Low BABIP Hitters from 2019 (2020 Fantasy Baseball)
For a quick primer on BABIP and high BABIP hitters from 2019, check out Dan Harris’s piece from last week. Naturally, I’ll be looking in the other direction at low BABIP hitters from last year. BABIP is interesting because it eliminates the most valuable batted ball type, home runs. It’s the main driver for a hitter’s batting average. As Dan Harris mentioned, league-average BABIP always settles in around .300. That’s where the common misconception for many casual fantasy players comes into play. Just because a hitter finished with a BABIP in the top or bottom 10%, that doesn’t mean they should regress back toward .300, or that they didn’t earn it.
A hitter’s BABIP will not stabilize in a single season, in fact, it takes nearly two full seasons or 820 balls in play to stabilize. Additionally, changes in a player’s approach or batted ball profile from year to year will modify a player’s expected BABIP. So, what I’m essentially saying is, never trust a hitter’s BABIP without the proper investigation first. Since I’m focusing on low BABIP for this article, here are some of the metrics I look at to determine whether or not a suppressed BABIP is warranted.
- Slow sprint speed (aging veterans)
- Elevated fly balls rates (45%+ per FanGraphs)
- Elevated popup rate (above the league-average of 7%)
- High pull% (especially on ground balls)
- Defensive shifts (in conjunction with a high pull%)
- Low line drive%
- Below average hard hit%
Let’s take a look at the 20 players with the lowest BABIP in 2019 (a minimum of 40 plate appearances).
Some of the names above are not surprising. Albert Pujols, Justin Smoak, and Daniel Vogelbach all fall into the bottom five percent in terms of sprint speed. Gary Sanchez and Edwin Encarnacion are both in the bottom 15%. Encarnacion, Sanchez, and Vogelbach all had fly ball rates inside the top-15 overall, so these two metrics explain their deflated BABIP. Pujols and Smoak had above-average fly balls rates and Pujols hit too many popups while Smoak’s batted ball profile was extremely pulled heavy. Now that we’ve identified the obvious low-BABIP players, let’s look at some of the interesting players below.
Jurickson Profar (2B, OF – SD)
With the lowest qualified BABIP in 2019, Profar is a bit of a surprise, at least, on the surface. When I dug in a little, he really deserved a deflated BABIP. While he can steal bases, he’s actually a slightly below-average runner in terms of sprint speed. His hard hit% was in the bottom 20% and his pop rate was 3.5% higher than the league-average. The final criteria I looked at with Profar was his pull rate. It jumped by nine percent in 2019 compared to his 2018 breakout. Even worse, his pull rate on ground balls skyrocketed to 68% last year, which completely deflated his BABIP on ground balls. All signs point to a low BABIP for Profar, but he also was unlucky. His BABIP on both line drives and fly balls were about 100 points below the league-average. Profar is due for some positive regression, but if his batted ball profile remains unchanged, he’s likely going to settle in around a .250 BABIP for 2020.
Jose Ramirez (3B – CLE)
After back-to-back .315+ BABIP seasons (2016 and 2017), Ramirez has turned in consecutive years with a sub-.260 BABIP. His change in approach was obvious when I reviewed his batted ball profile. He’s pulling the ball a lot more and hitting it in the air regularly. However, his plate discipline and contact rates still remain elite. His expected metrics, per Baseball Savant, show a little more of a rosy picture with a .274 expected batting average (xBA) in 2019. Given his heavy pull approach, he’s being shifted on more frequently. In 2019 when hitting from the left side, defenses shifted on him 72% of the time compared to 53% in 2018, and just 5% in 2017. Typically, the shift will deflate a player’s BABIP on ground balls but not with Ramirez. His BABIP on ground balls is relatively steady year-to-year and is only slightly below the league-average. Let’s look at his BABIP the last three seasons on line drives (LD) and fly balls (FB) compared to the league average.
|Batted Ball Type||MLB Avg BABIP (17-19)||Ramirez BABIP (2017)||Ramirez BABIP (2018)’||Ramirez BABIP (2019)|
In the last two seasons, Ramirez has been hurt on balls in play on everything he has put in the air. He has hit more pop-ups over the last two seasons, which partially explains the decrease in BABIP, but not all of it. Besides, his hard hit% on LD and FB has improved since 2017. Everything I’ve seen is telling me that Ramirez is due for some positive regression in terms of BABIP. I’d peg his batting average closer to .275 in 2020 rather than the .255 he produced last season.
Marcell Ozuna (OF – ATL)
A quick search on the Statcast Leaderboard for the largest difference between batting average minus expected batting average (BA-xBA) places Ozuna at the top at -.047. Busch Stadium plays unfavorably for hitters, and xBA does not account for park factors in its equation. Since some of Ozuna’s deflated BABIP can be explained by his home park, moving to a more neutral environment in Atlanta should help for 2020. Ozuna is interesting because using the criteria above, he’s not old or slow (63rd% sprint speed), doesn’t hit too many fly balls or popups, and hits the ball extremely hard.
The only issue when analyzing his BABIP is an increased pull rate. That jumped up to a career-high 45%, which is eight percent higher than the league average. Normally, a higher pull rate would force defenses to shift more frequently, but they didn’t (only 12% of the time). Besides, his wOBA against the shift was nearly 60 points higher than when the shift wasn’t used. Guess what, he was just flat out unlucky. Ozuna is one of my favorite buys for 2020. Hitting in a more favorable park behind Acuna, Albies, and Freeman should provide an opportunity for Ozuna to deliver the second 100-RBI season of his career. I think he’ll hit about 25-30 points higher in batting average with 30+ homers as well making him a steal around pick 90.
Max Kepler (OF – MIN)
Kepler is coming off the most productive fantasy season of his career with a career-high 36 home runs and a 120 wRC+. However, he managed just a .244 BABIP, tied with Gary Sanchez for the eighth-lowest among players with 400 PA. Since the league-wide BABIP settles in near .300, one might believe Kepler is in for some positive regression in terms of BABIP. I’m not so sure though. His career-BABIP is just .252, and in 2018, he managed a .236 BABIP. How can this be? He improved his hard-hit% and barrel% in 2019.
There are several factors. Kepler possesses the profile of a low-BABIP hitter. His fly ball rate is 7.8% higher than league-average, and fly balls, while great for home runs, produce the lowest BABIP among batted ball types. He also significantly increased his pull rate to just over 50%, which also aided in his home run boost. Another area that contributed to a low BABIP was on ground balls. He was shifted 72% of the time, compared to just 32% in 2018. This led to a depressed .119 batting average on ground balls hit to the pull side. For reference, league-wide BABIP on ground balls was .236 overall and .180 to the pull side. I like Kepler, but I’m going to take the under on Steamer’s .260 batting average projection for 2020.
Paul DeJong (SS – STL)
I wanted to research the reason behind DeJong’s BABIP decline. It’s dropped each of the last three seasons from .349, to .288 to .259. With a 44% fly-ball rate and average foot speed, there was no concrete evidence that a .349 BABIP was sustainable. The more I dug into his profile, the less optimistic I was looking toward 2020. His hard hit% plummeted along with his exit velocity. He reached the 30 home run plateau for the first time, but the 30+ homer power may very well be contingent on whether or not the ball is juiced again in 2020.
Getting back to balls in play, I noticed that defenses shifted on DeJong about 25% of the time, nearly triple the rate he saw in 2018. While the increase in shifts contributed to his decreased BABIP, a seven-percent downtick in line drives from the past two seasons explains his regression. Line drive rates do not have a high correlation year-to-year, however, so DeJong could see that flip back it 2020. I still have concerns regarding the dip in his hard hit%, and his popup% has risen each of the last three years. With a 12.3% popup rate in 2019, he’s over five percent worse than league average. I have a hard time believing DeJong can get his batting average back over .250, which is where the projection systems have him pegged. I think he’ll improve on his .259 BABIP from a year ago but would bet against anything close to .300 in 2020.