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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  • Bobtheautomator

    EVERYBODY SUCKS!

    • PleaseStopLosing

      Thank you for the informative viewpoints and well thought out opinions. Much appreciated.

      • John_CC

        PSL – don’t know if you read the letter posted previously, check it out.  It is best to NOT respond to this non-sense, if you do, the comment cannot be removed.  (but since you did…I agree with you)

  • Tony_Hall

    I like this look at players and whether they had a lucky or unlucky season.  But how much of the fluctuations can be from having a bad season or a good season.  

    A player who has lost their confidence and is expanding the strike zone, will swing at more pitchers pitches, resulting in weaker hit balls.

    A player who has lots of confidence and is making pitchers come to him more, will swing at more hitable pitches, resulting in stronger hit balls, will which land more than the weaker hit balls.

    Ray – Is there anyway to factor pitch location into this stat and even the situation?

    EX – If the bases are loaded and Marlon Byrd is up, I bet he has a very low BABIP, since he swings at the first pitch, and it is usually low and away to him.

    EX – Soriano during his hot streaks, I would assume, has an extremely high BABIP, as he is laying off the low and outside ones, and crushing every ball over the plate, but with 2 strikes on Soriano, I bet his BABIP is extremely low, as he is not swinging confidently in those situations.

    • Raymond Firnbach

      Yes, a lot of BABIP is influenced by weak contact, such as infield fly balls or weak grounders, which can be cause by swinging at bad pitches.

      Situation-wise, it’s hard to say just by looking at statistics. This is when baseball gets complicated, since mental aspects come in to play (or don’t).

  • John G

    As I understand it, the formula for BABIP is

    is the SF a sac fly or any sacrifice? Because it doesn’t make sense that they would add the sac fly and not the bunt. And why don’t they subtract HBP from the AB?

    • John G

      well I guess that cut and paste didn’t work It was supposed to be something like this

      BABIP=H-HR/AB-K-HR+SF

      • paulcatanese

        John, If I had passed Geometry (flunked) I would understand it. Too busy looking at the girls in class.:)

  • Anthony

    stats are the product of performance

    performance is an athlete putting his tools on display

    tools are the result of genetics, athletic ability, training, and positive repetition

    hitting is a skill that employs many things, starting with gifts at birth, the basic tools of vision, twitch muscle, hand-eye coordination, athleticism, and a keen connection of body control, i.e feel, or feeling what you are doing versus seeing what you are doing.

    Hitters then utilize these abilities/skills to build a swing from the bottom up with much trial and error in search of a consistent and reliable GROOVE.

    Once that “slot” is found, the hitter expands his scope, starts tinkering around to add power, develop approach, expand the field, develop “hot zones” while searching for perfection.

    This perfection still usually leads to two successes in the book, six failures, and the remaining two opportunities relate to what this thread started with, that is the quote from Bull Durham.

    The results of the two remaining opps are the difference between a HOF player, an all-star, a solid MLB hitter, and a bust.

    The BABIP stat, normally used to measure pitching performance(prediction) is a nice stat in that it can provide a range for a player and performance expectations.

    Vitters is a good example. he was a 1st rounder because they saw a kid with the fast hands and pretty RH swing. So far though, he has a hitting/swing zone so huge that on the surface, he is having difficulty translating what he is seeing as the pitch is delivered.

    lots of RH hitters flail at the outside and low slider, swing and miss and K while Vitters tools allow him to make weak contact to the right side instead

    when/if he can lay off that pitch and hit a driveable one, will you then see him ready to contribute. That is a simple statement and not all-inclusive, just a small example

    think Vlad without power?

    At some point, hitters become “they are what they are”

    Given the right amount of sample time, its as good as its gonna get, and the BABIP range becomes very useful.

    when you see consistent improvement, be it in college, and then the Pro’s, you are seeing a hitter I described at the top of this post

    MLB pitchers were at one time, AAA pitchers, AA pitchers, A ball pitchers. They didn’t take a magic pill and gain velocity to get to MLB, they improved movement and command. When tracking hitters through the system, dismissing their performances because they were in A/AA/AAA is not correct. It shows the ability.

  • Zonk

    Interesting article, and BABIP is very overlooked IMO.

    Last year, the National League overall had a BABIP of .296.  Huge sample, so to me that is the mean. The lowest team was the Giants at .281, and the highest was the Astros, at .308. 

    (side note:  Scary to think the Astros were “lucky”, since they also stank.  The reason is they finished last in walks AND slugging %).

    Anyway, I wonder what the range is for what is expected BABIP?  In other words, what is Adam Dunn’s expected BABIP as an example of the low-end (.270-ish?) and what would Ichiro be as an example of the high-end? (.320?)  I would expect fast, line-drive hitters to have a higher mark than slow, fly-ball hitters.

    BTW, Dunn’s career BABIP is .292, and Ichiro’s is .351.  I can’t imagine anyone getting higher than .351.  (Barry Bonds’s was .285)

    • Zonk

      PS:  He isn’t a Cub, but Dunn’s 2011 season was legendary.  I had to look up his BABIP.  It was .240

      Even spotting him those 50 points below his career mark, as apparently he did have some bad luck, he still only hits in the .210 to .220 range.  Reason?  177 Ks in only 496 PAs.  He would have broken the K record if they let him play a full season.

  • paulcatanese

    Great approach on Campana,That’s one reason he’s still around.
    I guess it’s not how far you hit it, but where.

  • paulcatanese

    Castro,”A lot of bad people in the world”, maybe he will make better choice’s on after hour places.
    He must realize,(and now I’m sure he does) that as a public figure, he is a target. Hopefully he has it figured out.
    I am also sure that Soriono will take him once again under his wing, and it looks like Byrd as well

  • John_CC

    First full-quad practice report coming. Before that I want to download my pictures from today and email them to Neil.  My old man did gather a Barney HR ball, plus Soriano and Castro. Then I snagged a long shot from one of the lefties on my out, I think it was off from Stewart’s bat.

    Camp is FULL. Lot’s of hope under the high, dry sun right now!

    • paulcatanese

      Are you SURE the home run ball you caught was not off
      Campana’s bat?:)

  • Cubs 31

    Chris Carpenter has reported  to the Boston Red Sox spring training site here in Fort Myers.  Will be interesting what comments I get when I wear my Cubby Blue to the Red Sox spring training games.

  • Ripsnorter1

    Interesting fact:

    The Cubs have not had an All-Star representative that played 2B since Ryan Sandberg in 1993. In addition, they have not had a 2B play more than two consecutive years at 2B since Ryan retired. It is about time we got us a regular, All-Star 2B, don’t you think?

    • J Daniel

      I think it is Ryne

      • Tony_Hall

        I wanted to name my son after Sandberg.  

        My wife said no way would her son be called “Rine” as that is how she heard it,  I always thought of it more as “Ry” “N” We compromised and spelled it Ryan.  

        So Rip, either one works for me.

  • Ripsnorter1

    Sveum on LaHair at 1B: it’s his job. Period.


    It’s [LaHair’s] job; it’s not his job to lose,” Sveum said. “The guy has earned the right to have it, and he’s earned the right for me to have a lot of patience too if things aren’t getting off to a good start.” 

    Sveum also said that LaHair won’t be asked to play any outfield, at least not during the spring. 

    “He’s our first baseman, and he’s going to play first base,” Sveum said. “I’m not going to put anything in his head that way. He’s our first baseman, and that’s the bottom line. If anything was to happen somewhere along the line we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” 

    • paulcatanese

      I like the fact that Sveum has LaHair’s back on this one.

    • John_CC

      I know it’s early and we won’t really know about Sveum until we see his in game style, but right now I really like him. He is straight forward and no-nonsense.

      I watched the practice today. When the team gathered, the base-running drills were first. Sveum brought them together and told an anecdote; he asked if they remembered about 10 years ago when Jason Giambi made “one of the worst turns in the history of baseball” and was throw out by an inch. He said, maybe Giambi didn’t learn how to run bases, maybe he didn’t ever pride himself on base running when he was in the minors…and he cost his team a World Series because of it. He said he wanted everyone to pride themselves on how they run the bases and reiterated that it’s the 42 games that decide the season.

      Yeah, I’m a little high on the sunshine, early happy hours and live baseball but I am really looking forward to watching the new Cubs play this year.