The Cubs will Bank on BABIP for Roster Improvement

“Know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It’s 25 hits – 25 hits in 500 at-bats is 50 points.”

The quote is from the timeless baseball move “Bull Durham,” and is indicative of what the Cubs are hoping for: players’ true talent levels to raise their statistics (with a little luck) to a competitive rate.

Batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is the biggest indicator of how a player’s actual talent is suppressed or elevated.

For instance, Geovany Soto’s batting averages in his four full years at the big league level are .285 (2008), .218 (2009), .280 (2010), and .228 (2011) … his corresponding BABIP was .332 (2008), .246 (2009), .324 (2010), and .280 (2011). Essentially Soto has had fluctuating years of luck, as well as the lack thereof, during his four-year career.

Using the xBABIP calculator, which shows how effectively the player should have hit balls in play, we can see how certain Cubs would have fared this past season by essentially taking the ‘luck’ factor out of the equation.

David DeJesus
David DeJesus hit for a meager .240 batting average, however his 2011 BABIP (.274) was significantly lower than his career rate (.316).

DeJesus should have hit for a .316 average on balls in play last year–exactly the same as his career number. If DeJesus can reproduce this number, he could easily outperform his predecessor, Kosuke Fukudome.

Alfonso Soriano
Alfonso Soriano struggled last season, as he typically has in a Cubs’ uniform, however his average hit a career low, which was aided by bad luck. He hit for a .244 batting average (a career low), which his .266 BABIP greatly contributed to. More specifically, he was very unlucky against right-handed pitchers. Last season, he hit for a .256 BABIP against righties–significantly lower than his career average of .300.

Soriano should have hit for a .292 BABIP, which would have significantly raised his batting average. Even with a 15 point increase in his batting average, he would be a much more productive player, considering his ability to hit for power. Soriano is only a year removed from an excellent season in 2010, when he quietly racked up 3.1 wins above replacement level. I think that if there is a year to trade Soriano for anything of worth, it is this season. No team will be interested in trading for a 37-year old left fielder with bad legs. However, if he can produce for the Cubs this season, he could net the Cubs a couple C-level prospects.

Marlon Byrd
In an injury shortened season, Marlon Byrd had a really good year at the dish, hitting for a .276/.324/.395 slash line. A raise of his .316 BABIP last year to his expected BABIP of .328 (which is right in line for his career rate) would push his batting average north of .280, and make him all the more attractive as a trade target.

Tony Campana
Last season, Tony Campana burst on to the scene as a speed specialist for the Cubs. His gritty style of play won him a roster spot and the hearts of many Cubs’ fans.

Campana hit for a meager .259/.303/.301, but actually accumulated 1.5 WAR due to his ability to steal bases (for a large amount, and efficiently) and field at a near-elite level.
Much of Campana’s value is (obviously) tied to his legs, which is largely why his already-high BABIP (.321) should improve. Campana’s xBABIP stands as an obscene .354, because of his ability to hit a high amount of ground balls (3.57 GB/FB–one of the highest in the majors) and use his speed to run them out.

In fact, if you take out the month of July, when Campana hit for a .231 BABIP, he would have a batting average seven points higher.

With a couple good bounces, or even marginal improvement in Campana’s sophomore season, he could stand to greatly improve his batting average.

Reed Johnson
Unlike some of his teammates, Reed Johnson did not underperform last year in respect to his BABIP. Reed had an excellent season at a glance, hitting for a slash of .309/.348/.467–numbers that could be mistaken for an All-Star. However, Johnson is probably the biggest regression candidates the Cubs have on the roster.

Johnson was greatly aided by a .394 BABIP to inflate his batting average. He was expected to hit for a good, but not great .318. That 76 point drop in his BABIP would put his batting average at a much more modest .249 batting average, which is in the same area as his 2009-10 seasons (.255 and .262, respectively).

On a side note, Johnson’s on-base percentage may also drop significantly. He had his highest OBP in three seasons, despite posting the lowest walk rate in his career. How? He was hit by eleven pitches last season–nearly twice as many times he walked.

Geovany Soto
As I mentioned earlier, Geovany Soto’s batting average has fluctuated season-to-season due to his BABIP.

Looking at xBABIP, his .280 BABIP isn’t too far away from his expected .313. However, that increase would bring his batting average up from .228 all the way up to .254–much more respectable. Accordingly, Bill James projects him to hit for a .252 batting average.

That said, it is really impossible to say how Soto will do. His performance has fluctuated so wildly, a more psychological perspective is needed to dissect him.

Darwin Barney
Darwin Barney was one of the bright spots for the Cubs in 2011, and his breakout signaled the end of the rotating door at the keystone position, at least for one year. Barney isn’t a superstar by any means, however his fielding and contact-approach makes him a valuable player.

Very rarely does Barney swing and miss. He makes contact 10% higher than league average and definitely is not a home run hitter (two in 2011), which leads to a lot of balls in play.

Barney had a slightly above average .310 BABIP in 2011, but xBABIP says he should have hit .321 on balls in play–effectively raising his .276 batting average up to .285.

Oddly enough, Barney is much more effective when he hits up the middle and to the opposite field. I wonder if this is a talent issue–meaning he doesn’t have quick enough wrists to hit the inside fastball–or rather that his approach at the plate is looking to hit the ball the other way.

Starlin Castro
Last season, Starlin Castro was finally able to legally drink an alcoholic beverage, and he commemorated that by hitting .307/.350/.442.

Castro led the National League in hits and finished the season with 207 (led league in at bats, 674, and finished third in plate appearances with 715). His .344 BABIP contributed to raise his batting average, and on the surface, it may look that Castro is due for regression.

However, his xBABIP (.336) is right in line with what he did the previous two seasons. In fact, Castro is such a talented hitter, that his ability to barrel nearly everything in the zone could elevate his BABIP even further.

It is important to keep in mind that these are optimistic projections, and numbers that essentially take the luck out of the equation. It’s not unreasonable, or unprecedented, that they could be even more unlucky in the upcoming season, squashing any value that could be had from a trade. The Cubs have been historically bad at being lucky, however if the Cubs can find good stretches of luck, they could have a surprising season.

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