High BABIP Hitters from 2019 (2020 Fantasy Baseball)
For baseball players, luck generally evens out. For every scorching line drive hit directly into the shortstop’s glove, there’s a swinging bunt single that trickles 45 feet up the third base line.
But hitters can certainly have lengthy lucky or unlucky stretches, some of which can last an entire season. One of the better ways to determine whether a hitter has been lucky or unlucky is by looking at his batting average on balls in play (“BABIP”).
BABIP measures a hitter’s batting average on balls hit into the field of play, removing outcomes that are not affected by the opposing defense, such as home runs and sacrifice flies. With the league-average BABIP often hovering around .300, you can generally compare a hitter’s BABIP to that baseline to determine if he was lucky (a ton of batted balls turned into hits) or unlucky (fewer batted balls turned into hits).
To be clear, that’s a massive oversimplification of how to evaluate a player’s BABIP. After all, BABIP is generally influenced by a hitter’s line-drive rate (because line drives are more likely to be hits), speed (because faster players can leg out more infield hits), home park (hello, Coors Field and your BABIP-inflating ways), etc. Thus, when you look at the best BABIP seasons ever, you’ll find Babe Ruth, George Sisler, Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb, and Rod Carew, elite hitters who generally earned their high BABIPs (though luck was somewhat involved for all in their historically great BABIP seasons).
But coming in with the ninth-best BABIP season of all time is . . . utility infielder Jose Hernandez, who in 2002 put up an astonishing .404 BABIP for the Brewers before eventually retiring with a career .252 batting average and .729 OPS. Do you know how he did it? Good, neither do I. He had pretty much his garden variety line-drive rate and hard-hit percentage and played in the same stadium from the previous year, in which he had a .327 BABIP.
In other words, a high BABIP may generally be a combination of some good fortune with an elite batted-ball profile. Or it may be entirely lucky, have a significant influence on a hitter’s batting average, and be due for massive regression. Here, we’ll examine some high-BABIP hitters from 2019 and look at whether their numbers are driven by luck and whether you should expect some regression.
Here are the 20 highest BABIPs from 2019 for players with at least 350 plate appearances.
|Fernando Tatis Jr.||0.410||0.317|
Fantasy owners can take a quick scan of the names above and, for at least a handful of them, easily accept the results. For example, because of a combination of his speed, strong line-drive rate, and excellent hard-hit rate, Christian Yelich’s BABIP will always be high. Indeed, his .355 BABIP from 2019 was actually lower than his career .358 clip.
Similarly, Trevor Story (career .347 BABIP) and David Dahl (career .369 BABIP) will continue to benefit from playing their home games in Coors Field. Aaron Judge (career .357 BABIP) hits the ball as hard as anyone (57.1% hard-hit rate in 2019, second-best in MLB), and Adalberto Mondesi’s speed (29.9 ft/s, top 1% in MLB) should keep his BABIP relatively high. You can generally accept that these types of players will have high BABIPs and not write their 2019 rates off to pure luck.
Certain players, however, do not have the batted ball profile to support their inflated 2019 BABIPs, particularly when you examine the rest of their careers. When you look under the hood for many of the other players on the top-20 list, several underlying numbers suggest that they are due for regression.
Fernando Tatis Jr. (SS – SD)
Tatis Jr. had an outstanding, albeit injury-shortened, rookie season. His .317 batting average came with a league-leading .410 BABIP. Although Tatis Jr. should continue to be an outstanding fantasy asset, his BABIP, and with it, his batting average, seems certain to regress.
Before knocking Tatis Jr., it’s important to note that much of his profile suggests that he will generally be a high-BABIP hitter. His sprint speed (29.3 ft/s) is elite, his hard-hit rate (44.1%) is nearly 10 percentage points above league average, and he continually had BABIPs in the mid-.300s in the minors. This is not someone destined to regress to a league-average BABIP.
But a .410 mark? That’s simply not sustainable. Tatis Jr. had just a 23.3% line-drive rate in 2019, more than two percentage points below the league average of 25.5%. His .259 expected batting average was nearly 60 points lower than his actual batting average. In other words, although this wasn’t a Jose Hernandez-esque season, Tatis Jr. had a very lucky season BABIP-wise, one that is almost certain to regress in 2020.
Given that Tatis Jr. is likely to see his BABIP decline, you should expect his batting average to come along with it. Considering that he has never hit above .286 during a minor league stint, pencil him in at roughly a .275 batting average, with the understanding that there’s room for growth.
Yoan Moncada (3B – CWS)
Like Tatis Jr., Moncada is going to be a high-BABIP hitter for his career. He has all the makings: a strong hard-hit rate (47.9%, top eight percent in the league), average exit velocity (92.8 miles per hour, top three percent in the league), and above-average line-drive rates (according to Statcast data) and sprint speed. Not only did he have a high BABIP throughout his minor league career, but he ranked in the top 20 in the category in 2018, as well.
But, juiced ball or not, Moncada’s profile is not of a .406 BABIP hitter. While he should continue to put up a stellar number in the metric, last year was somewhat fluky. His infield fly-ball rate (where BABIP goes to die) was abnormally low for him (just 5.6% percent, significantly out of line with his career), and his ground-ball rate rose by roughly three percent.
In other words, Moncada’s 2019 numbers do not suggest some incredible growth that should make fantasy players expect another otherworldly BABIP in 2020. He’ll likely regress to his typical strong BABIP numbers, but that should lead to a downturn in his .315 batting average.
Tim Anderson (SS – CWS)
Oh, you want an outlier BABIP season? I’ve got your outlier BABIP season.
After putting up seasons with a .328 and .289 BABIP, Anderson checked in with a .399 BABIP last year, ranking third-best in baseball. To be fair, Anderson made gains in the categories you’d expect if looking at a high BABIP year. His line-drive rate improved, he hit the ball harder, and he swung at more pitches in the strike zone than ever before.
Although all of his improved metrics left him above league average, none sniffed elite status. And although Anderson swung at pitches in the strike zone more, he also just swung more. His chase rate, always well above league average, jumped by nearly eight percentage points from the prior year, and with it climbed his contact rate on such pitches out of the zone. Connecting on pitches off the plate more commonly leads to weak contact such as softly hit fly balls and grounders, which should deflate BABIP.
In other words, no, Tim Anderson. This .399 BABIP will not do. Even with the minimal gains in his batted-ball profile, nothing suggests Anderson will have an elite BABIP again. Therefore, that .335 average from last year? Expect a massive dip in 2020.
Yordan Alvarez (OF – HOU)
Alvarez posted an impressive .366 BABIP in the majors in 2019, which came off the heels of a .355 BABIP in 55 Triple-A games. That BABIP was largely earned for a fairly simple reason: Alvarez hits the ball as hard as almost anyone in the league.
Alvarez ranked in the top two percent of MLB in barrel percentage, and the top five percent in average exit velocity and hard-hit rate. As with Judge, when a player consistently makes extremely hard contact, he’s almost always going to have an above-average BABIP.
The only piece of data that should give you a modicum of pause as to whether Alvarez earned his BABIP is his preposterously low infield fly ball rate. At just 1.2 percent, Alvarez’s infield fly ball rate was the fourth-lowest in the league. If that number reverts closer to the league average, which hovers at around nine percent, his BABIP could take a dip. (Same for Jorge Alfaro and his incredible 0.0% infield fly ball rate.)
But that’s just a minor quibble. Alvarez’s BABIP should remain well-above league average, and drafters should have few (if any) concerns about regression.
Danny Santana (1B/2B/OF – TEX)
Santana had one of the most unexpected seasons in recent memory in 2019. After never playing more than 101 games or hitting more than seven home runs in a single season, Santana forced his way into everyday playing time with the Rangers by slashing .283/.324/.534 with 28 home runs.
Santana’s BABIP, which had been at .290, .305, .244, and .294 in the past four seasons, skyrocketed to .353. As with Anderson, Santana made modest gains in exit velocity, hard-hit rate, and line-drive percentage. However, none that suggested he’d suddenly see a massive jump in BABIP.
Santana’s BABIP jump appears to be the result of an odd development for him. He stopped making contact on bad pitches.
Santana has always been a free swinger, but he upped his swing percentage to a career-high in 2019. Although he swung at pitches outside of the zone more than ever (seventh-highest rate in the majors), he actually made contact with such pitches at the lowest rate of his career (52.8% of the time, compared to 59.6% MLB average).
In other words, Santana swung a lot more, but he missed a lot more, too, particularly on pitches outside the strike zone. Failing to make contact with those pitches resulted in less weak contact and a higher BABIP.
That actually suggests that Santana’s BABIP wasn’t all that inflated, as is evident by his .283 batting average and similar .275 xBA. But, to be clear, a massive increase in swing percentage followed by a sharp drop in contact percentage is not a good sign for future batting average.
Thus, while Santana’s BABIP may remain at a higher mark than his career norms, expect his batting average to regress unless he changes his approach.