Last week, I took a look at performance of Royals hitters under batting coach Kevin Seitzer and how they collectively became some of the best contact hitters in the league. This week, I’m going to examine the results of that contact and what it means going forward.
There have been a number of studies on batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and it’s correlation to contact rate. If I just had to guess, I would imagine the more contact you make (i.e. putting the ball in play), the more opportunity you would have to test the defense, which would lead to a strong BABIP. However, those studies have found the opposite to be true. The guys with the best batting average on balls in play are generally the ones who take a “grip it and rip it” approach. It’s the home run hitters with the ginormous strikeout rates that usually have the best BABIP – the guys with the low contact rates. Someone like Mark Reynolds, who owns a career .323 BABIP fits this profile. And the fact he posted a career low .257 BABIP last year, further shows there are always exceptions to the rule.
Since the Royals didn’t strikeout all that much as a team (in other words, they made excellent contact) while lacking home run of power, it would follow their team BABIP would be lower than average. However, that wasn’t the case.
Last year, the Royals had a team BABIP of .305, which ranked them fourth in the AL and was 10 points above the league average. If you believe in regression to the mean (with a “normal” BABIP of around .300), and if you believe the studies on BABIP, you would pick the Royals to fall off their batting average of .274 from last summer. Of course, since the Royals don’t believe in the walk as an offensive tool, it’s not a leap of faith to think that if their batting average drops, so too will their team OBP.
That will be something worth following next summer. In the meantime, what about individual performers and their BABIP? Fortunately, there is the tool known as xBABIP, which is expected batting average on balls in play. (You can download a calculator here, with instructions for use from The Hardball Times.) Essentially, xBABIP takes a hitters batted ball rates and calculates (roughly) what his batting average on balls in play should be. It’s all kind of meta in that BABIP tells us if a player is lucky on his batting average, while xBABIP tells us if a player is lucky on his BABIP. See?
Anyway, we can look at xBABIP against true BABIP to see who on the Royals was lucky last summer. Except this team has experienced quite a bit of turnover from September. So the following table looks at players who figure to be in the lineup next summer for the Royals and who had enough at bats last year to make this exercise worthwhile. Remember, a negative difference is good (signifying poor luck) while a positive difference could serve as a warning sign that a correction is looming.
Takeaways from this table:
— The new guys (Frenchy, Cabrera and Escobar) are all “buy low” players. (I know… Shocking statement of 2011… So far.) All three had rotten BABIPs last year and all three should have been better. Strange as it may sound, we could expect some improvement from Francoeur and Cabrera. Still, don’t get carried away. Improvement from Francoeur means moving his WAR from last year’s 0.5 to something like 0.7. Notice how he’s the only guy on the list with a sub .300 xBABIP. It’s because again… He’s not good at baseball.
Meanwhile, Cabrera has more upside. Best case scenario for him would be to post something like a 1.5 WAR. However, that means either Alex Gordon is gone or Lorenzo Cain spends the summer breaking in the new stadium in Omaha.
— Speaking of Alex Gordon, there wasn’t an unluckier Royal than the former top prospect. Hell, I didn’t need to run these numbers to tell you that. I saw him hit enough “atom” balls last year to know, the dude just couldn’t catch a break. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before… Gordon is the poster child for bad luck. I’m not going to say he’s going to breakout, but if he plays all year, I could see him come close to a 2.5 WAR.
— Escobar was often overmatched at the plate, but holds some upside based on his batted ball data. However, having not watched many Brewer games, I can’t tell if his contact was quality or not. Tony Pena, Jr. could hit line drives, too. They just weren’t hit with any kind of authority. I’ll reserve judgement on Escobar until I follow him closer in regular season action.
— Wilson Betemit will not come close to duplicating his 2010 season. Good thing the Royals are only on the hook for $1 million. That means we’ll see more Chris Getz, who will be at second because Mike Aviles will slide over to third, or that means we’ll see Mike Moustakas. Hmmm… Decisions, decisions.
— Mitch Maier was who we thought he was.
— If Billy Butler starts hitting just a few more flyballs, his xBABIP will rise, he’ll hit more home runs and won’t break Jim Rice’s major league record for hitting into double plays. Win, win, win.