It's widely accepted and understood that hitters do have control on their BABIP range. BABIP or Batting Average on Balls in Play is not a one size fits all indicator. Examples of this include quick runners who have a higher BABIP because of an increase in beating out infield hits, and hitters that smoke the ball, have a higher probability that their balls will not be fielded before leaving the infield.
However there is still a perception that pitchers do not have control over balls in play....although this might hold true for those bunched in the middle of the pack, this is not the case among the pitchers on the opposite ends of the quality spectrum. There is a sub set of pitchers, throughout history, that tend to have more control over BABIP allowed (usually good ones). Conversely, poor pitchers tend to give up more of that control to opposing hitters. When I first conducted this research 13 years ago, I came to this same conclusion, simply by observing pitchers that demonstrated control over their BABIP (posting a lower BABIP) year after year. At the time I didn't have any other indicators that supported the lower BABIP, but the number of observations were significant and pointed to some players having this ability. Pitchers like Greg Maddox, Kerry Wood, and Tom Glavine were dominating hitters, but without additional data like pitch/fx and quality of contact, we didn't know how or why.
Before we get into the numbers lets have a conversation on how this control over BABIP happens. Pitchers can dominate BABIP in a number of ways, and it's not necessarily the guy with the 98.1 MPH average fastball, in fact history favors the pitcher who doesn't rely on a blazing fastball. Many times it's the pitcher you don't see coming (everyone sees the fastball guy)....sometimes it's the guy that paints the inside/outside corner, the guy with more than three pitches in his repertoire, the guy with the extra inch of movement on his split finger, his cutter, his curveball....or sometimes the guy with the below average 91 MPH fastball and the 81 MPH changeup. This is what pros call "nasty"....deception if you will. Deception that causes the hitter to maybe hesitate just a tad on his swing, or maybe causes the hitter to flat out miss the barrel of the bat. The end result is a batted ball that just doesn't have the same velocity as a hitter sitting back and lacing a pin straight 98MPH fastball (one that he might be expecting).
As I wrote a few weeks back in a article on the relationship between HR/FB Rates and quality of contact, what we didn't know years ago when researching BABIP against, was why BABIP was a repeatable skill for some....or at least we didn't know how to quantify it. Baseball Info Solutions has since quantified it for the community in recent years. They classify batted balls in one of three categories: Hard/Medium/Soft. Intuitively and now we can say statistically significant, a correlation exists (+.31) between Hard Hit Rates and BABIP. Pitchers that tend to have a lower Hard Hit Rate against tend to have a lower BABIP against, and pitchers that have a higher hard hit rate against tend to have a higher BABIP against. It's a simple as that.
Below I highlight the pitchers (qualified with over 120 innings) that had the lowest Hard Hit Rate allowed in 2015, that was more than 3 points below the mean (28%). It's important to note that just because a pitcher had a low hard Hit Rate against last year, he's not necessarily a stud or going to be one. Lets consider that 1. it might not be repeatable, hence I've included 2014 as well.... do it two straight full years with over 1800 batters faced, then there's a good chance that it was not a fluke. 2. The other thing to consider is just because a pitcher might have the ability to control BABIP to some degree, he still might stink. In fact the best example of this is the first name on the list. Although Aaron Sanchez has faced less than 1000 batters, his BABIP against of only .247 (.296 is the norm) last year would have you believing that he's been dominant. In his case, he might be when the ball is hit in play, but the poor 4.5 BB/9 and 5.7 K/9 makes him a work in progress. High walk rates are probably the most underrated stat in pitcher evaluation. Some headway on the BB/9 could change his outlook. For the purpose of this exercise lets highlight a few pitchers that could see improvement in their BABIP (and overall numbers) if they can maintain their below average Hard Hit % in 2016. The Qualification is having a BABIP against over .310 and a Hard% the last 2 years that is at or below league average:
Lowest (Best) Hard Hit Rate against in 2015:
The 3 pitchers that stand out as being grossly unfortunate with their BABIP last season were Tyson Ross, Collin McHugh, and Chris Sale . Now there are many more of course that had average Hard Hit rates against, and had elevated BABIPs, that are not included on this list, but these three pitchers really deserved better as they showed command, yet were spited in the opposite direction last year.
Collin McHugh is an interesting case as his overall numbers 1.27 WHIP and 3.71 ERA converge with his elevated .310 BABIP against, the analysis shows that he won 4-5 more games than he should have with 19. Although his 2014 BABIP was understated and he's a 50/50 to reach 15 Wins in 2016, I'm starting to warm up to him as a bargain candidate verses his 16th round ADP.
Tyson Ross is a heavy groundball pitcher (62%) who posted an unlucky .320 BABIP against last season. Additionally he appears to have been shorted 4 Wins based on his 21 quality starts. Should be undervalued coming into the 2016 draft season. His 24% Hard Rate may not be sustainable, but even if he regresses to 27%, his BABIP against could fall into the 285-290 range. Which could give him a nice bump in 2016.
Chris Sale had an unlucky BABIP of 323 and still posted solid numbers, but in this case, a lot of that had to do with the terrible fielding range of his team. Most of that is revamped, so we expect that ERA to come down in 2016. Also the 16% HR/FB rate in the 2nd half of 2015, appears bloated. That said his 14.6 swinging strike rate is absolutely dominant, as were his 274Ks. This was the 3rd year he's posted a Hard Hit rate in the 25-26% range, a lower BABIP than norm is a skill set. He's an elite Ace, and a big value at his current 3rd round ADP.
Oh yeah, we're also liking Garrett Richards, Francisco Liriano, and Noah Syndergaard this year!
On the flip side of the spectrum are the pitchers that posted Hard Hit rates in 2015 that where 5 or more points worse than the the norm, but as you'll see many of these pitchers who own the higher Hard Hit rates have a justified elevated BABIP.
Highest (worst) Hard Hit Rate against in 2015:
|Jorge de la Rosa||0.33||0.288||0.15||0.29||0.263|
3 players that I consider to be trap players in 2016:
Hector Santiago limited opponents to a .252 BABIP despite allowing a 33% hard Hit Rate, which indicates to us that there will be some regression. Part of those hard hits resulted in 29 HRs, so that will be offset somewhat, but many are taking a late round lottery ticket here that is probably best spent elsewhere.
Chris Young a lot of Smoke and Mirrors in play here, and you would expect that with a 6.1 K/9 rate. Granted KC has one of the better defenses in the league, but his .209 BABIP against is not sustainable, especially considering that opposing hitters had a 33% hard hit rate.
Ian Kennedy was shorted 3 wins while with Padres, which likely won't be the case with KC. Most of his damage against him came from an elevated 17% HR/FB rate, which is likely to regress into a 12-13% norm for him. Solid 9.3 K/9 will benefit from his 40% GB rate with one of the better defenses behind him, however the hard Hit rate has been increasing over the last 3 years, so there is considerable risk here.
As I mentioned early, many more pitchers posted an abnormal BABIP in 2015 than those listed above, and many of those are denoted in the Fantistics draft advisory software, but many of those situations (other than those playing with poor defenses behind them) appear to be more fortune related than the two groups I've identified above. That fortune tends to regress to the mean on a year to year basis, while skill sets are internalized.
In conclusion, the correlation between BABIP allowed and Hard Hit % is tangible (it's real). Although the differences may seem subtle, when combined with other factors such as control and dominance factors, it adds to the comfort level of a big investment on draft day. Max Scherzer, David Price, Stephen Strasburg, Madison Bumgarner all dominate without having shown the ability to limit Hard Hits against or post superior BABIP against, but even with their superior K/9 and BB/9 rates, they are a little more susceptible to misfortunate on their BABIP, and we've seen some swings in their year to year performances. While Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, and possibly Jake Arrieta are, I believe, a safer play because of their skill on limiting hard hit balls against them and subsequent superior BABIPs. Other than Clayton Kershaw, that doesn't mean that the aforementioned don't have more fantasy value, because we're not measuring strikeouts or injury risk among other things, but the latter are a more risk averse because of the apparent and unique skill set.
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