Regression Candidates: High BABIP Hitters (Fantasy Baseball)
The Super Bowl is in the rearview mirror, and that can only mean one thing — baseball is right around the corner! If you haven’t started already, there’s no better time than the present to begin preparations for the upcoming fantasy baseball season.
Batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is a stat often looked at to determine whether or not a hitter was lucky or unlucky in a given season. As a general rule of thumb, the league average BABIP hovers around .300, but when evaluating hitters that doesn’t mean every guy who had a BABIP above .300 got lucky and will regress the following year. Instead, an individual hitter will establish his own career BABIP benchmark over time based on his true talent level.
That figure will stabilize at a certain level based on factors like the player’s batted ball profile, hard-hit rate, speed, etc. For instance, the fleet-footed Jose Altuve should naturally be expected to have a higher BABIP than Albert Pujols.
A player’s BABIP will typically fluctuate from year-to-year, but when you see a huge spike in either direction compared to his career average, it could give them a batting average that’s not reflective of what we should expect moving forward. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some players who benefited from an abnormally high BABIP last season, and may regress in 2018. Next week, we’ll touch on players who suffered from a low BABIP and could bounce back this year.
Avisail Garcia (OF/DH – CWS) – .392 BABIP/.330 AVG
On the surface, former top prospect Avisail Garcia appeared to finally have a bit of a breakout in his age-26 season, batting .330/.380/.506 with 18 home runs. However, if you’re looking for the 2017 poster boy of a lucky BABIP, Garcia is your guy. His .392 BABIP led all qualified hitters last season and is the highest mark since Chris Johnson in 2013 (.394).
Needless to say, that’s an unsustainable number no matter who you are, let alone if you’re Garcia, who entered 2017 with a .320 BABIP over 1551 plate appearances. Of course, even a drop back down to that range would keep him above the league average, and Garcia did show some improvements in strikeout rate (19.8%), contact rate (72.4%), and hard-hit rate (35.3%), so perhaps not all his 2017 gains were a total fluke. Still, even after Lady Luck shined on him last season, he remains a career .277 hitter, so it’s probably safe to say he won’t be hitting .330 again anytime soon.
Tommy Pham (OF – STL) – .368 BABIP/.306 AVG
Between an unlikely path to playing time, age, a lengthy injury history, and strikeout issues, few perceived Tommy Pham as a breakout candidate entering 2017 despite having that often sought after power/speed potential. But when injuries gave Pham another opportunity in the majors, he didn’t look back on his way to slashing .306/.411/.520 with 23 home runs and 25 stolen bases. Pham made huge strides in strikeout rate (22.1%), and 20/20 players don’t grow on trees, so his inclusion on this list is by no means poo-pooing his overall fantasy potential this season.
Between his speed, career 37.3% hard-hit rate, and prior track record, he ought to still maintain an elevated BABIP moving forward. Even so, he should see a natural drop-off from a .368 BABIP and is a poor bet to repeat that .306 average. Streamer projects him for a .267 average, which is a very reasonable expectation if he sees any regression in the strikeout department.
Chris Taylor (2B/3B/SS/OF – LAD) – .361 BABIP/.288 AVG
If there’s a trend on this list, it’s that most of the names belong to players who had surprising breakout seasons. Chris Taylor was no exception, providing his own power/speed combo in 21 dingers and 17 swiped bags.
However, he also struck out at a 25.0% clip, and his 32.4% hard-hit rate was around league average, so his .288 batting average was mostly a byproduct of an inflated .361 BABIP. Given he has some speed, maintaining an above average BABIP could still be in the cards, but don’t expect a repeat of that .288 average.
Aaron Judge (OF – NYY) – .357 BABIP/.284 AVG
Chances are if you had Aaron Judge on your squad last season, you finished at or near the top of your fantasy league. The power is undeniable — even if he can’t duplicate 52 home runs, he figures to once again be one of the top home run hitters in 2018. That being said, you can probably also kiss that .284 average goodbye.
It was a tale of two halves for Judge, as he saw an astronomical .426 first-half BABIP plummet to .266 in the second act. While luck played a role in such a stark difference, and his “true” BABIP lies somewhere in between, it also appeared that the league adjusted to Judge over the course of the season. Ultimately finishing 2017 with a 30.7% strikeout rate, 18.7% walk rate, and 67.6% contact rate, his three true outcome approach is more reflective of a .250 batting average in 2018.
Marcell Ozuna (OF – STL) – .355 BABIP/.312 AVG
In 2017, Marcell Ozuna put up career highs across the board with 93 runs, 37 home runs, 124 RBIs, and a .312 average. Considering Ozuna maintained a fly-ball rate right around his career level, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll see some power regression, but the most surprising mark is undoubtedly the high batting average.
Ozuna had never exceeded a .270 average in a season before 2017 and had a career .327 BABIP. He did show improvements in walk rate (9.4%) and hard-hit rate (39.1%), so perhaps he won’t drop all the way back down to a sub-.270 hitter, but it’s probably safe to say you shouldn’t pay for all of last season’s numbers.
Marwin Gonzalez (1B/2B/3B/SS/OF – HOU) – .343 BABIP/.303 AVG
After putting up a poor .298 wOBA in 2016, Marwin Gonzalez took a dramatic leap up to a career-high .382 wOBA last season, while posting a career-best 23 home runs, 90 RBIs, and .303 average. His strikeout rate (19.2%), walk rate (9.5%), and contact rate (80.9%) were also all better than his 2016 marks. However, in spite of these steps forward, the .303 average came out of nowhere off the back of a .343 BABIP.
After all, Gonzalez has a career .268 average and .311 BABIP over 2,154 plate appearances. Even if we buy into some of his breakout, we should be skeptical of a full repeat.