Examining Low BABIPs from 2018 (2019 Fantasy Baseball)
A few days ago, I wrote a piece about the players who sported a high BABIP from 2018, and whether those were sustainable. We uncovered a few surprises there, and in going through the low BABIP players from last year, there is plenty more to discuss.
That linked article above goes into detail about how BABIP is calculated, and the best way to earn a high BABIP. Based on that, the easiest way to lower your BABIP is by hitting a ton of fly balls, being induced to soft or medium contact too frequently (combined greater than 70% soft-hit and medium-hit rate, according to Fangraphs), and being slow-footed (think Albert Pujols or Kendrys Morales).
Again, keep in mind that having a low BABIP does not automatically qualify you as having a lower average — some hitters get lucky over the course of a year. So, let’s examine a few guys who had lower BABIPs in 2018, and who had the biggest decreases in BABIP from 2017 to 2018. Spoiler: You would be able to form a team full of All-Stars (current or former) with the guys who had the lowest BABIP drop!
Big Drops, but the BABIP is Bearable
Bryce Harper (OF – FA): .289 BABIP and .249 average in 2018; .356 BABIP and .313 average in 2017
2019 Steamer Projection: .301 BABIP, .267 BABIP
The hottest free agent on the market and former MVP heads this list for his 67-point drop in BABIP. Given that he was better in four of the five 5×5 categories in 2018 than in 2017, do we care? Yes, because if Harper can get the BABIP back up, he will end up returning first round value.
So what drove this decrease? His batted ball stats show no issues, as he sported an above-average line drive rate, and was right in line with 2017. He hit significantly less infield fly balls than the league average, and his fly ball rate of 38% is nothing to be concerned with. He also sported elite quality of contact stats, throwing down a 42% and 46% hard-hit and medium-hit rate, respectively. Plus, he had similar exit velos and launch angles over the past two years, resulting in a similar barrel rate percentage of 11.5 percent.
Nationals Park also ranked in the top five in the league for hits, according to ESPN Park Factors, so that was not the issue either. His xBABIP of .307 reflects all of this.
The one cause for concern is that he pulled the ball over 42% of the time in 2018, representing a seven percent increase from 2017. Other teams took note and used the shift in all but 66 of his at-bats. Unsurprisingly, this is where it looks like his BABIP suffered. Digging deeper, another note of significance is that Harper saw slightly more breaking pitches in 2018 (25.7% vs. 25% in 2017). While that isn’t a significant difference, Harper’s xBA (expected batting average) dropped almost 40 points from 2017 to 2018, all the way down to .227.
To a more severe degree, his xBA on offspeed pitches was a porous .213, but was .266 in 2017. Pitching coaches are going to notice this trend and continue to throw him more offspeed and breaking pitches, and he will need to adjust going forward. If you think that Harper’s average will rebound, he’s easily a first rounder. If not, taking him in the mid-second is appropriate.
Ian Desmond (1B/OF – COL): .279 BABIP and .236 average in 2018; .345 BABIP and .274 average in 2017 (95 games)
2019 Steamer Projection: .325 BABIP, .267 average
Desmond is a tough nut to crack. Hit type (GB/LD/FB) rates? Consistent from 2017, albeit in a smaller sample size. Hard-hit rate? Up seven percent from 2017. Hit location? His pull percentage dropped six percent from 2017, which means that he took the ball the other way more, which typically results in an increase in average and a drop in power. His .301 xBABIP is only 12 points lower than in 2017, so it seems that Desmond was a bit unlucky in 2018.
One thing going against him is that while he hits the ball decently hard (90 MPH average exit velo), he does not have a launch angle. Yes, his launch angle is zero degrees! This just means that he typically hits the ball exactly parallel to the pitch (a ground ball has a negative launch angle).
To get a higher BABIP, a positive launch angle is typically required. Another key stat to dive into is that Desmond’s xBA dropped over 50 points on offspeed pitches from 2017, and almost 100 points from 2016! As a result, pitchers doubled their usage of changeups in 2018. Desmond is 33 years old, but hits in one of the best ballparks in baseball, so we need to look even further. While a hitter’s plate discipline and batted ball profile typically deteriorate as he gets older, his 2018 metrics resemble his 2015-2017 seasons. However, Desmond shouldn’t be expected to improve at this stage of his career, and I will be fading him in 2019.
Big Drops and Low BABIPs
Travis Shaw (3B – MIL): .242 BABIP and .241 average in 2018; .312 BABIP and .273 average in 2017
2019 Steamer Projection: .276 BABIP, .249 average
Mr. Shaw actually led the list of biggest decreases at 70 points, but of course, Harper is the headliner. Nonetheless, Shaw’s precipitous drop needs to be discussed. Shaw joined the flyball revolution in 2018, posting a 44.5% FB rate, up seven percent from 2017. Naturally, his GB and LD were significantly lower than in 2017. He also pulled the ball five more percent of the time in 2018.
While pulling the ball more can be effective, pulling the ball with an increase in soft-contact rate (four percent increase in 2018) often leads to a lower batting average. His near-elite hard-hit rate seemed to not offset his below-average soft-contact rate. Further, in upping his average launch angle two degrees, he sacrificed his batting average, but given that he hit just one more homer in 2018 than in 2017, maybe he didn’t have to. Entering his age-28 season, if Shaw can balance out his fly ball rate, he could easily surpass his mid-round value by getting his batting average back to .260 with 30-35 bombs.
Jose Ramirez (2B/3B – CLE): .252 BABIP and .270 average in 2018; .319 BABIP and .318 average in 2017
2019 Steamer Projection: .286 BABIP and .284 batting average
We all know that Ramirez purposely pulled the ball more and went for more fly balls in 2018 so it is no surprise that his BABIP tanked. As alluded to above, sometimes a lower BABIP is purposeful and enhances a player’s fantasy value, so we don’t have to spend much time on him.
The scary thing is that Ramirez still has room to grow, particularly in hard-hit rate/exit velocity. If he can also drop his launch angle (18.8 degrees in 2018 and 14.8 degrees in 2017) just a touch, we could be looking at him getting back to a .300 batting average with 35-40 homers. My bet is that he does just that and outproduces that Steamer projection. He is clearly the third-best player in fantasy heading into 2019.
Brian Dozier (2B – WSH): .240 BABIP and .215 average in 2018; .300 BABIP and .271 average in 2017
2019 Steamer Projection: .272 BABIP, .242 average
Dozier always, always, always ends the season on a white-hot streak…except for 2018. Hitting .087 in September with the Dodgers earned him a seat on the bench for most of the playoffs. As we know, the Dodgers platoon a ton, which potentially didn’t allow for Dozier to get into a groove. This lack of playing time, plus his knee injury, resulted in him having his worst season since his first full big league season in 2013. He will be playing almost every day in Washington, so he might be able to return back to his historical levels.
Dozier’s lower-than-normal line drive rate and high flyball rate yielded a low BABIP in 2018. The stat that should make you scream “wow,” enough for your significant other to question why you’re gasping at your computer, is that Dozier has an absurd 17% infield fly ball rate — six percent above the league average! This heavily supports his brutal .260 xBABIP. This will likely regress in 2019, but is still a cause for concern.
Dozier has always had a higher than average launch angle, and has a below-average exit velo at 86.7 miles per hour, which resulted in a two percent drop in barrel rate. Similarly to Desmond, Dozier has approached his plateau and is likely not going to improve upon any career highs already established, even though his plate discipline did not exude any trends of downward performance going forward. Nonetheless, with that drop in exit velo and the uncertainty around his knee injury, I am also fading Dozier in 2019. He won’t approach 42 homers again, and he will be lucky to surpass 10 steals with his health concerns.
Aaron Hicks (OF – NYY): .264 BABIP and .248 average in 2018; .290 BABIP and .266 average in 2017 (88 games)
2019 Steamer Projection: .279 BABIP and .248 average
A lot of people like Hicks headed into 2019, and there’s a chance that he was so underrated that he is now overrated. He performs above-average in four categories, so there’s a lot to like, and he could blossom into a top-15 outfielder if he can stay healthy and get his average back to the mid-.260s.
Hicks had a six percent increase in LD rate from 2017 to 2018, so we would have expected an increase in BABIP based on that. Even better, he had a nine percent increase in his hard-hit rate! His launch angle also sat at a nice place for more line drives, and he increased his exit velocity to a good-not-great 89 miles per hour. All of this supports his .308 xBABIP, which means that he could greatly outproduce his batting average.
Digging deeper, there seems to be a consistent trend of him not hitting breaking and offspeed pitches well. His .198 and .207 xBA on those pitches in 2018 are bad, and his 2017 numbers are even worse. To me, this shows that while his quality of contact metrics and batted ball profile screams positive regression, we may never get it. Hicks is in his prime, and there is a great chance we see his ceiling in 2019. If not, and we only get four-category fun, you can still take it at his borderline top-100 ADP.