The Mockingbird

An Open Letter to ESPN about BABIP

with 38 comments

Dear poor intern who works at ESPN pumping out preseason player comments:

I know it’s hard. You have to make some kind of bold prediction for every single player, with pretty much squat to go on other than what fans can already get from Fangraphs. You’re not a scout. You haven’t seen these players swing live lately, maybe never at all. And even if you had, you’re not a hitting coach. You wouldn’t be able to tell what has gone terribly wrong, or what a guy finally figured out last year that has changed everything. Most of the time your best bet is to take a page from Marcel the Monkey, and predict that a player’s numbers are going to be the same as his career averages, slightly adjusted for whether he’s on the still-learning or declining side of his career. But you got this job because of your reputation as a statistical whiz, and that’s just not going to cut it. Your boss wants some kind of numerological wizardry, for you to predict the future with your big brain and the lastest SABR science. I get it. I’ve been there.

But please stop using BABIP every time you get stuck. You’re hurting statistics, shredding whatever scraps of credibility have been won over the last decade, turning back the tide of superior metrics creeping onto scoreboards and into newspapers and even coming out of announcers mouths, reinforcing the stereotype of sabermetricians being pimple-faced teenages who know nothing about how the game is actually played, who don’t even watch it, preferring instead to read boxscores and crunch numbers long after the games are over from the safety of their parents basements, blah, blah, blah-dee-blah blah blah…

I know, I know…years ago Voros McCracken turned stats on their head with BABIP. He started a huge controversy and was eventually hired by the Red Sox after stumbling over the fact that, in a nutshell, pitchers don’t have much control over anything other than strikeouts and walks. Once contact has been made, batted balls fall in at the same rate no matter who is on the mound (after defense, park effect, etc, is taken into account). Therefore, pitching to contact is not what it’s cracked up to be, and if a pitcher has a really low or really high BABIP, you can say that over that period he has been “lucky” or “unlucky”, because nobody maintains a very high or very low BABIP; eventually every pitcher’s will end up the same. (Almost…for example, we now know that closers can have lower BABIP’s, but not by all that much). This makes for a great tool to gauge the amount of statistical fog when dealing with small sample sizes for pitchers, and an incredible tool for pumping out quick fantasy baseball comments.

But it just doesn’t work the same way for hitters — and nobody (even Voros!) has ever maintained that it does. It would be like saying that a spike or fall in batting average has to be luck, because for hitters, BABIP is just the same damn thing with K’s and HR’s removed from the equation (really two of the last things you want to exclude when trying to decode if a streak or slump or bad year is due to something tangible). While it is true that if a player has an extremely uncharacteristic BABIP over a period of time, those results should be taken with a grain of salt, you could just as easily say that about batting average because they’re practically the same damn stat. Obviously, nobody would call every .200 hitter a victim of luck — all that’s really going on here is that if you don’t hit somewhere in the realm of league average, you’re not going to get major league at-bats for long.

Still, BABIP is regularly used these days as a diagnostic when there is a suspicion of someone’s skills having deteriorated — and in that sense, it just doesn’t tell you anything at all. It is of zero value for making future predictions. It is nothing more than a huge misunderstanding, a misapplication of a SABR truth that has gone viral. I repeat, there is absolutely no universal number that all batter BABIP’s (or averages) bounce randomly around, as there is for pitchers.

Because a very low BABIP could mean player is simply making lousy contact, which unlike pitchers, batters are certainly capable of affecting.  Compare the BABIP of a great contact hitter like Joe Mauer (note: his exceedingly high BABIP is not because he’s beating out infield hits with his speed as per Fangraphs explanation of Ichiro’s consistently high numbers) over the last three years — .348, .373, .343 — to a noodler like John Mcdonald — 260, .269, .235. That’s some 100 points of consistent difference, and obviously not luck-based. So when a player’s BABIP plummets 100 points, it could be a fluke — or it could mean he used to make contact like Ichiro and now, for whatever reason, he’s making contact like John Mcdonald. You have to look deeper to have any idea what’s really going on.

Last year, BABIP was everywhere in the discussion about David Ortiz’s early struggles, which were obviously the result of mechanical difficulties and not luck. This year, batter BABIP is continuing to bloom — I’ve seen at least a dozen snippets like this one about Aaron Hill (Carlos Quentin is another good one).

Think you’re unlucky? Even though Hill hit 26 homers in 2010, his batting average plummeted to .205 thanks to a .196 batting average on balls in play. To put that in perspective, that was almost 100 points below his career mark and 30 points below the next-lowest mark in the majors. That’s unlucky. Also consider that Hill’s strikeout rate held steady and that his walk rate improved, and it jibes with the scouting that says Hill hit the ball hard right at a lot of people for much of the year.

I’d like a word or two with some of these scouts, because anyone who watched the Jays last year knows that Hill wasn’t getting unlucky in the slightest. His contact SUCKED. His whole season was one weak pop-up, head down, jog to first after the other. Hill looked like a completely different hitter, his beautiful compact line drive swing gone long and loopy – and a little deeper delving into the numbers agrees: his fly ball rate soared from his terrific 2009 (41.0), past his career average (41.4), to insane heights (54.2). His line drive rate also fell from 2009 (19.6) past his career average (18.5) to untold depths (10.6). His infield fly percentage (one of my favorites because it’s a 100% guaranteed out – like a hidden strikeout, but still included as a ball in play) rose from 11.6 to 12.9. Spraying balls like this will clearly and provably lead to a consistently much lower BABIP. And so the numbers actually overwhelmingly agree with what the old-timers would say: Hill’s swing went to hell last year.  Luck had nothing to do with it.

Now yes, players tend to return to their normal numbers. That’s usually a good thing to point out because it’s really rather amazing how even the most terrible results over extended periods of time can be due to random fluctuation. We can’t help but think we see what looks like conclusive results of a player’s skill level having changed that are in fact just baseball doing its crazy and unpredictable thing. (An example from the classic “The Book” is that even over 1000 batters faced, one in every 20 pitchers will have an ERA more than a run over their true skill level over that time). So it is still a very good bet that Hill (or any other major leaguer with a highly uncharacteristic BABIP) is going to bounce back.

But that is not because of any statistical techniques. It’s because nobody with that kind of pedigree and years of success hits under .200 in his prime for long unless something has gone terribly, terribly, wrong physically (it was his hamstring, FYI), something which he is likely to be able to recover from. But when you state authoritatively to the millions and millions of people who read your comments that a comeback is predicted by pure numbers with no need for a turnaround in his on-field performance or condition, an entire range of astute fans will begin to think that all stats are stupid and all analysis useless because they don’t jibe with most obvious truth they know and can see and hear about baseball: that a sweet swing and solid contact from a good hitter makes a ball jump off the bat, while a poor hack from a guy lost at the plate sends up a dying quail.


Written by halejon

March 3, 2011 at 10:36 pm

Posted in Seriousness

38 Responses

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  1. Good, an excuse to watch Hill’s swing and say “he looks good, might put up better numbers this year.” like the old days.


    March 4, 2011 at 6:15 am

  2. What do you think about the various BABIP estimators?


    March 4, 2011 at 9:22 am

    • We’re not worthy. We’re not worthy. (Welcome back!)


      March 4, 2011 at 9:48 am

  3. This was great!


    March 4, 2011 at 9:36 am

  4. Nicely written. You put into words something that has bugged me for a long time.


    March 4, 2011 at 11:34 am

  5. They’re interesting…I enjoyed this article on xBABIP:

    I have a little problem getting excited about them, though, because Hit f/x is right around the corner and will do SUCH a better job. Trying to perfect the math and statistical techniques when all the data is lumped somewhat arbitrarily into grounders/liners/fly balls, is kinda like trying to figure out how to do advanced calculus when you’ve only discovered even numbers so far. Using angle and velocity off the bat will revolutionize the field of “luck” overnight.

    And for mainstream baseball writing, I think it’s adding another level of stats that is likely to lose people. If Mr. ESPN explains “his line drive rate is steady” or “he’s hitting more popops”, anyone can understand what that means and why it’s important to the results. But if you write “his xBABIP is lower than his career BABIP by x points”, which is just a more in-depth way of saying that, a lot of people are going to gloss over and dismiss it as math mumbo jumbo. Since it’s not an exact science anyway, unless you’re talking to statheads or doing a study, I think looking for huge outliers (like Hill’s LD%) will do the trick for the kind of diagnostics this stuff usually gets used for.


    March 4, 2011 at 2:07 pm

  6. @Dave: Hehehe…ain’t it great when the numbers let you do what you wanted to anyway, but with authority? Even before he hit all those jacks, I have rarely been so in love with a hitter’s swing than Hill. There are guys who hit nothing but mistakes (but hit them HARD), and guys who can rip even the best pitcher’s pitch with one of their best swings. Hill used to be one of the latter, and it was such a joy to watch. Hope we get to see that again.

    I think it was the new kid. I’ve seen that worn out look in his eyes he had all year in many a new parent. Hopefully he stops trying to raise his child properly and just hires a fleet of nannies. 😉


    March 4, 2011 at 2:36 pm

  7. He’s back!

    (Nobody mention bacon.)

    Excellent points on Hill. I keep meaning to dig up Hit FX numbers on him from 2009 and 2010, because it seemed as though he wasn’t nearly hitting the ball as hard.

    (There were a couple of extra twitches and timing mechanisms in his swing last year, and they resulted in him being off-balance and dropping his hands. Lots of pop ups and lots of lazy flyballs.)

    Tao of Stieb

    March 4, 2011 at 3:02 pm

  8. Most well though out post I have read on the subject.
    This author knows more about baseball, and is able to think about more aspects of the game than any other poster I have encountered.
    continued success.

    ryan booth

    March 4, 2011 at 3:05 pm

  9. Interesting stuff. I must admit until now I had a very foggy notion of what BABIP is.

    As for Hill, though, I’m extremely skeptical. He’s almost exactly the same hitter as Edwin Encarnacion over his career (actually slightly worse), and Encarnacion is the younger of the two. It makes no sense to me that everyone is so convinced he is a superlative hitter.


    March 4, 2011 at 3:18 pm

  10. Hmmm…I don’t think Hill is a superlative hitter, but the comparison between him and EE is not a good one (you’re looking at career OPS, yes?). Lots of apples and Oranges:

    1) Career numbers are misleading because the first half of EE’s career was really good — it’s the consistently poor recent numbers that has everyone down on him. By comparison, Hill’s 2011 looks like a blip after years of average and steadily improving power.

    2) 3B are supposed to be better hitters (about .025 OPS a year). If a 2B hits for the exact same numbers as a 3B, he’s really a considerably better hitter because he has to do it with a smaller frame.

    3) I think when people use superlatives towards Hill they’re talking (as I was) about his pretty swing, and his superior contact skills. Obviously he doesn’t have a superior eye, and the word is still out on his power. But while his and EE’s OPSes, and therefore hitting value to the team, might be the same, there’s a huge difference in ceiling and possibility of imploding between a skilled hitter like Hill and a hack-and-hope bomber like EE.


    March 4, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    • I don’t know why you are praising hill and bashing EE so much. the past 3 years before last, EE had a better obp than hill. how is that hack and hope? and speaking of imploding, which player had an ops below .700 2/3 years? which player had a slug below .400 4/6 years? how is hill’s swing any different than wells? how is that pretty? hill is the one who imploded last year and yet you act like EE is the one to worry about?


      March 8, 2011 at 4:37 am

      • By “hack and hope”, I mean guys guys like EE who take huge cuts at the ball, not hitting it very often, but hitting it very very hard when they do. Compared to Hill, who fouls off more balls, makes more contact, and hits solid, not screaming, liners. Both styles work, but the wilder one is more vulnerable and unstable. OBP is not necessarily a good sign of a player’s contact ability (See: Adam Dunn). Hill’s swing type is very different from Wells’. Don’t get me wrong – that’s not everything. You can have the prettiest swing in the world and not belong in the majors. But they’re fundamentally different and have very different strengths and weaknesses.

        Career numbers (or cherrypicking 2008) doesn’t give you a good picture of the trends, which are more useful when trying to diagnose/predict the future. For example, EE hasn’t been hitting line drives for four years, Hill for one. Not trying to dump or praise, but that’s more worrying going forward. (Btw, Hill’s OBP was higher in 2009)


        March 8, 2011 at 1:18 pm

      • you are not paid to foul balls off or have a sweet swing. you are paid for results. it’s not fair to penalize EE for being injured. it isn’t “years” for EE and 1 for hill. take a look at the past 1000 ab’s for each

        hill 303/1210 = .250 ba

        EE 274/1131 = .242 ba

        a whopping 8 pts difference. neither of them excites me, but for you to claim that hill has a better outlook is not based on any fact.


        March 8, 2011 at 1:36 pm

      • You just went from the very long-scale (career numbers) to the very short (two seasons). And peripherals are better, like these two line drive rates. One is a guy who hasn’t been the same contact since 2006, while the other is a sudden disaster last season. Sure, could be injury. But to the overwhelming majority of people in baseball, EE’s situation is more worrying.


        2005: 25.2
        2006: 21.1
        2007: 18.7
        2008: 15.9
        2009: 17.5
        2010: 17.5


        2005: 23.1
        2006: 19.2
        2007: 20.8
        2008: 17.3 (1/3 of a season)
        2009: 19.6
        2010: 10.6

        And yeah, I know you’re not “paid to have a sweet swing”, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have predictive value if you do. It’s what scouts are for, to take two guys with identical numbers and with everything they know and have seen about baseball to say: “this guy shouldn’t be hitting .205, he’s got a great swing and there’s something just temporarily wrong with it”, or “this guy has a long loopy swing with holes in it, it’s not a surprise he stopped hitting for average”. I can’t believe I’m saying this on this blog, but stats aren’t everything. Well, they can’t tell you everything without proper sample size and context. (Whew…back from the ledge).


        March 8, 2011 at 3:03 pm

      • nobody is worried about EE. you are not paying players millions for “line drive rates”. you are paying for results. both of these players are on 1 year deals anyways. unless they both improve they both will probably be released anyways. what predictive value did hill’s 19.6% rate 2009 have on 2010? do you also not realize that EE is also more of a power hitter so he’s not really going to hit line drives, more fly balls?

        if it’s so obvious to you about hill’s low line drive rate, don’t you think it would have been obvious to hill and the jays as well? so why didn’t they make any adjustments? isn’t that more worrying to you?

        if I’m alex I’m not exercising his options just because he has a good line drive rate. it will be based solely on his results. this is how it works in the real world not on a blog.


        March 8, 2011 at 3:17 pm

      • “nobody is worried about EE”

        I’m not going to argue with you about that. Ask around. Find some major league scouts. Etc.

        “do you also not realize that EE is also more of a power hitter so he’s not really going to hit line drives, more fly balls?”

        Yes, but I wasn’t comparing his line drive rate to Hill’s or anyone else’s, I’m comparing it to himself. Because it is more reliable than something like BA. If a guy’s LD rate goes down like EE’s have, his results go down. I’m not going to argue about that.

        “if it’s so obvious to you about hill’s low line drive rate, don’t you think it would have been obvious to hill and the jays as well?”

        I’m sure it was. But it’s not that easy as to say “change something and hit more line drives”. Hitting a line drive means you made good contact. If you’re not making good contact, they don’t happen. You can’t just decide to change your swing so that all your GB and infield popups go for liners. That would be awesome, since they drop in 70% of the time, but there’s no magic formula.

        “if I’m alex I’m not exercising his options just because he has a good line drive rate. it will be based solely on his results. this is how it works in the real world not on a blog.”

        A good line drive rate is just another way of saying good results. So you’re being redundant. And combative. I’m done here.


        March 8, 2011 at 4:12 pm

      • EE’s line drive rate has been fairly consistent the last 3 years so it hasn’t gone down

        you keep saying hill wasn’t making good contact. was he not hitting a tonne of fly balls? so therefore he was making good contact. what in fact he was trying to do was hit more home runs. that explains why he didn’t change.

        a good line drive rate doesn’t magically mean good results. your own stats show that EE had a 25% line drive rate in 2005 but he hit .232

        his line drive rate dropped to 18.7 in 2007 but his avg increased to .289

        it’s not being combative. if your numbers don’t add up then you are just being delusional.


        March 8, 2011 at 4:45 pm

      • As I said, I’m done here.


        March 9, 2011 at 3:41 pm

  11. I’m aware of the positional adjustment…if Hill can stick at 2B as an above-average defender (I’m not entirely convinced) and hit like EE, he has more value than Encarnacion as a DH. No question.

    I was looking at OBP and SLG each, so yes, OPS…but what struck me was the fact that Encarnacion was better across the board. I’m not sure how you can say EE has a higher chance of imploding, when he’s been within 10 OPS+ points of league average every year of his career. Hill’s the one whose career looks like a see-saw. (And his 2010 was about as hack-and-hope as it gets: Is it really all that more unlikely that a 27-year-old Encarnacion will return to his 2006-2008 level than that a 28-year-old Hill will repeat his 2009?


    March 4, 2011 at 6:05 pm

  12. (Ironically, rereading my link, the author uses BABIP in exactly the way you condemn in this article. Still, Hill’s 2010 was really quite awful.)


    March 4, 2011 at 6:30 pm

  13. Why the defensive concerns about Hill? Just curious. I wasn’t really paying attention to his on-field D last year. +/- says he was the same as ever, except for being suddenly terrible (from +5 to -6) at grounders right at him. How odd!

    One answer is that I don’t think 200 at bats for Hill in 2008 counts for much, so his career (and especially his SLG) hasn’t really been a see-saw. EE has been wrong for three seasons and over 1000 at-bats now. OPS fluctuates like mad (see: EE’s 66 point swing in his last 5 games of 2010 due to 5 homers in 4 games), but look at something like LD% — EE’s has dropped sharply and stayed there ever since, while Hill’s only blipped last year. There’s been a bad trend to EE’s career arc for some time now, while Hill’s is much less clear.

    But the implode comment was more theoretical…good contact hitters with short swings implode less often and less dramatically. Instead they tend lose their power, or some speed, and decline slowly. Tony Gwynn probably could have hit .300 until he was 60. Whereas guys who get their OPS by taking huge cuts and mashing mistakes out of the park slug until they suddenly reach a point where they can’t get around on pitches and the huge holes in their swing become evident and they rapidly decline/crash out of the league (see: Thomas, Frank). It is both easier for pitchers to exploit them and harder for them to make adjustments, so they are more likely to fall apart suddenly. So numbers aside, just based on their skillset, I am much more surprised to see Hill implode than EE, and think it far more likely Hill will find his game again.

    Reminds me of guys like Chip Cannon and John Ford-Griffin. Coming through the minors, their numbers look great and everyone gets excited. But talent evaluators and teams hardly give them a second look because they know that OPS numbers aside, if you can’t control the strike zone or make contact better than they do, major leaguer pitchers are eventually going to pick you apart. They’re too inflexible, too much of one-trick ponies, to make adjustments. I think that’s what happened to EE – he had a couple of decent years, got figured out, and just doesn’t have the broad skillset to adjust, even if he wanted to. It’s not so easy to figure out someone who has the ability to make contact of Hill.


    March 4, 2011 at 7:34 pm

  14. Hahahahahahahahah….DAMN YOU, ESPN!!!! 😉


    March 4, 2011 at 7:35 pm

  15. Welcome back. There’s no substitute to actually watching the game to draw conclusions. It also helps to be familiar with players tendencies. Seems Hill tried too hard to replicate 09 and messed up his swing as you say and the legs can very much do the same when not 100%, Kirk Gibson aside. Keep it coming and good luck, or keep making contact.


    March 4, 2011 at 8:14 pm

  16. Yep…I think one altogether possible narrative for last year is that Hill was trying to live up to his power numbers from 09 even though he had a balky hamstring (and might be more of a doubles guy who got HR happy for a year anyway), and messed up his swing trying to lift the ball when the power just wasn’t there. It just doesn’t make sense for the type of hitter he is that his isolated power would stay the same, and he would completely lose his average. He must have been compensating.


    March 4, 2011 at 8:31 pm

  17. Just read the THT article on Hill. Opposite Field LD rate of 2.5% in ’10 compared to 19.5% in ’09. Incredible. Chased alot outside the zone as well. Fully expect him to turn that around. I don’t think he could replicate a LD rate to RF that bad if he tried. Murphy’s hitting philosophy may have been good enough to bring the team back some confidence after Gibbons and his staff were fired, I’m not sure how it translates going forward. It isn’t conducive to getting men on. There must be a happy median between his and Denbo’s.


    March 5, 2011 at 5:10 am

  18. Re: Hill’s defense: It’s entirely naked eye stuff as opposed to UZR or +/-, but his instincts have never seemed as natural to me as most great defensive middle infielders…which makes sense, because word was the Jays considered him below average in his first year or two of the minors. He’s always seemed a bit stiff on the pivot or glove-hand transfer, even after great plays, and I’m just not convinced that he’s going to age well defensively. I’ve always thought a move to 3B was in the works eventually.


    March 5, 2011 at 4:11 pm

  19. @ATBAT: 2.5…That’s absolutely insane. I would add a caveat to the chasing a lot though – unless you isolate by count, I’ve found that guys who are struggling almost always have a higher chase %. It could be because they’re pressing, or aren’t seeing the ball. But it could just as well be because they’re getting into pitcher’s counts more often because they missed their pitch, or fouled it off, earlier in the bat.

    Like Vernon for a while – he has a terrible eye, and is highly susceptible to breaking balls off the plate. That will always be true. But you don’t notice it and it doesn’t stand out in the stats as much when he’s mashing the first pitch like he does so well, because the at-bat never gets to that point where he ends up chasing and looks like a little-leaguer.

    Very much in agreement about the happy medium. It drives me nuts when guys like Rance go on and on and on about being ‘aggressive’ at the plate, as if that’s an attribute that is always a positive thing. Just as many players are too aggressive as are too passive. There’s no magic blanket formula, it’s about finding the right approach based on who you are, your abilities, how they match up to who you’re facing, the situation, etc, etc, etc.


    March 5, 2011 at 6:15 pm

  20. Hill hit .478 in Spring Training.

    Dan Verhaeghe

    March 31, 2011 at 8:41 pm

  21. […] the same piece, Passan also writes about batting average on balls in play, once again missing the point of the statistic as it pertains to batters. BABIP (batting average on balls in play) historically hovers around […]

  22. […] a player was lucky or unlucky.  For a different take on what BABIP means for hitters, check out Jon Hale’s thoughts on the […]

  23. […] appearances. A career high .335 BABIP may also scare away some teams depending on which side of the divide over that statistic they fall […]

  24. […] our friend Jon Hale once wrote: It would be like saying that a spike or fall in batting average has to be luck, because for […]

  25. […] 2009 to 2010, so I don’t think we can quite throw out luck/BABIP as a factor in the way that Jon Hale of the Mockingbird does in his outstanding breakdown of Aaron Hill’s 2010 struggles. But… it wasn’t […]

  26. […] is a good day, if only because our friend Jon Hale posted again over at the Mockingbird, but I can’t help– and I suspect you’ve probably noticed– but be in pretty […]

  27. […] theory suggests that pitchers don’t really have much control over their BABIP, it’s a different story for batters. For anyone watching Hill that season, his low BABIP was obviously not a matter of luck, as his […]

  28. […] I’ve ranted, BABIP is interesting for pitchers, and almost completely useless and/or misleading for everyone else. Having a high BABIP is equally likely due to a low contact rate (or luck — HR hurt it, too). […]

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