Examining High BABIPs from 2018 (2019 Fantasy Baseball)
In the age of SIERA, xwOBA, and UZR, BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is a stat that most fantasy baseball players understand from the get-go. Intuitively, BABIP measures the percentage of balls in play that go for hits. As a home run is not technically “in play,” BABIP excludes homers. Essentially, BABIP calculates the non-three true-outcomes of a player. Players with high BABIP typically exude one or all of the following: 1) high line drive rate, 2) quick feet, and 3) high hard-hit rate.
The best players, like Mookie Betts last year, do all of them. Others, like teammate J.D. Martinez, hit a ton of line drives (22.6% of his contact result in line drives, according to FanGraphs). I’ve already gone in depth on why Martinez is primed for another stellar season, and we will take a look at other players that had high BABIPs in 2018, and if those are sustainable going into this year.
xStats has created a stat called “xBABIP,” which determines what the player’s expected BABIP should have been, based on the player’s batted ball profile (grounders, liners, fly balls). I’ll be referencing that from time to time. BABIP is more of a means to an end, rather than the end-all-be-all. Alas, it’s not enough to simply look at a high BABIP and automatically think those types of players automatically will negatively regress in 2019. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that.
Mookie Betts (BOS) – 2018 stats: .368 BABIP, 21.2% LD rate, 44.5% hard-contact rate, .346 average
2019 Steamer Projection: .316 BABIP, .303 average
We won’t dive too deep on Mr. Betts (you’re picking him in the top two, no matter what), but his batted ball profile is a great example of how high BABIP can be sustainable. Do you remember two years ago when everyone was whining about Betts’ “poor” 2017 season? That partially stemmed from his .268 BABIP. His BABIP in 2016 was .322, and in 2015 was .310. His 2017 BABIP was a result of a substantial decrease in both line drive rate and hard-contact rate.
In 2018, Betts got both of those rates back to an “excellent” level. He also lowered his infield fly ball (IFFB) rate to a tick below 10%, right around league average. An infield fly is the second most automatic out in the game, next to a strikeout. He has a career 9.1% IFFB rate, so it could drop even lower in 2019.
He pulled the ball more than ever in 2018 (career-high 47%) and hit the ball harder than ever. If you hit hard line drives at an excellent rate, all while pulling the ball almost 50% of the time, the chances of your BABIP being above league average are very high. He pours gas on his BABIP fire by having top-10 speed in the majors, according to the “speed score” stats on FanGraphs. Simply put, even with his 100 point jump in BABIP year-over-year, you can expect him to be near the top of the leaderboard in BABIP again in 2019.
Christian Yelich (MIL) – 2018 stats: .373 BABIP, 24.7% LD rate, 47.6% hard-hit rate, .326 average
2019 Steamer Projection: .344 BABIP, .297 average
Yelich was among the league leaders in line drive rate and hard-hit rate and ranked second overall in BABIP. Can he do it again? While Yelich has always been a high BABIP guy (low of .336 in 2017), .373 is astronomical. However, it seems to be backed up by his .393 xBABIP. Shifting from playing half his games in Miami to playing them in Milwaukee certainly helped him collect more hits, and his 12% increase in hard-hit rate from 2017 to 2018 also paid off.
He also barreled up balls 13% of the time according to Baseball Savant, which was a six percent increase from 2017. That ranked in the top 8% of the league. His 92.3 average exit velocity was in the top 6% of the league. Long story short, expect Yelich to be among the league leaders in BABIP again. While Yelich may not be a league winner, he has an incredibly safe floor, which is great for an early second round pick, if he lasts that long.
Fun fact: We know that Yelich went absolutely crazy in September (.364 BABIP), but that wasn’t even close to his highest month — he had a BABIP of .500 in July! Yes, you read that correctly.
Javier Baez (CHC) – 2018 stats: .347 BABIP, 22.1% LD rate, 35.8% hard-hit rate, .290 average
2019 Steamer Projection: .320 BABIP, .269 average
What used to be terrible plate discipline turned into well, slightly less terrible plate discipline. Baez’s supreme BABIP comes from his barrel rate of 9.4%, which is top-eight percent in the league. Combined with his contact-heavy approach of 1) 54.9% O-contact rate (represents the percentage of the time Baez makes contact with pitches outside of the zone), 2) 81.6% Z-contact rate (represents the percentage of the time he makes contact with strikes), and 3) his above-average batted ball profile, you get a great BABIP. Much like a couple guys below him on this list, his poor plate discipline means that his BABIP will always be above his average. While Baez likely won’t repeat his runner-up MVP finish in 2018 and is currently being overvalued (ADP in the early second round), Baez offers a solid floor and is a five-category contributor.
Matt Chapman (OAK) – 2018 stats: .338 BABIP, 20.4% LD rate, 43.2% hard-hit rate, .278 average
2019 Steamer Projection: .299 BABIP, .249 average
Oh Steamer, how wrong you will be. Chapman has been steadily improving his batted ball profile since his big league arrival, and should only keep improving. For example, Chapman’s LD rate improved 4.5%, and his hard-hit rate jumped over seven percent from 2017 to 2018. Both of these percentages are above or near elite hitters. His .340 xBABIP from last year shows that there is still room to grow.
Where Steamer misses the mark on this projection is due to his exit velocity. His 93 MPH average exit velocity ranked in the top three percent in the entire league! His launch angle also dropped five degrees (from almost 20 degrees in 2017 to about 15 in 2018).
While we know that we are in the midst of a launch angle revolution, a 20-degree launch angle is a bit too high to sustain a high BABIP. So, simple math here: find the sweet spot in launch angle + elite exit velocity + more liners = higher BABIP. Come on Steamer, project for positive regression! Just think about if Chapman didn’t call the Coliseum home — we would be talking about him as a top-30 fantasy player!
Fringe Top 100
Mallex Smith (SEA) – 2018 stats: .366 BABIP, 24.9% LD rate, 49.7% GB rate, 29.8 ft/sec sprint speed, .296 average
2019 Steamer Projection: .326 BABIP, .263 average
Here is a guy who mainly does the second thing I listed above (speed) really, really well. Smith stole 40 bases in 2018, his first full-length season in the bigs. In exactly half a season in 2017, Smith posted a .347 BABIP, and he only improved on his LD and hard-hit rates in 2018. Of course, the 2019 version of Delino DeShields makes his money off of his quickness and high groundball rate (league average is 44%). This guy is a very different ballplayer than the ones above him — he only barrels up balls 1.5% of the time, and his exit velocity was a measly 81.3 percent. His xBABIP recognizes this, as it sat at .326 in 2018, coincidentally his 2019 projection. Smith is a guy you should be targeting for steals, and while you can’t expect a .296 average again, you can certainly expect an above-average, well, average, to pair with his steals.
Rougned Odor (TEX) – 2018 stats: .305 BABIP, 19.5% LD rate, 45.2% hard-hit rate, .253 average
2019 Steamer Projection: .281 BABIP, .249 average
Now, you may be looking at this and saying, “wait, this is not a high BABIP at all!” Well, two things: 1) you’re right…but 2) Odor exhibited the second-highest jump in BABIP from 2017 to 2018. If you recall (you probably blocked it out, especially if you owned him), Odor had a paltry BABIP of .224 in 2017.
So, what changed in 2018? His LD rate rose three percent, his IFFB decreased four percent, and he had a nine-point jump in hard-hit rate. This was the main cause of that BABIP increase.
His barrel rate also jumped from 6% in 2017 to 7.1% in 2018. Even with this jump, he barely cracks the top 150 in barrels. He also has a middling exit velocity (88 MPH), which even decreased year-over-year. These key stats, along with Odor’s above-average fly ball rate, are what will always suppress Odor’s average.
To summarize, his xBABIP was 50 points higher in 2017 than his BABIP, and his 2018 xBABIP was 15 points higher than his 2018 BABIP. We can expect for this to also be the case in 2019.
Odor had a very average 2018 season, despite seeing solid increases in his batted ball profile. We may never see 2016 Odor again, and you shouldn’t bank on a .300+ BABIP again.
Yoan Moncada (CWS) – 2018 stats: .344 BABIP, 22.7% LD rate, 36.7% hard-hit rate, .235 average
2019 Steamer Projection: .319 BABIP, .236 average
Much like Odor, Moncada has a few key things in his batted ball profile, which stick out like a sore thumb and for negative reasons. His high fly ball rate (40%) suppresses his average in what is otherwise a pretty nice batted ball profile (above average hard-hit rate and LD rate). He even rates better in barrels and exit velocity than Odor, which explains the higher BABIP.
Finally, his average represents a huge difference from his BABIP as a result of his propensity for strikeouts (over 33% in 2018). His terrible swing and contact rates will always dampen his average, and this once highly sought after prospect will continue to fade if he doesn’t change his plate discipline. Maybe he will end up like a foe on the other side of town…
Giancarlo Stanton (NYY) – 2018 stats: .333 BABIP, 18.5% LD rate, 42.3% hard-hit rate, .266 average
2019 Steamer Projection: .307 BABIP, .267 average
I could have easily put Stanton in the “Other Stars” label of course, but it definitely comes as a surprise that he increased his BABIP from .288 to .333 in 2018. Even in his fantastic 2017 season, his BABIP was a below-average .288. When you dig into the Baseball Savant data, it comes as no surprise as to his sharp increase in BABIP. His insane 15.1% barrel rate and 93.7 MPH average exit velocity represent the very best the league has to offer.
To take the next step in average, the man with the python forearms will have to cut down on his IFFB rate and decrease his gross 30% strikeout rate. There’s a chance that he starts to relax after a year in New York and can get back to replicating his 2017 power totals while not suppressing his batting average too much. If he can pull that off, we’re looking at first round value — stamp it.