both these two gentlemen unexpected is that both spray the ball to all fields well and hit the ball hard. Those are all recipes for high BABIPs.
Here’s Mookie’s spray chart from 2017:
Yes, he does pull more than he hits the opposite way, but in general, he sprays the ball everywhere pretty well. That should make it difficult for teams to shift on him and boost his BABIP.
Machado has a similar chart:
It shows a good distribution of hits everywhere.
When it comes to hitting the ball hard and making solid contact, both of these guys are near the top of the league, according to Statcast data. In the number of balls hit at 95 mph exit velocity or more, Machado was #1 in baseball in 2017. Yes, ahead of Joey Gallo, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton. Mookie was #7. Both of them hit more than 200 balls harder than 95.
If you look purely at average exit velocity, things don’t look quite as good, especially for Mookie. He falls to 123rd. Machado only falls to 17th. Nonetheless, there is enough evidence to show that both were still hitting the ball hard in 2017.
Ok, so they hit the ball everywhere and hit it hard, why did their BABIPs fall so much in 2017, then?
Two reasons: line drives and infield flies
The league average for line drive rate was 20.3% in 2017. Mookie had a terrible 16.8% rate, while Manny was somehow worse at 15.8%. It turns out that research has shown that line drive rate does not correlate to anything else and fluctuations are basically random and unpredictable. That means they both were extremely unlucky this year in this stat.
As for infield fly balls AKA pop-ups, both of these guys are doing themselves no favors. Machado has consistently posted IFFB% of 13% or more throughout his career. This year’s 13.2% was “good” for 27th worst in baseball. But, since he’s always done that, I guess we can’t blame it for this year’s BABIP drop. He actually cut his IFFB% by 1% this year.
But Mookie’s IFFB% has been trending up for three years. It has gone: 10.5%, 12.3%, 14.8%. That last one in 2017 put him 17th worst in baseball. That is not great. That certainly had some impact on dragging down his BABIP. Infield flies are near automatic outs, so they will certainly decrease a hitter’s BABIP. This is a worrying trend in an otherwise great profile.
The final consideration is comparing their 2017 BABIPs to the much larger data set of their entire careers. Machado’s career BABIP is 0.301. Mookie’s is 0.303. It’s not surprising that two hitters with well over 2000 PA have BABIPs near league average. That’s why it’s the average. You can see both those numbers are well above their 2017 BABIPs.
So, basically, this 1000+ word post is a long-winded way of saying that Betts and Machado were extremely unlucky with batted balls in 2017 (mostly due to a random drop in line drives) and will almost certainly rebound in 2018 to something closer to their career averages. Invest in them with confidence that their batting averages will jump by 0.040 or more from 2017. They should be solid first round picks once again in 2018. Tschus!